Australia’s recurring bouts of enthusiasm for northern development shift focus across an array of potential riches, but one feature is unchanging. Goals are set, pathways chosen, and rewards distributed by and mostly for people from outside the region.

Strong external roles are arguably inescapable given a small, sparsely distributed northern population and weak infrastructure. But outcomes from this sort of approach to development have been just as predictably adverse for local people over a large part of the Australian continent. While extracting the North’s resources makes variable but considerable contributions to the nation’s economic performance, resident populations struggle to access benefits. Dominant industry sectors source much of their labour, materials, and services from outside the region so that, rather than opportunity, locals are more likely to feel damaging social and environmental impacts.

Outside a few larger urban enclaves, North Australia’s resident, especially remote, Indigenous populations remain socio-economically disadvantaged, notwithstanding their (comparatively recent) recovery of lands and coastal and inland waters, and non-exclusive native title interests in much of the vast pastoral estate. Some lands severely damaged by mining, ill-managed grazing, failed agriculture or forestry ventures, invasive animals and plants, and wildfire require major investments in repair; investments that local people lack the financial resources to make themselves.

The new White Paper offers few ideas and fewer commitments to support local people; whether to find better ways of accessing benefits arising directly from orthodox development or to identify and pursue entirely new approaches. Failure to innovate in socio-economic development is compounded by the retreats to the past, in dismissal of contemporary environment and heritage protection as red tape. Hostility to sound environmental measures appears particularly short-sighted given the potential for incomes from ecological services to foster labour and capital retention in the North. The contradictions inherent in coupling a rose-tinted view of the great scale and quality of development opportunities to a determination to put aside the environmental and social obligations of governments and developers does not appear to have occurred to the White Paper’s architects.

In the northern perspective (local interest) vacuum left by government, it may be necessary for landowners and industry to work together to restore balance and, above all, identify and secure approaches to economic development that more effectively advance the well-being of the North’s people. The following chapters outline some of the ways this might be done.