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Rudd and Abbott charge the north

  • 20 August 2013

Kevin Rudd has now joined Tony Abbott in a charge to the North. The common idea is that a substantial fraction of Australia's population and economic activity can be pushed up and across the northern half of the continent. The assumption is that northern Australia is ours to do as we like with. In fact, it's not.

Much of Australia's Aboriginal population lives in northern Australia, and Aboriginal people make up a far higher proportion of the population there than anywhere else. They own or co-own, in both Western legal terms and in customary law, vast tracts of land, many of which are open to non-Aboriginal people only with Aboriginal permission. In northern Australia, Aboriginal people have constructed a distinctively Aboriginal way of life, as different from the mainstream as it is from 'traditional' Aboriginal society.

What the major parties are proposing is not necessarily a bad thing from Aboriginal points of view. What is bad is the assumption about our prerogatives. Official Australia has long looked at the north as a tabula rasa awaiting 'development', an unmissable opportunity and an infuriating failure. And apparently it still does.

Credit for getting this history under way goes to the pastoral grandees of the colony of South Australia. In the 1860s they funded an obsessive-compulsive alcoholic Scotsman to find out what lay between their northern border and the far coast, and how it could be got. John McDouall Stuart's six expeditions found little to encourage them, but lust trumped reason, and South Australia set itself to be the first colony in history to found a colony. The two would fuse, in time, to become the Great Central State. 

Dreams of imperial glory and speculative fortunes turned almost immediately into a long-running mixture of farce and nightmare. Eventually South Australia got lucky. In 1911 it managed to palm off its colony onto the newly-constituted Commonwealth of Australia. Astonishingly, the Commonwealth even agreed to pay serious money for it, nearly four million pounds, plus another 2.2 million for a railway line that had not even reached South Australia's northern border, let alone made any money.

Believing, as had the South Australians before them, that there must be a way to turn space into land, the Commonwealth did what South Australia had done, with the same result. An official inquiry report in 1937 was scathing. It found that in the 25 years since the takeover the federal government had spent