Mythical Nation Building: There’s 6 white elephants on the horizon

Blog post written by Dr. David Adamson

After our recent political spill and fill, there is always a need to show that you are a positive change and you can do something.  So combined with:

  • oooh look its drought again;
  • an on-going desire to put dams in to drought proof the country (because you know, its worked so well in the past);
  • the last 80-100 year dreaming that northern Australia is going to be the catalyst for our next great nation building effort to generate an economic boom like you won’t belive; and
  • the government has thrown millions at CSIRO. CSIRO has utilised more than 100 scientists over the last 2.5 years, to try and find something positive about the north…..

CSIRO has released a series of reports (summary by ABC) by cherry picking 3 regions, they have identified 6 new dams locations in northern Australia. If they were all developed up to 4,400 GL of water would be available to irrigate 380,000 Ha and generate an additional $5.3 billion per year and require 15,000 new workers. (I’m deliberately ignoring the 710,000 Ha of new lined ponds in coastal areas for now.

As I’m a poor student of economic history, I once again turn around and drag out two of the classic Australian agricultural economic texts by Bruce Davidson:

  1. Davidson, B.R., 1965. The Northern Myth, 1st ed. Melbourne University Press, Adelaide.
  2. Davidson, B.R., 1969. Australia wet or dry? : the physical and economic limits to the expansion of irrigation. Melbourne University Press, Melbourne.

To remind me why this economic miracle hasn’t been done until now!   Oh that’s right, the locals aren’t stupid.  If it was profitable without a huge subsidy it would have already been done. These 6 white elephants remain a pipe dream, they are possible but not with significant largess.

Perhaps its time to remind people of the other white elephant in the north, the Ord Scheme.  Bruce Davidson’s Northern Myth is about the Ord.  It tells the failure of the process and recent expansion (my review for The Conversation of stage two)  was and is still not a shining economic success story.  The 2017 Australia Institute report found that it had a return of $0.17 for every dollar invested. Or in other words for every dollar invested you loose 83 cents.

So lets say these new 6 dams generated the same return on the Ord.  Well its probably going to cost about $31 billion a year to generate the reported $5.3 billion in benefits a year.

Lets not forget we need another 15,000 people to make this work and all plans to reduce the current rural labour shortage have been so successful for backpackers and migrant workers (here) .

I think these white elephants are going to stay on the horizon once the costs are considered.


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