The Problem Child of Empire

‘Developing the North’ and the settler-colonial capitalist imagination 

Here I give you history galloping wild for a century over half a million square miles, the life-story of a colony in quicksand… A nameless land, a land without a flag, a vague earth bordered by the meridians of God… Black men and white men riding in a world without time and where sons do not inherit, and money goes mouldy in the pocket, where ambition is wax melted in the sun, and those who sow may not reap. I write of the Northern Territory of Australia, problem child of empire, land of an ever-shadowed past and ever-shining future, of eternal promise that never comes true.

—Ernestine Hill, The Territory, 1951

I begin with this quote from Ernestine Hill because her description of the Northern Territory as ‘problem child of empire’ evocatively captures the paradoxical nature of the ‘north’ in the settler-Australian imagination—from the moment British settlement pushed further inland and north in the mid-nineteenth century, the north of the continent, the Northern Territory in particular, has simultaneously been construed as both a ‘promised land’ and a ‘white elephant’. 

This land of an ever-shadowed past and ever-shining future is an imaginative geography, one largely produced in the temperate, heavily settled south of the continent and shaped by settler-colonial capitalist desire. However, colonists often evoked ‘the north’ without ever really specifying what they were referring to and thus ‘the north’ is not an easy place to define. The Northern Territory in particular has epitomised the idea of the ‘empty’ or ‘undeveloped’ north and so northern Australia and the Northern Territory tend to be conflated in dreams of developing the north. This essay, given its focus on the historical construction of the north in the settler-Australian imagination, thus moves between two senses of ‘the north’: the Northern Territory and that part of the continent that lies above the Tropic of Capricorn, in which I include the arid centre.


The colony of South Australia annexed the Northern Territory in 1863 following John McDouall Stuart’s successful south–north crossing a year earlier. Despite previous, failed attempts at colonising the north, Stuart reported that the country, particularly around the north coast, was rich and well adapted for European settlement. Upon assuming control, the South Australian government proceeded to colonise the Territory in much the same way colonists had settled the southern colony—agriculture was to be the foundation of northern prosperity. 

However by the 1880s agriculture had failed to develop and the Northern Territory had earned itself the nickname of the ‘white elephant’. Colonists sought to blame governments, landholders and markets for the failure to realise the economic potential of the north, a sentiment that was reflected in an editorial in the South Australian Register in1871, less than ten years after the region had been annexed:

[I]t is high time that South Australia should be up and doing, with a view of turning to account the immense tracts of fertile land which her Northern Territory is known to possess. The complacent inaction with which Government, local landholders, and tax-payers alike have hitherto contemplated the rapid absorption of capital at Adam Bay and Port Darwin would be almost ludicrous if it were not humiliating. 

Where is the boasted ‘British enterprise’ which in past days has done so much for the development of commerce and agriculture in the waste places of the earth? Where is the energy which colonized South Australia itself without one tithe of the encouragement from its geographical position and known resources which our Northern Territory presents?…

To the country at large the Northern Territory is simply a white elephant with a most capacious maw…

Almost as soon as the Territory was colonised a tension emerged between the idea of northern Australia as possessing vast expanses of rich and fertile land and the view that such a representation was misleading. It would continue to unsettle colonists well into the twentieth century.

By the 1890s it had become clear that the South Australian colony no longer desired the Northern Territory and a federal takeover emerged as a possible solution. Charles Pearson’s 1893 National Life and Character: A Forecast perhaps best reflects the political and social context in which the transfer of the Northern Territory was debated for the next two decades. A significant moment in the transnational circulation of ideas about whiteness and race, Pearson’s book was particularly concerned about the growth of Chinese power, prophesying that ‘white men’ would be elbowed and hustled, and perhaps even thrust aside, by the people they regarded as inferior—the so-called ‘black and yellow races’. Pearson’s troubling vision of a postcolonial world in which white men would be superseded sent alarm bells ringing globally, impressing itself upon the likes of US president Theodore Roosevelt, as well as Edmund Barton and Alfred Deakin, two of the principal architects of Federation and the White Australia policy, and Australia’s first two prime ministers. 

Thus the desire to develop the north became entangled with fears of an Asian invasion. Yet the sense of urgency that imbued the aspiration to people the north of the continent was deeply unsettled by yet another fear—that the north of the continent, the tropics in particular, was not a suitable climate for white bodies. As historian Warwick Anderson has observed, ‘British bodies felt dreadfully out of place’ in the north of the continent, which gave rise to the visceral fear that perhaps the north could not be successfully colonised. 

While debating the federal takeover of the Territory in 1902, in the wake of Federation and the inauguration of the White Australia policy, then attorney-general Deakin observed what he called the ‘triple problem’: ‘the tropical problem, the racial problem and the financial problem’. Despite the abundant resources and fertile soils that Deakin claimed for the Territory, he observed that ‘if the policy adopted by the House is that no one save white labour is to be tolerated in any part of this continent, we necessarily limit the possibilities of production throughout all of the tropical areas of Australia’. Despite this, on the eve of transfer in 1910, then prime minister Deakin argued in parliament that the Commonwealth had to assume control of the Northern Territory, not primarily as a matter of commerce but rather as a matter of prime importance to the nation, declaring: ‘we must accomplish the peopling of the Northern Territory or submit to its transfer to some other nation’. For Deakin the latter was not an option and thus he avowed that the ‘Territory must be peopled by a white race’. At the time of transfer Darwin had one of the most racially diverse populations in Australia: out of a population of 1380, only 374 people were white; the rest were predominantly Chinese and Aboriginal.

Following transfer in 1911, development of the north continued to languish and fears of the ‘empty north’ persisted, becoming particularly salient in the inter-war years. The debates continued to turn on the tension between the perceptions of the north as promised land and as wasteland and, by extension, the possibility of populating the north with white bodies.


Pastoralism had emerged as the Northern Territory’s primary industry in the early twentieth century, although this was largely due to the relative absence of other industries with which it had to compete. Despite this (somewhat limited) commercial success, the pastoral industry’s dominance was considered evidence of the failure of settlers to adequately develop the north. 

As historian Russell McGregor has observed, for settler Australians in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, agriculture was about more than providing sustenance for a population. Rather, they understood it in relation to a European tradition stretching back centuries that elevated the cultivation of the soil ‘to the highest form of land use, sealing claims to sovereignty over, and ownership of, the country’. To till the soil was to own it; thus, pastoralism could not enact legitimate possession of the land. 

With the notable exception of northern Queensland, part of which has been hospitable to agricultural development since the 1870s, the north resisted the kinds of agriculture that the British imposed upon their settler colonies. And yet, this discourse of British settler-colonial political economy underpinned the numerous federal-government inquiries and investigations into the development of the north that followed transfer; the Campbell Report of 1911, the Buchanan Report of 1925 and the Payne and Fletcher Report of 1937 all focused upon land and prospective land use in the north. Following Campbell’s recommendation of setting aside land for experimental farms to trial tropical crops, the Buchanan report went on to recommend that the government shelve attempts to develop agriculture and focus on pastoralism. Twelve years later the Payne and Fletcher report argued that lack of regular rainfall, limited good soil, absence of markets and difficulties in attracting good agriculturalists meant that closer settlement was not possible in the north. 

Despite mounting pessimism around the possibilities of northern development, in the wake of the Second World War and the bombing of Darwin in 1942, the ‘empty north’ rhetoric reared its head yet again. Prime Minister Curtin announced that ‘developing the north’ was essential for the future security of Australia. In 1945 the Northern Australia Development Committee was established, charged with increasing the population, bolstering the value of production in the region, and maximising use of the land and resources. A report prepared by the committee in 1947 highlighted the previous failures of the Commonwealth and settlers to develop the territory ‘beyond the pioneering stage’. 

Despite the north’s apparent resistance to traditional British ideas of land use, it would seem that the persistent attempts to develop the region have always been about more than merely making the north prosperous. Following British settler-colonial ideas of agriculture, closer settlement and land ownership, the lack of economic development in the north exposed the settler-colonial claim to sovereignty in the region as tenuous.


The most recent iterations of this idea of northern Australia as an incomplete colonial project are the 2014 report of the federal parliament’s Joint Select Committee of Northern Australia, ‘Pivot North: Inquiry into the Development of Northern Australia’, and the subsequent Our North, Our Future: White Paper on Developing Northern Australia,which was released the following year. 

In the chair’s foreword to the ‘Pivot North’ report, MP Warren Entsch notes that while the ‘inquiry into the development of Northern Australia has been greeted with a huge amount of enthusiasm and anticipation’, it had also generated much ‘scepticism about its possible outcomes’. According to Entsch, there are ‘numerous reports and recommendations with the aim of developing Northern Australia which are gathering dust on shelves’ in parliament. However, Entsch claims that this report is different; it will prove the sceptics wrong and finally get things moving in the north. 

Despite Entsch’s confidence that the ‘Pivot North’ report represented something new or different in its approach to northern development, both the final report of the joint select committee and the 2015 white paper repeated familiar rhetoric of the north of Australia as a place of ‘untapped promise’, which, with the right amount of enterprise and investment, could realise its ‘full potential and become an economic powerhouse within our great country’. Similarly to Entsch’s foreword in ‘Pivot North’, the white paper acknowledges that while ‘many previous efforts to develop the north have floundered through a lack of foresight and the absence of markets in [the] region’, the new white paper was developed to ‘stand the test of time’—the first and last white paper to ‘unlock the north’s vast potential’. 

The document sets out a range of policy ideas for the next twenty years: new roads, new dam sites, changes to land-use laws, all seen as part of a comprehensive blueprint for bringing about the very same developmental outcomes that first emerged in the mid-nineteenth century: agricultural development and a rapid increase in population density. Despite more than 150 years of failed attempts to colonise the north using the same model of economic development that had evolved in the southern agricultural zones, the new white paper sets out its plan for turning the north of Australia into the ‘food bowl’ for Asia’s rapidly expanding middle class. According to Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources David Littleproud, in 2018, ‘we can still grow agriculture in this country if we’re smart’. 

And yet, within a few short years of the white paper’s release, reports have begun to emerge that the nation’s dreams of northern development are, yet again, stalling. The settler state suffers a peculiar type of amnesia when it comes to the north of the continent. I would like to suggest that this groundhog day of northern development is perhaps the result of a crisis of a settler-capitalist imagination, which appears to be wilfully blind to the material conditions—especially environmental conditions—of the arid centre and tropical north of the continent. In the 200-page white paper, there is a one-page entry, towards the end, dedicated to environment and climate. History shows us that the soils and climate in the north of the continent have been inhospitable to settler colonialism and that geographical isolation and the subsequent distance from markets means that the north is not well placed to engage in global capitalism. Yet the settler state continues to pursue mastering the north of the continent according to a settler-capitalist logic that assumes that much of the north—both the land and its people—are unproductive. 

Eco-feminist and environmental philosopher Val Plumwood uses the term ‘dematerialisation’ to describe the ‘process of becoming more and more out of touch with the material conditions (including ecological conditions) that support or enable our lives’. According to Plumwood, losing track of them (I would argue in the case of northern Australia never truly grasping them) ‘means making more and more exhausting and unrealistic demands on them, and being deluded about who we and others are’. This flight from the material corresponds to the mind/body and human/nature dualisms of the Western intellectual tradition, creating an illusion that Plumwood says engenders a ‘false consciousness that justifies appropriation’.

The false consciousness of place has not only resulted in the persistent policy impasse in northern development but also given rise to the current state of affairs in which resource extraction has emerged as the sole source of valuein the north, a situation that raises urgent questions about the entanglements between colonialism, capitalism, racism and extraction in a time of climate change. As the southern and eastern parts of the continent are ravaged by drought, in the wake of a summer that has seen the entire continent break highest recorded temperatures with alarming frequency, and as the crisis in the Murray–Darling Basin deepens, what is assumed to be (un)productive needs to be radically reimagined in relation to the north of Australia. 


Why hasn’t the north developed along the same lines as the south? Why is agricultural development seen as being the only legitimate mode of development? And what other kinds of economic possibilities emerge when, following economic and agricultural historian Bruce Davidson’s view,the north is seen not in terms of an abundance of natural resources, such as land and water, but in terms of the scarce ones—that is, people and capital? More importantly, what might northern development look like if Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples—the original inhabitants, the group with the greatest land interest, and the fastest-growing demographic in the north—were to be meaningfully engaged in planning for the economic future of the north?

Whereas Aboriginal people are largely absent in earlier visions for the economic transformation of the north, Our North, Our Future notes that Aboriginal occupation of northern Australia dates back more than 60,000 years. However, the implications of this statement are not addressed in anything other than a cursory manner in the white paper. While it acknowledges that Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders in the north of the continent possess environmental and ecological knowledge crucial for creating new technologies and strengthening Australia’s economic future, this is not included in their blueprint for turning the north into the food bowl of Asia. In the entire report there is a single page dedicated to Indigenous culture (both this page and the one dedicated to climate add up to about 500 words in total).

This is deeply problematic given that approximately 50 per cent of land in northern Australia is legally recognised as Indigenous land under land rights and native title (which could expand to approximately three quarters if native title were determined to exist in all of the currently registered claims). As Jon Altman has observed, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples clearly have the greatest land interest in the north, which raises urgent questions: Whose Northern Australia? Developing Northern Australia for whom? 

It is telling that in Our North, Our Future the first twenty pages following the introduction are dedicated to a chapter called, ‘Simpler Land Arrangements to Support Investment’. The report observes that the complex land arrangements in the north—primarily those stemming from land-rights and native-title frameworks—‘has slowed development to date’, are ‘too time consuming’ and ‘can cause confusion for investors’ and thus should be ‘simplified’ and ‘modernised’ to stimulate investment. Despite the fact that land rights and native title were not recognised by the state during much of the long history of the settler-colonial ‘developing-the-north’ discourse, they are now being invoked as significant factors in the failure to bring about the desired transformation of the region. This claim warrants close examination and analysis. A plan to intervene in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander rights to land in order to boost investment and open the way for agricultural development and rapid population increase sounds like yet another program of settler-colonial (dis)possession, based upon earlier, failed models for colonising the north. 

The chapter that follows that one is focused upon ‘developing the north’s water resources’. The document advocates for the replication of southern models of tradeable water rights in order to realise the ‘full economic potential’ of water in the north by increasing opportunities for water storage and irrigated agriculture. And yet, as the white paper clearly states, ‘compared with the south, there are substantial knowledge gaps around northern surface water and groundwater systems’ and the ‘long term effects of extensive groundwater extraction…are not well understood’. At a time when the true extent of the Murray–Darling Basin crisis is only just beginning to become clear, calls to develop the north using southern models for the commodification of water and irrigated agriculture should be cause for alarm. Do we really want to continue replicating southern models of settler-colonial capitalism when the catastrophic environmental consequences of that logic, especially extractivism, are impressing themselves on us daily?

In reimagining other kinds of possible economic futures in the north, federal and state governments cannot continue to wilfully ignore the lessons of the past. In newspaper editorials, letters, government reports, parliamentary debates, books and articles spanning more than 150 years, the same visions for northern development and, more importantly, the same problems, are reiterated over and over again. Given the persistent failure of the logic of settler-colonial capitalism to transform the landscape in the way that it desired, and the current ecological crises taking place in areas of the continent where it was deemed ‘successful’, surely it is time to reimagine what successful development means in the arid centre and tropical north of Australia. 

About the author

Shannyn Palmer

Shannyn Palmer is a historian and writer based in Canberra. Between 2011 and 2015 she lived in Central Australia, carrying out research and oral-history work with Anangu who had lived and worked on Angas Downs pastoral station over a period of fifty years across the middle of the twentieth century. This work has led to her interest in the spatial dimensions of settler-colonial capitalism in Australia, especially its apparent unsuitability in the north of the continent.

More articles by Shannyn Palmer

Support Arena

Independent publications and critical thought are more important than ever. Arena has never relied on or received government funding. It has sustained its activities largely through the voluntary work and funding provided by editors and supporters. If Arena is to continue and to expand its readership, we need your support to do it.