23/07/2009 - 00:00

Kimberley’s potential unlimited

23/07/2009 - 00:00

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Opportunities abound in the Kimberley, if the right decisions are taken.

Kimberley’s potential unlimited

LET'S hope the wash-up of the Ellison inquiry for the $9 million Kimberley Science and Conservation Strategy is tidier than the way it was initiated, announced and justified.

No sooner had retired Liberal senator Chris Ellison's appointment become public that we learned he'd opted to withdraw from lobbying firm, Enhance Group, as an associate director to help deflect conflict of interest accusations.

"Chris Ellison has walked away from Enhance because he is committed to helping out in the Kimberley," Premier Colin Barnett told parliament.

"Chris Ellison is doing this at a low price. He is doing it as a service."

Such civic-mindedness is certainly admirable and most welcomed; there should be more of it.

However, despite those claims about the $20,000 Ellison appointment, heated exchanges in State Parliament followed, with Mr Barnett lashing out at Labor's queries, describing them as "groveling and gutter sniping".

And this despite the Enhance client list carrying corporate entities such as Santos, United Group and Panoramic Resources, which would suggest that, prima facie, Labor had valid reasons for querying this insider party loyalist selection.

Moreover, the belated Ellison departure from Enhance could turn out to be only for the inquiry's duration. If that occurs is it fair to call that severing links or just a brief showroom-style absence from the office?

Leaving aside Mr Ellison's past political links and the likely beneficial spin-off he can expect from his role as the inquiry's overseer, there are other matters Labor could have highlighted.

Mr Ellison has another corporate link as advisory director to Doric Construction, and some suspect he's a likely candidate to become the WA Liberal Party's next president.

All things considered, someone who is seen by all parties to be neutral would probably have been a far wiser appointment.

Mr Barnett's reason for choosing a friend and claiming he'd undertaken the work "at a low price" and "as a service" therefore remains uncharacteristically puzzling.

All that said, the Barnett government certainly gets an elephant stamp for earmarking land near Broome for what seems set to become WA's next petrochemical hub.

Much is happening both across and off the coast of this long forgotten out-of-the-way region, which augurs well for its longer-term economic future.

This was highlighted in a report just released by new Perth-based think tank, Future Directions.

It points out that exports by Northern Australia's pastoral industry generate $900 million annually, and the sector employs 10,000 people, including 1,000 across northern WA.

"In 2006-07, the pastoral industry contributed approximately $70 million to $80 million to the Kimberley economy, and was run over approximately 22 million hectares," one report compiler, Gavin Briggs, writes.

"In June 2009, there were 99 pastoral leases across the Kimberley and 220 in the Northern Territory."

The Kimberley's live cattle exports are an example where employment and training opportunities exist for indigenous Australians.

The cattle industry is forecast to remain a strong export earner, especially to the nearby Asian and Middle Eastern markets.

As countries seek to ensure access to agricultural and pastoral output to ensure food security, the Kimberley can be expect greater prominence.

Mr Briggs said overseas investors were again looking to the Kimberley as a reliable long-term food supply region.

"In 2009, Terra Firma, the London-based private equity firm, purchased the Australian Packer's family interest in Consolidated Pastoral Company," he says.

"Another significant overseas purchase was by the United Arab Emirates IFFCo Group, which purchased a major stake in Australian Agricultural Company (AAC), reportedly Australia's largest producer of beef."

AAC's 8.2mha holdings make it Australia's biggest landowner.

Another research article in the Future Directions report said the Kimberley was set to becoming a major international supplier of chia (Salvia hispanica Labiatae), a staple of the Aztecs that is still cultivated in central and South America.

Chia, the Aztecs' most significant crop after corn and beans, was so valued that it was an item of annual tribute to their rulers.

"First trialled in the [Kimberley] region in 2005, with commercial production beginning the following year, chia has gone from strength to strength and offers an outstanding example of an innovative export industry that is ideally suited to the northern climate," Future Directions research fellow, Leighton Luke, writes.

"Although still largely unknown in Australia, the nutritional content of the tiny chia seeds is the key to significant export opportunities in the US and Europe. Exports to the US are currently delivering a price to growers of around $2,400/tonne.

"Chia contains a large number of vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids, including omega-3, omega-6, calcium and antioxidants, as well as protein and dietary fibre."

Earlier, the European Food Safety Authority gave its approval for use commercially in the manufacture of breads, after testing Bolivian, Peruvian and Australian seeds.

This followed a similar assessment by the UK's Food Standards Agency.

Mr Luke said that meant the opening of a new, large and health-conscious European market where bread is a staple.

During the 2009 growing season, about 1,500ha was cultivated for chia in the Ord River Valley, or nearly two-thirds of total world chia output.

The immediate aim was to boost land cropped up to 5,000ha.

Although the Ord Valley, the Kimberley's eastern segment, is well supplied with water, the Argyle Dam expansion is likely to limit further access to suitable land.

The Kimberley has also emerged as the state's major centre for the cultivation of sandalwood, which was once based primarily upon WA's more southerly semi-arid regions.

Mr Luke said another exotic fruit, achacha, or 'honey kiss', (Garcinia humilis selecto) - already well-established in northern Queensland but native to Bolivia's Amazon - was also likely to become a Kimberley success story.

"Climatically speaking, land released under Stage II of the Ord River Irrigation Area may also prove to be a fertile home for achacha in WA's tropics," he said.

"The strategic location of the Kimberley, with its proximity to South-East Asian markets and the port of Darwin would give Ord River achacha growers a significant advantage over their Queensland counterparts, who would nonetheless remain ideally placed to service the sizeable key domestic markets of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane."

With offshore gas processing likely in the medium term, a buoyant pastoral industry that's modernising, and steadily expanding plus budding exotic forestry and horticultural sectors becoming a reality, there's certainly reason for optimism.

Let's hope the Ellison inquiry's outcome does nothing to dampen any of these or other positive expectations.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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