Lyndon Megarrity’s book Northern Dreams: The Politics of Northern Development in Australia was published last year by Australian Scholarly Publishing. In this Q&A Lyndon discusses the book with Carolyn Holbrook.

In his speech to launch your book, Frank Bongiorno said that northern Australia had been a site of ‘political and economic fantasy’ for ‘boosters, adventurers and dreamers’, but also a point of vulnerability—a place in which Australia’s isolation from Europe and proximity to Asia stare you in the face. How have these two opposing responses to the north shaped policy responses over the course of our history?

The area north of the Tropic of Capricorn was generally settled and populated by Europeans long after Southern Australia. There were three factors which helped make the tropical north seem alien to European mindsets between roughly 1825 and 1930. Firstly, there was a strong belief in Western popular culture, backed up by pseudo-science, that white men could not live in the harsh, relentless heat of the tropics without experiencing physical and moral degeneration. Secondly, unfamiliarity with the tropical landscape and conditions meant that many agricultural pursuits failed dismally. Finally, the tropics seemed to contradict the notion of a White, British Australia. For example, in one of the few successful northern agricultural industries, sugar, Pacific Islanders from Melanesia were the dominant labour force from 1863 to 1906, followed soon after by more non-Britishers, particularly Italians and Spaniards. While Mediterranean cane-cutters and farmers were Europeans, for many politicians they threatened their ideal vision of a truly British (and Irish) Australia.

These mindsets about the tropics fed into fears of proximity to Asia. With the presence of non-Europeans sometimes startling northern-based whites (for example the many thousands of Chinese gold diggers out-numbering Europeans on the Palmer River, Q., during the 1870s), colonial and later Commonwealth governments were fearful of neglecting a north that might be invaded by rising Asian nations. Local politicians and civic leaders played on these fears as late as the 1960s, arguing that commercially developing the north would protect the north from hostile forces who would develop the north if selfish Britishers would not.

At various stages, these arguments had some public policy force. The Commonwealth invested much money in the 1910s in a research facility in Townsville which tentatively suggested by the early 1920s that white families could thrive in the tropics without serious risk to health. The Commonwealth also took over the Northern Territory in 1911 from South Australia, leading to public investment in NT farming and railways, much of which was not successful.

The fear of northern invasion accentuated during World War Two: the north consequently benefited from the development of strategic infrastructure such as roads. Yet soon after the war, Northern Australia went out of fashion as a Commonwealth political issue. There was a growing belief among many public servants and politicians that the north’s relatively underdeveloped nature had ‘saved’ it from foreign invasion.

However, the Commonwealth was soon forced to take notice of the north once more, particularly with regard to its major cities such as Darwin, Townsville and Cairns. Increasing urban population in the 1950s and 1960s meant that Townsville became a key beneficiary of the Commonwealth’s desire to “do something about the north” to appease northern electors, who still tended to resort to the Asian invasion line to get their development projects noticed. The decision in 1964 to establish a large Army base in Townsville (Lavarack Barracks) assisted with the economic growth of the region and demonstrated a Commonwealth commitment to the north as well.

Fast forward to the 1980s and beyond, northern boosters have tried to encourage “southern” interest by proclaiming that their city, or their region, is the gateway to Asia, now valued as a trading destination or source of international students/tourists. It is a concept which many Commonwealth governments have taken up as they proclaim national faith in the potential of the north as Australia’s future economic powerhouse.

If the First World War had not happened, do you think that the Commonwealth would have dedicated more resources to developing northern Australia?

Maybe a little more. But it is likely to have continued to make bad mistakes with its funding of northern projects, as the Commonwealth was and is prone to treating Northern Australia as “out of sight and out of mind”. It’s a long way from Canberra, and it is hard to seriously relate to places as a politician you might visit only for a photo opportunity or a meal with local dignitaries.

I believe that the turning point which helped increase funding and attention to the north was the expansion of North Queensland federal electorates from three[1] to five in 1949. While still a small number of seats, in a tight election they could prove significant for the fortunes of a political party. The increased number of seats encouraged leading Labor and Coalition politicians to campaign more vigorously between the 1960s and the 1980s to secure northern seats. The establishment of extensive beef roads for cattle, large regional dams, Lavarack Barracks and institutions for tropical research were at least partly the result of the value placed on North Queensland during election time.

It should be noted that elsewhere in Northern Australia, the number of federal electorates in both Western Australia and the Northern Territory is more limited. But Federal elections have often encouraged greater discussion of the place of Northern Australia (NT, North-west and NQ) within the Australian national imagination and kept it in the public eye.  Action after the election has often been underwhelming, but Northern Australia as a policy issue is always there in the background, ready to be reinvented by the next generation of politicians …   

Your book reveals the shortcomings of various stereotypes used by politicians, writers and popular culture to understand northern Australia, but stereotypes often contain a kernel of truth. How much truth is there in the stereotype of the wild, red neck north?

Some years ago (it doesn’t matter when or why) I had morning tea with a group of mid-ranking Commonwealth public servants in Canberra. The discussion turned to a well-known North Queensland political identity, provoking one gentleman to comment “They’re from a different planet up there.”  Northern Dreams is something of a refutation of this sort of assumption. In reality, the typical northerner is well educated, lives in an urban area and is aware of the major national issues of the day.

The wild, red neck north may still exist in a few isolated areas, but my experience has been that the “red neck north” stereotype is often about urban Australians (both in the north and the south) indulging in city-slicker fantasies of dangerous crocodiles and rustic characters.

To what extent is there a northern Australia identity that complements or subsumes state and national identities?

It is difficult to pin down a specific Northern Australia identity. In some ways the northern identity is much the same as the Regional Australia identity. In political terms, Regionalism can be defined by the following features:

  • A belief that all Australians are entitled to the same services and facilities no matter where they live.
  • A desire for wider acknowledgement of the importance of the regions to the national character and economic development
  • A belief that the regions and their people have been forgotten by Commonwealth, State and Territory Governments
  • A sense of crippling distance from the major centres where national decisions are made

Commonwealth and state politicians often use the above regional concerns to flesh out a sense of northern identity. The politics of northern development, I believe, stem from a wider culture of regionalism.

How do you imagine northern Australia in one hundred years, in terms of population and development?

Population will have grown mainly in the coastal centres, such as Mackay, Darwin, Townsville and Broome. It makes sense to concentrate population in a few regional hubs, especially given the preponderance of non-rural workers in the north.

If future governments are sensible and sensitive, and that’s not a given, they will give thought to the following:

  • Avoiding accelerated population: the north is a dry place and its urban populations are periodically troubled with water shortages. There is also the question of quality of life: population growth often leads to drastic civic decisions for the benefit of developers.
  • Ensuring that built heritage and parks are valued for their historical and cultural value
  • Encouraging development that blends in with the tropical environment rather than destroys it.
  • Encouraging the arts and humanities to tell the stories of the north and develop a sense of place among citizens.

In Northern Dreams I have attempted to be impartial in my historical analysis but nevertheless readers will probably sense that I believe that incremental, considered reform is more appropriate for the north than accelerated, radical change for ideological and economic purposes. The people of the north, rather than narrow business interests, should govern the future of Northern Australia.

[1] Although it should be noted that the electorate of Capricornia is partly above and partly below the Tropic of Capricorn.

Dr Lyndon Megarrity completed his PhD at the University of New England (Armidale), which was awarded in 2002. In recent years, Lyndon has been a lecturer and tutor, teaching history and political science subjects. He was the inaugural history lecturer at the Springfield Campus at the University of Southern Queensland (2012-13) and since taught at James Cook University in Townsville, where he is currently an adjunct lecturer.