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Robert Drewe, The Bulletin, November 3, 1981, pp. 38-39.

When the VIPs gathered to launch the main Ord River dam in 1969, the symbolic charge of explosive failed to fire. Many taxpayers would say that failure has symbolised the Ord River irrigation scheme since the day of its opening.

Lang Hancock, who knows the Kimberleys as well as anyone, has called the Ord scheme Australia’s biggest white elephant. Perhaps the nation’s most controversial, government-funded agricultural project, it has cost more than $110 million in public funds — for a negligible return.

To the displaced Aborigines of the northern Kimberleys, the Ord scheme bears testament to the irrationality of the white man. After 17 years the scheme has produced a dam so big that it can survive 23 seasons without rain; a beautiful water vista nine times the size of Sydney Harbour, and yet one which is perhaps not so much a dam, more a bottomless pit for Federal and State money.

Despite optimism bordering on euphoria from Sir Charles Court for over 30 years, crop after crop has failed on the rich plain surrounding the dam. The biggest failure has been cotton, which was to be its major enterprise. To begin, the planners and agriculturalists at the most expensive experimental farm in Australia’s history had not reckoned on the local insects. Then, excessive spraying of DDT and parathion killed off most living things, including goannas and birds, without putting a dent in the pink boll-worm population. Indeed, freed of its natural predators, the worm thrived.

The panic began to set it in. The West Australian Government sent a team to study pest control in Central America; imported parasitic wasps were bred in Perth, carted in cages up to the Ord and released. The pink boll-worm munched on, unfazed. By 1974 the cotton farmers were devastated.

But not before the aerially sprayed insecticides had drifted on to other properties, putting paid to hopes of an export market for beef cattle fattened on the Ord. Grazing cattle were found to contain up to 200 parts per million of DDT. The permissible level on US exports is seven parts per million.

Irrigation farming on the Ord is not, for all that, totally unprofitable. Bananas are grown there for local consumption. Lemons, sorghum, mangoes, soya and mung beans and long-grain rice are exported to Darwin and experiments with other crops are constantly being made. All of these small undertakings are viable, but they fall incredibly short of the vision so eloquently expounded by Court and others over the years.

Why, then, did money keep pouring into the dam? The reason is politics. Since the dam was first mooted in the mid-1930s both West Australian and Federal politicians have seen the project as a means to a number of political ends.

By 1941 engineers and scientists had confidently reported that the Ord could be dammed 130 kilometres from the port of Wyndham to serve a big fertile plain. A royal commission and the war hastened progress and in 1945 the Rural Reconstruction Commission strongly advocated its development — the defence against the “Yellow Peril” was seen as a populated northern Australia.

WA applied pressure for the Commonwealth to assist the project to begin. Hansards of the time abound with such statements as, “All patriotic Australians would acclaim any proposal to develop our sparsely populated areas,” and, “If we are going to hold the north-west (against invaders) we must develop it.” A period of political cross-fire followed.

The Federal Government reluctantly assisted research in the area, but held off major financial backing until 1958 when, in an unprecedented decision, it made the first general-purpose grant under Section 96 of the constitution — an initial $5 million, soon to be doubled. The breakthrough grant was followed by the quick political rise of one of the project’s main supporters to that stage, a Mr Charles Court. Court, who had dreamed of settling the north with the displaced Dutch farmers from Indonesia, became State Minister for the North-West in 1959 and backed the project vigorously for another 20 years.

In operational terms, the project began in 1963 with an additional $4 million in Federal funds. More money followed, with still more Federal funds devoted to a project which many economists, led by Dr Bruce Davidson, author of The Northern Myth, insisted could never succeed.

Davidson’s stinging sallies, however, made the scheme’s enthusiasts dig in. These defenders, out of State and northern chauvinism included the WA Labor Party, under their leader, John Tonkin, and, for a time, Labor’s later Federal Minister for Northern Development, Dr Rex Patterson. It was a State Labor Government, in fact, which later hosted the official opening of the Ord River dam by Prime Minister William McMahon in 1972.

The decision to go ahead with the second-stage development was based on political expediency as much as anything. The Holt Government was concerned with acquiring the fifth Senate seat in WA in 1967, but less than enthusiastic about approving a massive expansion program. The approval went ahead and gave the Liberal-Country Party coalition the fifth seat. It also committed nearly $50 million in Federal funds to the Ord.

By then a growing number of reports had indicated that the project could not succeed commercially, would be highly detrimental to the environment or would disadvantage Aborigines. The most recent review, a joint report by the State and Federal Governments in 1978, concluded that the scheme had by and large failed dismally. But so much had been spent already, and the project was in such a “highly critical state,” that five more years of development were justified.

It is clear that the Ord optimists made many crucial mistakes. But perhaps the essential tragedy of the scheme was that the all-important economic factors of assured market outlets and manageable costs of production and transportation were overlooked.

Anything that comes into or leaves the Ord is handicapped from the outset by the tyranny of distance.

(in order of appearance on Economics.org.au)
  1. Ron Manners’ Heroic Misadventures
  2. Hancock's Australia
  3. Hancock on Government Help
  4. Wake Up Australia: Excerpts Part 1
  5. Wake Up Australia: Excerpts Part 2
  6. Lang Hancock's Five Point Plan to Cripple Australia
  7. Governments Consume Wealth — They Don't Create It
  8. Up the Workers! Bob Howard's 1979 Workers Party Reflection in Playboy
  9. Jump on the Joh bandwagon
  10. John Singleton and Bob Howard 1975 Monday Conference TV Interview on the Workers Party
  11. Governments — like a red rag to a Rogue Bull
  12. Lang Hancock's Pilbara-Queensland Railway Proposal
  13. Singo, Howard and Hancock Want to Secede
  14. Lang Hancock's Foreword to Rip Van Australia
  15. New party will not tolerate bludgers: Radical party against welfare state
  16. Small and Big Business Should Oppose Government, says Lang Hancock
  17. A Condensed Case for Secession
  18. Hancock gets tough over uranium mining
  19. Hancock's threat to secede and faith in Whitlam
  20. PM's sky-high promise to Lang
  21. Lang Hancock: "a catherine-wheel of novel suggestions"
  22. Govt "villain" in eyes of new party
  23. The spread of Canberra-ism
  24. Govt should sell the ABC, says Lang Hancock
  25. 1971 Monday Conference transcript featuring Lang Hancock
  26. Aborigines, Bjelke and the freedom of the press
  27. The code of Lang Hancock
  28. Why not starve the taxation monster?
  29. Lang Hancock 1978 George Negus Interview
  30. Party Promises to Abolish Tax
  31. Right-wing plot
  32. "The best way to help the poor is not to become one of them." - Lang Hancock
  33. WA's NCP commits suicide
  34. "You can't live off a sacred site"
  35. Hancock: King of the Pilbara
  36. Bludgers need not apply
  37. New party formed "to slash controls"
  38. Workers Party Reunion Intro
  39. Workers Party is born as foe of government
  40. Government seen by new party as evil
  41. Ron Manners on Lang Hancock
  42. Does Canberra leave us any alternative to secession?
  43. Bury Hancock Week
  44. Ron Manners on the Workers Party
  45. Lang Hancock on Australia Today
  46. Hancock and Wright
  47. Lang Hancock on Environmentalists
  48. Friends of free enterprise treated to financial tete-a-tete: Lang does the talking but Gina pulls the strings
  49. Lang Hancock, Stump Jumper
  50. Lang Hancock: giant of the western iron age
  51. The Treasury needs a hatchet man
  52. We Mine to Live
  53. Get the "econuts" off our backs
  54. 1971 Lang Hancock-Jonathan Aitken interview for Land of Fortune (short)
  55. Gina Rinehart, Secessionist
  56. 1982 NYT Lang Hancock profile
  57. Enter Rio Tinto
  58. Hamersley and Tom Price
  59. News in the West
  60. Positive review of Hancock speech
  61. Lang Hancock International Press Institute General Assembly speech, Canberra, 1978
  62. Australia's slide to socialism
  63. The Great Claim Robbery
  64. Why WA must go it alone
  65. Lang Hancock in 1976 on Public Picnics and Human Blights
  66. MILLIONAIRE PUTS MONEY BEHIND SECESSIONISTS
  67. Resource Management in Australia: Is it possible?
  68. The gospel of WA secession according to Lang Hancock
  69. Crystal Balls Need Polishing
  70. Minerals - politicians' playthings?
  71. John Singleton-Ita Buttrose interview (1977)
  72. Boston Tea Party 1986 style, hosted by Lang Hancock and Bob Ansett
  73. Singo says Lang Hancock violated Australia's 11th commandment: Thou Shalt Not Succeed
  74. Singleton: the White Knight of Ockerdom
  75. Tactics change by Hancock
  76. Lang Hancock complains to Margaret Thatcher about Malcolm Fraser
  77. 'Phony crisis' seen as 'child of politics'
  78. Lang Hancock on nuclear energy
  79. Lang Hancock beats the left at their own game on civil liberties
  80. Lang Hancock's Favourite Books
  81. 1977 Lang Hancock Canberoo poem
  82. Hancock's playing very hard to get
  83. Hancock proposes a free-trade zone
  84. An Open Letter to Sir Charles Court
  85. John Singleton 1976 ocker Monday Conference Max Harris debate
  86. Lang Hancock in 1984 solves Australian politics
  87. Lang Hancock on the Workers Party, secession and States Rights
  88. Lang Hancock asks what happened to Australia's rugged individualism?
  89. Precis of Ludwig Plan for North-West
  90. Announcement that Lang Hancock will be guest of honour at the Workers Party launch
  91. Lang Hancock's March 1983 attempt to enlist "former presidents of nations and heads of giant companies" to save Australia
  92. Lang Hancock asks us to think how easily environmentalists are manipulated for political purposes
  93. Invest in free enterprise
  94. Democracy is dead in Australia and Lang Hancock's education
  95. Lang Hancock Incites Civil Disobedience
  96. Hancock sounds call to battle Canberra
  97. Mining policy a threat
  98. Over Whitlam's head
  99. Lang Hancock suggests that newspapers don't give space to politicians unconditionally
  100. Lang Hancock on saving Australia from socialism
  101. Secede or sink
  102. Australia can learn from Thatcher
  103. John Singleton. Horseracing. Why?
  104. How Lang Hancock would fix the economy
  105. Lang Hancock: victim of retrospective legislation
  106. Lang Hancock supports Joh for PM
  107. Hancock seeks miners' tax haven in the north
  108. The Ord River Dam
  109. Why Lang Hancock invested in Australia's film industry
  110. Lang Hancock's 1983 letters to The Australian: Lang's precedent for Steve Jobs, renaming the Lucky Country to the Constipated Country, and more
  111. Australia's biggest newspaper insider on manipulating the media
  112. 1980 Lang Hancock-Australian Penthouse Interview
  113. Canberra: bastion of bureaucracy
  114. Pilbara can be the Ruhr for South-East Asia
  115. 1982 Lang Hancock-John Harper Nelson Interview
  116. Australian elections are one of the greatest con games in history
  117. Our leaders are powerless
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