Long mythologized, the Australian outback looms large in the national psyche, evoking notions of the mysterious and contested frontier.
Australia was colonized from the base of Sydney, on the east coast. Settler fears of a hostile interior evolved into a cultural aversion to remoteness, and to this day the majority of the Australian population lives within 20 kilometers of the eastern seaboard.
This enduring fear, combined with an extractivist worldview, has caused the Northern region of the country to be deemed politically marginal—a suitable sacrifice zone for the pursuit of mining and fossil fuel profits.
The Northern Territory is one such example, covering roughly one sixth of Australia’s landmass. It is home to small, dispersed populations and expansive cattle stations (or ranches) abutting some of the planet’s longest-surviving human cultures and ecosystems.
Yet it has been viewed from a distance as an uninhabited dumping ground, with no value other than what can extracted from its natural resources and people.
That indifference was highlighted by the federal government’s decade-long attempt to force a national nuclear waste dump on Aboriginal communities. “Why on earth can’t people in the middle of nowhere have low-level and intermediate level waste?” wondered then-science minister Brendan Nelson when the plan was announced. His successor Julie Bishop claimed that the proposed site was “some distance from any form of civilization.”
The sense of impunity created by this “out of sight, out of mind” mentality is visible in the federal government’s “Developing the North” agenda. Its focus on extracting and exporting unconventional shale gas is in clear conflict with the knowledge that our planet is already rapidly warming—and that the corporations desperate to exploit these new fossil fuel frontiers are following a death-spiral business model.
Colonial worldview meets climate emergency
Much of Australia’s wealth was derived from the establishment of pastoralism across the interior of the country, built on the indentured servitude of Aboriginal people as well as their displacement and internment in welfare camps and missions.
The colonial project has always relied on attempts to maintain formal control over the more than 400 Indigenous nations of Australia. In 2007, the announcement of the Northern Territory Intervention strategy unmasked a new effort to expand that control, bolstered by unsubstantiated and damaging government claims of widespread child sexual abuse in remote communities.
The policy’s sweeping social and legal reforms sought to further erode Aboriginal control of lives and land, precipitating the single largest act of dispossession since the era of white settlement. Against the backdrop of a slow starvation of remote Aboriginal communities, forced to persist on the margins of Australia’s expansive wealth, authorities insist on turning to resource development to meet local needs. It is in this context that high-impact extraction projects are often imposed.
More than 90% of the Northern Territory’s landmass is now targeted for fracking, with major player American Energy Partners (AEP), owned by US shale gas giant Chesapeake, seeking to replicate what its business papers refer to as a “land grab” in Australia. In under just two years, the company has acquired more than 35 million acres of land in the Territory, double the size of its United States holdings that took more than 22 years to obtain.
But the land grab strategy is meeting with fierce resistance from an unlikely alliance of Indigenous communities and pastoralists. Historically at loggerheads over colonial land grabs, they are now working together to block fracking projects that threaten the shared source of their cultural lifeblood and livelihoods.
Opposition is also mounting against major infrastructure projects like the North East Gas Interconnector (NEGI) pipeline, flagged to connect the Territory’s shale gas reserves to an international export market. The realization that the pipeline would spur a new wave of dirty gas field industrialization is connecting powerful, local anti-fracking campaigns to the fast-growing global climate movement. Dividing up vast tracts of our collective future to be sold off to the highest speculative gas bidder can never compare to the alternative—a pathway that helps us accurately understand the enormous value of the North, and face the climate crisis together.
Valuing the North
Remoteness, entrenched poverty, and neglect by the Australian political class can make it difficult to organize against the powerful and distant extractive industry. But it is far from impossible, as the Territory’s history of potent settler-Indigenous alliances shows.
During their eight-year strike for fair wages that began in 1966—the legendary Wave Hill Walk-Off—Gurindji cattle station workers forged important union alliances, winning Australia’s first land rights legislation and sparking a national movement.
The Territory was also home to one of Australia’s most significant environmental struggles of the last decade. In 1998, a blockade camp led by the Mirrar people to stop the Jabiluka uranium mine inspired thousands from across the country to travel to remote Kakadu National Park. 500 people were arrested in mass acts of civil disobedience before the mine was derailed in 2003.
The campaign to stop a national nuclear waste dump in the area of Muckaty, on one of the poorest and most remote populations in Australia, ended with the federal government abandoning the plan last year. It managed to draw powerful solidarity from unionized maritime workers who refused, on environmental and social justice grounds, to unload waste destined for the proposed dump.
On September 15, under the banner “Our Land is Our Life,” Aboriginal communities and pastoralists are marching together on foot and on horseback to the NT Parliament to demand that their land and livelihoods not be sold or sacrificed to meet the demands of multinational gas miners.
Uniting these communities is a deep love of country, and a clear-eyed awareness that there is too much at stake to let the old systems and seeds of division win out.
The potential for a revival of the North lies not in the unfettered exploitation of our natural wealth, but in the recognition that a just transition is needed—as demanded by the climate crisis, but also to reset the relationships hardwired into the Territory’s history to move from exploitation to regeneration.
This is not nowhere. This is the beautiful heart of Australia, and a unique part of the world that deserves to be cherished and protected.