A first-of-its-kind report has found greater consultation with Traditional Owners could be the key to unlocking the economic, social and environmental potential of swathes of the northern end of Australia.

Developed by the Cooperative Research Centre for Developing Northern Australia (CRCNA) and the North Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance (NAILSMA), the State of the North report is a top-down overview of some of the challenges and potential solutions for economic development across a broad range of sectors in northern Australia.

The report found the huge tracts of valuable arable land owned by Indigenous people in the top end haven’t borne out their potential economic benefits for the people who own and live on the land, despite Traditional Owners’ clear desires for sustainable development.

The report identified key challenges to Indigenous-led development including:

  • Lack of infrastructure including roads and communications infrastructure
  • Lack of consultation with Traditional Owners
  • Variation in the way state governments work with Indigenous groups.

NAILSMA Chief Executive Ricky Archer said more effective inter-organisational work and greater top-down strategic planning is the key.

He said while it can be logistically easier to tackle problems one by one in the short term, there’s more bang for each taxpayer buck when organisations and governments are on the same page.

“I think looking at things from a new perspective and using a more cooperative approach to service delivery is a step towards [greater alignment],” Archer said.

Another challenge identified by the report in developing economic opportunities on Country was that Traditional Owners’ aspirations for their land and communities have not been considered by developers.

CRCNA Chair Sheriden Morris said Indigenous landowners need to be brought into strategic planning earlier and that a “change in thinking” is required.

She said developers have traditionally failed to consult with Traditional Owners until too late in a project, which has hamstrung development efforts.

“Many potential developers come in and they want to do sustainable development, they want to meet Traditional Owner’s aspirations, but they don’t find out about them until the three quarters down the project when they’ve already spent a huge amount of money,” Morris said.

“And then they start that process [of consultation] and they see it as an enormous hurdle. They get disenfranchised and go.”

“What we’re saying is strategic planning needs to happen with Traditional Owner aspirations right at the front end.”

Archer said developers and governments alike need to start broadening their view of Traditional Owners.

“Traditional Owners in north Australia are looked at as stakeholders, but Traditional Owners are more than stakeholders, they’re outright exclusive land owners of 78 per cent of Northern Australia,” he said.

“Our push is to have that reflected in the processes of where priorities are set, how development decisions are made, and ultimately have Traditional Owners play a driving role in the development that happens on their Country.”

Archer believes the report could have a huge impact on the Top End.

“One exciting opportunity the State of the North report has is to provide some strong influence into the refresh of the White Paper for Northern Development, and that’s something I think will build towards some major impact,” he said.

“It’s a key tool I think that we can use and engage with and help inform future policy. And it is exciting.”

By Sarah Smit