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.
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