Kevin Byrne


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Future is bright for tropical north with the right focus and funding

The tropical north has all the ingredients for a bright future with a diversified economy. We just need to pull together, focus and make it happen.

Over the many years that I have been involved in the discussion on regional growth issues, one issue has stood above all else.

That is the need to grow and diversify our economy and create the employment opportunities for a growing population.

The solutions often elude us as we get mired in the blame game of whose responsibility is what, and this inevitably leads to a lack of commitment from all parties.

We need a different discussion. We need to discover a new way to cooperate and get cracking to do things.

Our recent strengths currently revolve around a world class tourism industry. The sector is by far the largest employer but it is also employs people on some of the lowest of pay scales and many are transient workers.

The FNQ region, it is alleged, rides on the back of the tourism industry. A 'buoyant tourism sector then a buoyant economy' or so the saying goes. When things are good we slip into a state of complacency. We lose the planning focus.

Years ago I was instrumental in establishing Advance Cairns as the peak regional development action/advocacy group. At its core, Advance Cairns aimed to diversify our regional economy.

It was then that I was really acquainted with the opportunities in front of us and the need to play to our strengths and to advocate for the appropriate infrastructure.

We have a first class airport that is a minimum two hours closer to our main consumer markets in Asia and the west coast of the USA than Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne.

We have a Tableland hinterland that is an untapped agricultural wonderland capable of growing most things and we have a beef producing hinterland that is waiting expansion and investment.

Additionally we have the capacity to sustain a vibrant fishing export and maritime service industry (provided the environmental extremists do not close it down) right here from Cardwell to Cape York.

If you look far enough you will see the opportunities.

Recently I have been impressed with the giant leap of faith taken by Toowoomba and the Darling Downs Region communities in tapping into the opportunities provided by the construction of the Wellcamp private airport.

Built by the Wagner family, this airport now provides domestic connectivity for the Darling Downs to all parts of Australia but importantly is now providing daily freight opportunities internationally. Build it and they will come it seems!

Already the Toowoomba region is talking population growth rates that would make your head spin. The young and the opportunistic mobile younger brigade are descending on the region to raise their families and to participate in the growing employment and business creation opportunities.

There is now the opportunity to do that here and more.

There are plans for an export market abattoir to be built at Hughenden with plans to export direct to Shanghai in China. If we can get the 94km last section of the Hann Highway sealed then there is every possibility that this can go via air from Cairns.

There are other good reasons for the completion of the Hann, not to mention the freight opportunities to our southern domestic markets.

Additionally there is the Etheridge Integrated Agriculture Project, led by former state treasurer Keith de Lacy, in the planning stages. This will be the largest of its kind anywhere in Australia with massive plans for a self-sustaining agricultural production project.

As we know the southern Atherton Tableland area is some of the finest dairying country in Australia and we are all aware of the international and domestic demand for dairy products.

We also know of the expansion plans for Rio Tinto to grow bauxite production in Weipa and we see the development opportunities for Mareeba to be the service hub for Cape York.

The Dimbulah area to the north and west of Mareeba has some of the best growing soils anywhere and this is another area with a massive future.

How about the opportunity for a flying school in Mareeba? What a perfect place for such a venture with growing Pacific and Asian aviation industries.

The Turnbull Government (now in election mode) have continued the commitment to the development of Northern Australia.

Some $5 billion of funding in various guises has been spoken about and there is great expectation around the future plans, whenever they are released.

An early priority for our part of the world it would seem surrounds water security and more of it, so the Nullinga Dam has to be an early candidate for funding, particularly considering the project is shovel ready.

Some investment assistance to establish a fully fledged air export hub at Cairns International Airport to enable us to take advantage of our geographic competitiveness and  to provide the impetus for a dramatic growth in the agriculture sector would also be welcome.

It is all about connectivity and incentive. Clear vision and bold decisions are needed. Build it and they will come. 

So if we look to the future, we need to bullet proof the regional economy.

We need a vibrant agriculture and primary production sector as well as a newly minted manufacturing and construction sector. Whilst it is very disappointing that we have missed out on the Pacific Patrol Boat Program, we trust there will be some spin-offs in terms of local maintenance.

We need all of the above to augment a world leading tourism industry.

It can be done so now is the time to roll out the bitumen and put the rubber on the road. Courage anyone?