thumbnail text

Perched atop the continent, closer to Jakarta than Sydney, Darwin has long been an outpost to Australia’s civilized south. It’s the capital of the vast Northern Territory, twice the size of Texas, with a population of just 230,000. Wild, and sparse, a resources boom and fresh military and political interest from abroad means Darwin is turning into the late bloomer of the Antipodes.

The city welcomed President Barack Obama last year, who announced it would host an expanded American presence in the Asia Pacific. Each year, 2,500 US Marines will use Darwin as a staging post for exercises across the north. That number is likely to increase to 4,000 annually. The US has flagged a greater focus on the region, and many in Darwin see the deployment as the first step towards a US base. That number of troops also comes with the bonus of a constant stream of technicians and consultants from the major US arms companies.

“It’s our strategic location as a gateway to Asia,” says nt deputy chief minister Delia Lawrie, head of the Northern Territory Government. She also highlights the openness of northern Australia as an advantage. “The beauty of the Territory is that we’ve got some vast land areas where you can go out and do some pretty tricky military exercises and you’re not getting in anyone’s way.”

Darwin’s also cashing in on the discovery of large natural gas reserves on Australia’s north-west shelf. It’s the only city in the region and is already home to one liquefied natural gas (lng) plant. A second, far larger, project has just been approved for Japanese energy giant Inpex and its French partner Total, worth $34bn (€26bn). Complementary development of a marine supply base and a specialised oil and gas school at the city’s university have already begun.

Asian-influenced and upbeat, Darwin’s a young city, in the youngest part of Australia. The median age of people living in the Northern Territories is 31 and most have moved here to work. They’ve brought with them a desire for the housing and entertainment they are used to “down south”. The government has responded with developments like Darwin’s shiny, new Waterfront Precinct.

The city has long celebrated its Asian heritage, but it’s now using it to attract visitors and investment. Early Chinese traders and miners helped build Darwin, and the city received Australia’s first “boat people” – refugees from Vietnam – in the 1970s. The migration trend continues today and 9 per cent of Darwin’s residents were born in Asia. Their food and their customs, particularly the colourful markets, have become some of Darwin’s most famous cultural features.

Australian and Asian airlines are now offering more flights from Darwin to Asian centres such as Denpasar and Manila, and Singapore Airlines regional carrier Silk Air is starting Darwin flights this year. In business circles, the hope of attracting Asian high-rollers has triggered the $50m (€38m) redevelopment of Darwin’s beachfront casino. “In Darwin, people have their eyes very much focused on the north,” says Robyn Holt, the chair of the Northern Territory’s Tourism Advisory Board. “To be able to develop products for Asian tourism puts Darwin in the box seat. You can travel one hour out of Darwin and be in a remote area, but with five-star accommodation and wonderful food.”

However, there are many in Darwin who lament the pace, and price, of such progress. Laconic and often eccentric, some of Darwin’s long-term inhabitants fear they’re watching the city they loved for its uncontrolled greenery and occasionally shambolic housing change into a sweatier version of Australia’s south.

“It’s mutating,” says provocative artist Therese Ritchie. “With Inpex and the get-rich-quick schemes of governments and the collective fantasy of expansion via mining and agriculture, I’m expecting things will just go down the path of mediocrity and we’ll eventually just destroy what we love, which is the character of the place.”

To understand their angst, you must understand Darwin’s climate. Its citizens are either there because of it, or in spite of it. Darwin has only two seasons: hot and wet, or just hot, with destructive cyclones. One of those, Cyclone Tracey, levelled the city in 1974. During the rebuilding, some used Darwin’s climate to create a distinctive aesthetic. Architect Phil Harris and his firm Troppo Architects combined historical building principles with modern materials to create a definitive style. “Good tropical buildings are about making something great with very little,” he says. “At the end of the day, all you need is shade and a breeze to be comfortable.”

It’s an ethos which, like many in Darwin, values the experiential over the material. “Life’s about being with friends, not about owning a lot of gear,” Harris says. “If you own a lot of gear, the mould, the mildew, bugs, cyclones, they’ll beat you in the end anyway.” At the other end of town, Darwin’s stylish elite might agree in principle, if not in practice.

“The climate is the leveller of all character in this town,” says entrepreneur Tim Palmer from the lavish, waterfront house he shares with partner Mark Marcelis. “You either survive it, or you leave.” Palmer and Marcelis founded Darwin’s first gay and lesbian-friendly nightclub, Throb, in 2000. Five years later they launched the Northern Territory’s first lifestyle magazine, Resident. “There’s more to us than crocodiles and more bloody crocodiles,” says Marcelis. “It’s a shame that people think that because we’re Darwin, it has to be outback, second-rate and not really worth investigating.”

While Marcelis and Palmer showcase the luxury some have created in the north, the outback image isn’t wholly inaccurate. For a start, there are lots of crocodiles. Also, less than 1 per cent of the Northern Territory has been cleared for either urban or agricultural development. About half of the land is rangeland used for cattle. Hundreds of thousands are sent, live, from Darwin to Indonesia. The suspension of the trade last year after a cruelty scandal crippled a large sector of the economy and it showed the vulnerability of the region to political changes.

“Politically there’s not a lot of votes in developing northern Australia and putting serious money into infrastructure development – into housing, into health, into the sort of things that people need to have reassurance that they can bring their families up to northern Australia,” says Luke Bowen, from the Northern Territory Cattlemen’s Association. “Things like this big gas project are going to help encourage people focus on this region and you’d certainly hope it will start drive a few more dollars into the system to try and fund some of this stuff.”

That investment comes at a price, namely the loss of green space, and the city’s environmentalists have been a voice of dissent in the face of development. “There’s a gangbusters approach to developing Darwin for heavy industry, and because we’re located near to new and newly discovered gas finds, it’s all concentrating here,” says Stuart Blanch, head of the Northern Territory Environment Centre. “Our laws and our planning for Darwin Harbour are being kept deliberately weak to allow this to happen. I think that’s what offends many people is that our institutions and our legal protections have not kept pace with the boom.”

Darwin’s “first people” are also cautious but the area’s Aboriginal traditional owners, the Larrakia people, have been working to ensure they aren’t forgotten. A company representing Larrakia interests has created a trade training centre, funded by the gas companies, for hundreds of young people, particularly Indigenous youth.

“Out of all the Indigenous groups in the Northern Territory, the Larrakia are the ones who have suffered most from the urban expansion of the city, which has resulted in the loss of sacred sites and sites of significance,” says lawyer Nigel Browne, chairman of the Larrakia Development Corporation. “But on the flip side, the exposure that Larrakia people had to mainstream society because we had a capital city plonked on top of us, has exposed us to those opportunities in education and health and all the other trappings of living in an urban environment.”

Darwin has one more growth industry, with hundreds of millions of dollars already invested, but it’s not often spoken of as such. The mandatory detention of asylum seekers is a contentious policy in Australia, and Darwin is the country’s detention capital. The city has three large immigration detention centres, with roughly 1,000 people being detained there, the most on mainland Australia. A large detention centre is being built near the existing gas plant and could double the number of detainees in the city.

Much of the change in Darwin is merely an acceleration. Smaller detachments of US troops have been visiting for some years, and there are existing gas projects. However, both the planned US deployment and the latest lng developments are far larger than anything seen before. With a hunger to take advantage, it seems this decade will determine whether Australia’s northern capital, and its young population, will come of age.

Mind the neighbours

The first 250 US Marines are due to arrive in Darwin in early 2012 and build up to 2,500 by 2016-17. They will combine with US warships and aircraft operating out of Western Australia.

Beijing claims practically all of the South China Sea – even that which falls within the widely recognised 200 mile exclusive economic zones of other littoral states. This is a major cause of regional friction.

The Philippines
Rattled by aggressive Chinese behaviour in 2011, Manila is turning to the US and South Korea to help rebuild its outmoded military.

History ancient and modern means that Hanoi will never accept Chinese domination of the South China Sea, and it is re-equipping its military to push back against Chinese expansion.

The Spratly Islands
These tiny Pacific territories sit atop valuable resources. Claimants include China, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.

Southeast Asia’s biggest country is slowly assuming its rightful place as the region’s main military player. Indonesian neutrality could be key to maintaining stability.

The US position

Washington’s decision to base Marines in Darwin is the latest move in a strategic game with two complex dimensions: the growing rivalry between China and the US in the Pacific and Indian Oceans; and the contest for the South China Sea between China and its Southeast Asian neighbours.

Besides Darwin, Washington intends to base warships in Singapore, a similar naval station in the Philippines is likely, and Vietnam will soon host American ships at the Cam Ranh Bay naval base. Factor in alliances with Japan and India, and the American position appears strong.

China so far lacks the US’s strategic footprint. There is no doubt, though, that China outguns its smaller neighbours to the south; and as tensions have risen in the disputed South China Sea, Southeast Asian militaries have started bulking up.

Most significant of all, however, could be the emergence of Indonesia. Though removed from the South China Sea dispute, Jakarta upped its defence budget for 2012 by 53 per cent, ordering new aircraft and submarines. On good terms with China and the US, but allied with neither, a resurgent Indonesia could prove key to keeping Asia’s choppy waters calm.

×The Pacific Shift


Drag me