Remote Darwin gears up to boost trade with Asian nations

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 March, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 March, 2004, 12:00am

With completion of a rail link, economic optimism is high in the Australian city

The dark storm clouds bearing down on David Malone's 14th floor office can do little to dampen his bright economic forecast for Australia's northernmost city.

'The Northern Territory is experiencing a boom,' the head of the Office for Territory Development said.

'This part of the world has a great future and people know that.'

After being bombed by the Japanese in the second world war, flattened by a cyclone in 1974 and constantly dismissed by the rest of Australia as a remote tropical outpost, Darwin believes its time has finally come.

Mr Malone points to a run-down wharf area, fringed by mud flats and mangrove swamps, a few blocks away. Work will start early next year on transforming it into a A$700 million (HK$4.1 billion) waterfront development with bars, restaurants, marina and a conference centre.

Chic new apartment blocks are being built all over the city, and the skyline bristles with construction cranes.

Last month saw the arrival of the first freight and passenger trains on the newly opened transcontinental railway from Adelaide.

The new railway, which cost A$1.3 billion, connects Australia's north with the populous southeast of the country, filling in a 1,420km gap between Darwin and the desert town of Alice Springs.

Darwin, which is closer to Singapore than to Canberra, now hopes to position itself as Australia's trading gateway to Asia.

'People in Darwin are far more conscious of Australia's opportunities in Asia than people down south. All our kids are learning Indonesian in school.'

The railway's backers envisage trade with Beijing, Hong Kong, Japan and Southeast Asia worth billions of dollars a year, as Australian minerals, beef, wheat and wool are shipped north while Asian textiles, cars and computers head south.

The completion of the rail link, after more than a century of procrastination and political apathy, has prompted a frenzy of optimism in Darwin and the Northern Territory, a region bigger than Texas.

The government wants to see the population of Darwin increase from 100,000 to 250,000 within 50 years.

'The time has come for Australia to shift its psyche to the north,' said Northern Territory Chief Minister Clare Martin.

'That's where our future growth is, that's where our potential is, and it's something the railway underpins.'