‘Populate or perish’ was the rallying cry of post-World War II Curtin Government as it sought to overcome domestic resistance to immigration. Immigration was seen as the key to quickly boosting Australia’s population numbers in the interests of economic and military security.

Seems the more things change, the more they stay the same.

In 2016, it’s arguably still just as much in Northern Australia’s interests to boost its population numbers and economic activity, in the interests of securing opportunities in the coming decades as we march into this “Asian Century”.

It is time to break the shackles and go for broke, chance our arm and put the big issues on the political and economic agenda in 2017. For decades governments and economic development agencies have been talking up Northern Australia and its opportunities, yet there is little evidence of success anywhere. We remain mired in policy and political gridlock and have been held hostage to environmental and sectional interests forever.

The challenge is to grow our northern population base and to be serious about it. Within a seven hour flying radius of Cairns, Darwin and Broome reside 2 Billion + people who represent a unique opportunity for us to engage and participate in the opportunities of the “Asian Century”. You don’t have to look far to see the lessons of extraordinary growth there and much of it resulted from the creation of Special Economic Zones (SEZs) of influence and opportunity. Think Shenzen, Hong Kong and Singapore just for starters.

So what are these Special Economic Zones?

Simply put, they are designated areas where proactive and targeted government policies aimed at attracting people and business to grow communities and the economies of the area are put in place. Done properly and with the correct planning and incentives the results can be spectacular. People generally follow to where the opportunities lie.

Consider these projects as a teaser… new generation coal fired base load power, Gas and renewables, including Wind, Solar generation guaranteeing affordable energy across the North along with affordable, guaranteed water access for urban and agricultural use. Shackle these plans alongside a genuine, committed program to provide competitive 21st century IT connectivity for businesses to engage in the digital economy and a first class road network  to link communities and production centres and the opportunities stand a good chance of being realised. This is relatively easy to plan and already governments have committed the funding, it has been under consideration for decades and importantly in the past 5 years, when much has been said about the Northern Australia initiative. We just need to start. Consider the possibilities of NAIF and public and private sector partnerships here.

The next part may get a little tricky, but can be sorted through cooperation and leadership. People and businesses will go where the opportunities present so we need to provide incentives via a raft of attractive corporate regional taxation outcomes coupled to more a generous private taxation regime designed to attract migration north. We could start with a 10 year moratorium on company tax for any firm starting operations in Northern and discuss the reduction by 50% of individual taxation scales within the Zone. Success here depends on State and Federal Government cooperation and an agreed simple, operating framework requiring minimal legislation and red tape.

We already see a changing defence posture occurring at a national level. More defence assets will continue to be deployed to the north with a commensurate increase in defence personnel and their families. This will, naturally, see a growth in the development of service industries required to support this expansion. We will also continue to see further development of our pastoral and mineral assets, as well as continuing exploration activities and our tourism assets will continue to be developed to accommodate the changing needs of this internationally focused growth industry.

National strategic planning needs to be linked to a rational debate as to how we grow the economic and population base of the North. Targeted, planned and appropriate incentives legislated under an SEZ framework might just provide the answer. Unless growth happens soon, the opportunities presented by our geography will be delayed at best and lost at worst. This would be a great tragedy for present and future generations.