Climate change

North 'could face Asian invasion'

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 04 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 04 October, 2007, 12:00am

Australia must populate its undeveloped tropical north or face invasion by Asian refugees driven south by climate change, an outspoken government senator has warned.

Senator Bill Heffernan's doomsday scenario echoes the post-war cry of 'populate or perish', when Australia feared it would be vulnerable to Asian incursions unless it dramatically increased its population through immigration from Europe.

'We're not talking tomorrow, but in 50 to 80 years' time,' he told the Bulletin news magazine in an article published yesterday.

'If there are 400 million people who have run out of water - Bangladesh or Indonesia - well, if you want to protect your sovereignty, you've got to have a plan.'

Northern Australia - the part of the continent that lies above the Tropic of Capricorn - is a sparsely settled region comprising cattle ranches, vast national parks and Aboriginal reserves.

The only towns of any size are Darwin in the Northern Territory, and Cairns and Townsville in Queensland.

Anxiety over the region's vulnerability dates back to the second world war, when the Japanese seized New Guinea and bombed outposts such as Darwin and Broome, in Western Australia.

Senator Heffernan, a political ally of Prime Minister John Howard, is the head of a taskforce looking at ways of injecting more people, more infrastructure and more intensive farming into what is called the 'Top End'.

He has called it 'one of the last agricultural frontiers left on the planet' and believes Australia must lay stronger claim to it.

'Without being alarmist, it would be better for us to do it than letting someone else,' he said.

'I can assure you, parts of the country [in the north] would appeal to people who had nothing else.'

He pointed out that the Cape York Peninsula, the part of Queensland that stretches almost to Papua New Guinea, is larger than the state of Victoria, but has a population of just a few thousand people.

Experts said his warning was overly alarmist.

'First of all, you'd have to question whether Asians displaced by climate change would want to come to Australia,' said John Connell, an authority on climate change and refugees at the University of Sydney.

'If they're from countries with mountainous areas like Indonesia, Vietnam or the Philippines they are more likely to want to move inland from coastal areas.'

Even in low-lying areas, people would most likely want to resettle in places with the same language and culture, Professor Connell said.

'The people of the Carteret Islands in Papua New Guinea are having to move, but they are going to nearby Bougainville. They are not asking to be sent to Broome,' he said.

'Migration will be highly localised.'