The murranji frog is a desert amphibian that can survive long stretches without water. It is an apt name for the Murranji track, an old stock route that runs west to east in the Northern Territory. At first there were no watering points along its 226 kilometre stretch and losses were horrific. In 1905 on one drive, one man, 800 cattle and 11 horses died. All but two stockmen deserted their drover. By the 1920s the government installed bores along the route, every 27 kilometres. Cattle will only walk about 14 kilometres a day so there remained two days of hard droving between water. I spend a day at Newcastle Waters, the last stop, on the Murranji track.
Once again the Northern Territory is going through a dry patch. The last two wets have failed but worse is the man-made drought. For the first time since self-government in 1978, the Northern Territory’s population is declining. A few years ago the Territory’s future looked bright. Around Newcastle Waters is the massive Beetaloo Basin, an oil and gas basin as big as the Permian Basin in Texas. The shale gas revolution in the Permian has helped reduce US energy prices and kindle a US manufacturing renaissance. The NT had good reason to hope something similar would happen here as many oil and gas companies rated it as the best shale prospect outside the US.
However, in 2016 a Labor government came to power promising to put a moratorium on fracking. They stopped the industry dead in its tracks. I speak to a small businessman in Darwin who paid the price of this decision. Four years ago his company was supplying 35 catering packs a day for work teams in the Beetaloo. Today he is down to one.
So NT business went into hibernation as the newly elected Labor government conducted the sixth review of fracking in the NT within seven years. After two years of hand-wringing, that review came to the same conclusion as all of the others: fracking would be safe under appropriate regulation.
These delays have cost the Territory a bomb. While I am in Darwin, the Labor government releases its pre-election budget figures. For the first time since Paul Keating in the 1990s, an Australian government has refused to release a full pre-election budget but the limited figures are ugly enough. While no forward estimates are produced, the Territory’s debt this year will hit $8.2 billion, up more than four times during this government. Each Territorian now owes $34,000. The government titles its pre-election budget document ‘Covid-19 Financial Update’. The global pandemic is the ultimate smokescreen for incompetent Labor governments. Why is unemployment up? Coronavirus. Why is debt out of control? Coronavirus. Why won’t you talk about anything that happened before March this year? Coronavirus. The Labor government changed laws just before the election to absolve itself from budget transparency requirements because of — you guessed it — coronavirus. As if to prove the point, after the budget update, the NT’s treasurer goes into hiding. She does not appear again at a press conference until the Labor launch more than two weeks later. Labor does anything to avoid talking about an economy in which 11,000 full time jobs have been lost in just four years. When the government is forced to talk of its economic plans it rests back on a grand scheme for the NT to build massive solar farms and send electricity to Singapore. No mention is made that this scheme is not due for an investment decision until 2023. Nor about how such a huge impact on the land could be approved. A sceptical grazier complains to me that farmers in the NT have so far only received approval to clear just 87,000 hectares in history, while this one project is seeking to put solar panels on up to 20,000 hectares. All of that land to produce power for another country from solar panels made in China and hardly an Australian worker in site. While the NT’s massive farming opportunities, which could employ thousands of Australians, remain mired in red tape delays. The NT’s weak economy has led to a whole array of worsening social issues. While I am at a barbeque in an outer suburban area, I notice a house that appears to have barbed wire stretched around the top of its fence. All of the homes in this area have six foot high chain link fences and many have large dogs. I ask a local, are many taking such extreme measures? He responds that he has just put barbed wire up. There is a suburban arms race occurring where homeowners install ever more defensive measures to convince thieves to target the next house. Another resident tells me that crime has skyrocketed since the Don Dale 4 Corners episode. That ABC program has made NT police cautious about doing anything to control crime. A 4 Corners episode a decade ago decimated the NT’s live cattle industry — and after a long-running court case looks set to cost taxpayers around half a billion dollars. The ABC’s shock jock reporting has caused economic and social devastation in the north. And don’t hold your breath for the ABC news report on how children now sleep in bed with Mum at night because they are scared of another break in — such a story did run on commercial media. Sometimes conservative leaders can focus too much on the hard economic facts and figures. We should keep these suburbs front and centre more when we do, however. Providing a strong economy, and funding police, are a means to create harmonious, prosperous communities where people feel safe. Our plans don’t end with creating jobs, they start with a job that then helps create so much more.
On 22 August, the Northern Territory goes to an election again and while the Labor government are favourites for re-election it is not clear whether they will show the leadership required to end the NT’s economic drought. Perhaps that is something else that will be blamed on the coronavirus.
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