Our book editor Lyndon Megarrity has reviewed a new book – Leading from the North.

Ruth Wallace, Sharon Harwood, Rolf Gerritsen, Bruce Prideaux, Tom Brewer, Linda Rosenman and Allan Dale (eds), Leading from the North: Rethinking Northern Australia Development, ANU Press, Canberra, 2021.

Since Federation, Tropical Australia has enjoyed a few brief moments in the national media and political sun as politicians grandly promote the potential of the north before moving on to other policy matters. The 2015 release of the Commonwealth White Paper on developing Northern Australia (Our North, Our Future) represented the peak of a short but intense period of national policy interest in the north, although it is likely that many ‘southerners’ would have been oblivious to this. While the political hype surrounding Northern Australia has now been reduced to a dull roar, the Commonwealth nevertheless remains financially committed to transforming Northern Australia through population growth and economic development.

Leading from the North is a publication by academic researchers which serves to remind policy makers of the complexity of Northern Australia, as well as the problems, challenges and opportunities of living in the tropics and developing its industries. The book consists of 25 chapters by contributors from Charles Darwin University, James Cook University and a number of other research institutions. The authors tackle subjects as diverse as climate change, governance systems, tourism, economic development, migration and social infrastructure.

Northern Australia is generally defined as those parts of Australia which are north of the Tropic of Capricorn, although for convenience, the whole of the Northern Territory is sometimes included in the definition. It is a massive area, covering over a third of the continent. It is also ‘complexified’ by several layers of governments, separate state/territory jurisdictions, and markedly different life experiences depending on whether you live in a regional city, in a remote inland settlement or in an Indigenous community. One of the underlying themes of several chapters in Leading from the North is that ‘one-size-fits-all’ policies in Northern Australia are ineffective and overly ‘top-down’. Authors frequently emphasise the value of ‘place-based’ policy to reflect local values, skills and needs, and others stress the possibility of using existing economic and social networks to build positive futures across the north. Elsewhere, the perennial problem of having the right mix of job opportunities and amenities to attract and retain interstate and international migrants is explored, but no clear solutions are found.

A number of chapters stand out and invite us to view Northern Australia policy in different ways. Readers who are taken with the idea of the ‘northern food bowl’ supplying Asia with its agricultural needs are reminded by Tom Griffiths and his co-authors that rainfall patterns in Northern Australia vary significantly in the long term, despite the ingrained cultural belief in predictable seasons:

William Dampier was the first to explicitly identify wet and dry seasons for the tropics … Even now, local media in Darwin effectively do the same thing every 1 October when they declare a change of season irrespective of the weather. (p. 375)   

Another interesting perspective is offered by Rolf Gerritsen. His well-written chapter includes reflections on the future of remote Indigenous communities, whose cultural and social beliefs are sometimes at odds with the market-oriented northern development framework. They also remain economically disadvantaged because of a desire to remain in settlements distant from the major centres. Gerritsen proposes that part of the solution might be to take advantage of ‘traditional Aboriginal skills in land and fire management’ to create Indigenous employment opportunities in biosecurity and biodiversity protection in remote Australia – in effect, securing a ‘natural resource management … economy’ for the north (p. 118).

Lisa Law and her colleagues examine the problems with new suburban residential areas in the tropics, highlighting the tendency of developers to increase heat and humidity by favouring concrete block dwellings without maximising access to potential breezes, shade and green spaces. Law et al. advocate tropical designs which will reduce the perceived need for air conditioning and its associated high energy consumption.

There is a great deal of merit in this volume, but the unnecessarily academic language and jargon will make it difficult for the general reader to engage with the content. Chapters are frequently littered with distracting in-text references and acronyms. Finally, the potential impact of several chapters is lessened by the use of statistics about the north which are roughly five to ten years out of date.

There are no wide-ranging chapters on education, the arts, politics, gender, the lived urban experience (Indigenous and non-Indigenous) or heritage. Whether or not this is a reflection of what the Commonwealth and other funding bodies feel, rightly or wrongly, are fashionable or ‘appropriate’ northern research projects is open to conjecture. It is, however, disappointing that the ideas explored by authors are often made highly abstract because of the relative absence of qualitative research on the lives of northern citizens within the text.

In summary, Leading from the North is a worthy edition to the literature of Northern Australia. It provides numerous examples of the useful collaborations which have developed among academic scholars as a result of a shared interest in the future of the tropics. More effort, however, could have made to ensure that these northern perspectives reached a broader, non-specialist readership.


Lyndon Megarrity
Lyndon Megarrity

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. His book Northern Dreams: The Politics of Northern Development in Australia was published in 2018.