Phil Ruthven Columnist

Phil is founder and chairman of IBISWorld, an international corporation providing online business information, forecasting and strategic services. He is considered one of the nation's most respected strategist and futurist on business, social and economic matters.

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Population 100m: Why we need northern exposure

Published 27 February 2013 23:55, Updated 28 February 2013 00:12

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Population 100m: Why we need northern exposure

Any objective assessment would suggest we can increase our agricultural output by the same five-fold we did in the 20th century. Photo: Glenn Hunt

Not many of us live in the top part of Australia, which has been the case for centuries if not millennia. When Europeans came in 1788 to occupy and develop Australia, a land mass roughly the size of China, they settled in the south of the country where weather conditions were more accommodating and coastal water supply seemed suitable to agriculture of the sort that had been practised in England for centuries.

Now just 3.4 per cent of the nation’s 23 million citizens live in the top 30 per cent of our 7.7 million square kilometre land mass, where 60 per cent of the nation’s renewable water supply is to be found. This area, of 2.3 million square kilometres, lies just a little north of the Tropic of Capricorn across a latitude running from Newman in the west to Rockhampton in the east.

Will this sparse population situation – of just three people per 100 sq km – change in the 21st century?

Today, we have 773,000 people in that top 30 per cent of the continent which is 1½ times the land mass of our nearest neighbour (Indonesia), a nation with 250 million people. Their arable land is half Australia’s total arable land but they do have seven times our renewable water supplies.

The first chart provides some useful perspective of Australia’s place in our region vis-a-vis Indonesia, China and Japan in particular, being the most populous countries in the region. Combined, they have 77 per cent of the region’s total population.

We have 1 per cent of the population on 33.5 per cent of the region’s land mass. Should these data and perspectives make us nervous about our sovereignty in the future?

No, revisiting past xenophobia serves no useful purpose. The challenge we face is that we are now part of the Asia Pacific economy and society and an active member in its fledgling group activity via APEC.

Most (about three-quarters) of our tourists, immigrants and trade emanate from within this region and we can ill-afford a dog-in-the-manger attitude to the development of our north. It is a moral and socio-political issue emerging more in this century than any other.

Given our arable land, water supply (especially in the top 30 per cent) and ever-emerging technology, any objective assessment would suggest we can increase our agricultural output by the same five-fold we did in the 20th century, even with global warming.

A population of something over 100 million in our 22nd century might scare some Australians, but would be deemed eminently achievable by the more long-sighted.

This includes China, which is prepared to invest tens of billions into agriculture alone, as well as in mining and other industries.

The challenge of this development lies with three of our eight states and territories; what we might term our North Australian states, being Queensland, the Northern Territory and Western Australia.

The second chart shows the industry structure of these fast-growing states.

They are more heavily into resource industries, being endowed with the lion’s share of them anyway. Already they account for one-third of our population (and increasing), 37 per cent of our GDP but 81 per cent of our mining, 51 per cent of all construction and 33 per cent of agriculture.

In the exciting decades ahead, it is these states that will develop the top end. Its time has come and will herald an extraordinary surge in Australia’s population and fortunes, as well as making us a fairer and more active participant in the burgeoning Asia Pacific region.

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