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Northern Food Bowl dream crushed -

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Northern Food Bowl dream crushed

Broadcast: 17/02/2010

Reporter: Greg Hoy

The dream of creating a lush food bowl in Northern Australia to rival or even replace the
Murray-Darling Basin has been shattered this week. A Federal Government commissioned report found
that arguments for a vast development of Northern Australia harnessing monsoonal downpours are "not
supported by evidence".


KERRY O'BRIEN: Murray McLaughlin reporting from Darwin. One of the great recurring Australian
dreams, along with bringing water from the coast to the arid inland, has been the vision of a lush
northern food bowl to rival or even replace the Murray Darling Basin.

That vision came into focus again as the Murray Darling's water and other environmental problems
have compounded over the past decade, threatening devastation.

But the hopes of those promoting the dream have been shattered in the past week, after a Federal
Government commissioned report found that arguments for a vast development of Northern Australia,
harnessing seasonal monsoonal deluges, are "not supported by the evidence."

So the flak has been flying around the country and in Canberra, with claims of political foul play
and calls for a further Senate inquiry. And in the thick of the fray, loud amongst the protesting
voices, there is a distinctive old Texan twang.

Greg Hoy reports.

(Thunder rumbles, wind whistles and melancholy steel guitar music plays)

SEN. BILL HEFFERNAN, NSW LIBERAL: Where is Australia going to be in 50 to 80 year's time? We've got
a serious problem and I have to say that if we don't develop the north, someone eventually will
come and do it for us.

GARY GRAY, PARLIAMENTARY SECRETARY, WA & NT: We don't want to do to Northern Australia what we have
done to the Murray Darling. The science says, be careful.

(Blues music plays)

GREG HOY: You'll notice a strong Texan twang amidst the fierce debate over the future of the $137
billion-a-year Australian agricultural industry.

JACK FLETCHER, AGRICULTURAL CONSULTANT: Texans think big. And I'm proud of that.

GREG HOY: When 84 year-old irrigation expert Jack Fletcher emigrated down under from Texas 45 years
ago, he saw a vision splendid, as big as Texas itself, larger than the United Kingdom - the vast
Kimberley district, with its sprawling river plains fed by the monsoonal rains across Australia's
far north west, where Jack Fletcher fell in love with the Fitzroy River in the western Kimberley.

JACK FLETCHER: Right now there's a billion people in this world going to bed hungry and here we've
got the Kimberley, with fantastic ground water and underground water resources, soils better than
the Rio Grande Valley in Texas.

(in old clip) Mobile one to mobile ten...

GREG HOY: Back in the 1960s, encouraged by locals like John Lewis, the then government engineer who
would design the dams for the Ord River Irrigation Scheme in the east of the Kimberley, Texan Jack
Fletcher defied the sceptics, raised international finance and established the Australian Land and
Cattle Company, along the mighty Fitzroy River.

NEWS ANNOUNCER (1960s): The Australian Land and Cattle Company, ALCO, is forging ahead...

JOHN LEWIS: Jack proved the way to a lot of people. It's now known that the amount of irrigable
land among the Fitzroy River is enormous, certainly bigger than the Ord.

GREG HOY: At its peak, the company was colossal, combining seven Kimberly cattle stations, 100,000
cattle for export, crop irrigation twice the size of the Ord River scheme.

But there were two great setbacks: First, a massive flood destroyed a government-designed flood
levy bank; second, Jack Fletcher's attempts to rebuild met with growing anti-American sentiment.

JACK FLETCHER: I looked over the hill there and he come Brian Bourke and his bandits. And he wanted
the yanks out of the Kimberleys.

GREG HOY: But in the east Kimberley, John Lewis's dams were approved on the Ord River, eventually
creating 14,000 hectares of irrigation land with the state and federal-funded Ord Stage 2 soon set
to deliver almost double that irrigation area.

JOHN LEWIS, ENGINEER: The people in Canberra, CSIRO, they were always opposed to the Ord River,
absolutely opposed to it, nothing you could do was right, but get in and build the thing. And if
you ask them, "Would you like us to return that dam to nature, to drain it?" they'll say "Oh,
goodness, no! It's part of our heritage!"

GREG HOY: Both these men have joined the protest against a recent report by the Federal
Government-appointed Northern Land and Water Taskforce outlining a sustainable development plan for
the three states of Australia's North, which now receive 8.5 times the run-off of the increasingly
drought-affected Murray Darling Basin.

But, citing advice from the CSIRO, the report states "The potential for Northern Australia to
become a 'food bowl' is not supported by evidence".

And later: "..there are (also) limits to available water and suitable agricultural soils".

JACK FLETCHER: Well, that's wrong. That's wrong. The CSIRO has been wrong so many times.

GARY GRAY: There were some who thought that the Land and Water Taskforce would produce designs and
plans for another ten Ord systems through entire of Northern Australia, without taking into account
that in the last 20 years we haven't been building such systems. Without taking into account that,
in fact, the terms of reference for the inquiry did not ask it to identify locations for dams.

particularly from Southern Australia, but also from abroad, such as places like Texas, move here,
want to create a new agricultural ideal, and unfortunately the realities of intermittent water
availability, poor soils, long distance to markets, pest and diseases, have often beset various
agricultural projects, many of which have failed.

GREG HOY: Fresh water ecologist and conservationist Dr Stuart Blanch was one of 14 members of the
taskforce which sought to strike a balance between indigenous, scientific, agricultural and tourism

DR STUART BLANCH: We all, on the taskforce, realised that we don't want to simply rehash an old
19th century vision.

GREG HOY: But the former chairman of the Northern taskforce under the Howard Government, Senator
Bill Heffernan, is calling for a Senate Inquiry into the findings of the taskforce, which was
reorganised by the Rudd Government.

SEN. BILL HEFFERNAN: You've got more academics, you know. And the academics often just take to
sipping wine and thinking about retirement to the coast.

I mean, this ought to be about where Australia's going to be in 50 to 80 years time, what are the
challenges, given that the global- the prediction on the science for the planet is that in 50 years
time there will be 9 billion people, there'll be a billion people unable to feed themselves.

GREG HOY: Senator Heffernan was removed from the taskforce by the Rudd Government's Parliamentary
Secretary for North and Western Australia, Gary Gray.

GARY GRAY: The taskforce membership that we inherited in 2007 was the taskforce that Senator
Heffernan had put together. What we did was, we removed the politicians.

The report is, in fact, very positive about growth of the future economy of Northern Australia.

GREG HOY: The taskforce has suggested there is scope to increase growth in irrigable areas in the
north by between 20 to 40,000 hectares, but many were hoping for far more and they still are.

In fact, there seems to be differing views within the taskforce itself as to how much more of a
growth opportunity remains.

Also represented on the taskforce, the National Farmers' Federation.

DAVID CROMBIE, NATIONAL FARMERS FEDERATION: CSIRO did a lot of the groundwork on water and soils
availability. What they've come up with is saying that there's not a lot of data- not a lot of data
on surface water, on stream flows. Not a lot of data on the interconnectivity of underground water
with surface water.

So they've recommended, and the taskforce has recommended, a fairly cautious approach. But I think
what we need to do is get on with the job. Because I think there are vast areas of good soils.
There is available water and what we need to do is prove it up and untap the opportunities.

GREG HOY: Despite the drought, the highly efficient Australian agricultural sector contributes
around 12 per cent of the nation's GDP. Sixty-five per cent of production is exported already, with
growth opportunity commensurate with the ballooning projections for global population.

DAVID CROMBIE: Food security is going to be an increasingly important issue, I think, going
forward. We have a home population of about 22 million. We feed about 60 million and we can do

GARY GRAY: There's a lot about this taskforce report that deserves careful consideration. It
doesn't say there will never be more dams. It doesn't say there will never be more weirs. It
doesn't say there will never be more catchment systems.

That sort of approach, I think, is insightful.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Greg Hoy with that report.