Foreign Policy Blogs

Northern and Southern Frontiers: Australia and the Arctic

Australia and the Arctic aren’t often mentioned in the same sentence. One tends to hear more about Australia and Antarctica, since the country has an Antarctic Division and carries out scientific research at the icy continent not so far away from Tasmania. But I think that a comparison of Australia and the Arctic, particularly the Northern Territory (NT) and the Canadian Arctic, is a fruitful one. When I came across an Economist article on the NT from last September entitled “Northern lights,” I began thinking about the lands under the aurora borealis and australis.


Both Australia and the Arctic seen as exotic and remote, albeit at opposite ends of the earth. The NT constitutes one-fifth of Australia’s landmass but contains only one percent of the population. Canadian territories, which make up 39.5 percent of the country’s land, are similarly sparsely populated, with only 100,000 people (0.3% of the population). Both the NT and Canada’s territories are resource-rich frontiers with large indigenous populations. The indigenous populations in the NT and in northern Canada, particularly Nunavut, are a higher percentage of the overall population than in the rest of Australia and Canada, respectively. Yet although both regions are in countries that enjoy some of the world’s highest living standards, they are relatively underdeveloped hinterlands.

Extractive Frontiers

Kassam Karim-Aly writes in “North of 60: ‘Homeland or Frontier?’, “The North as homeland is conducive to circumpolar linkages to com- munities across national borders in meeting the challenges of globalization. As frontier, the North is constrained to supplying natural resources to southern markets. In essence, one point of view is indigenous and shaped by a relationship with the natural ecology, whilst the other is informed by industrial capitalism and is exogenous.” Whether furs in the nineteenth century or diamonds in the twenty-first, northern Canada has long supplied primary materials to the outside world. The Canadian scholar Harold Adams Innis identified an east-west axis of trade bridging Canada with the metropolitan center, London. This link eventually became a north-south axis connecting Canada to the burgeoning cities of the United States. This geographic orientation has until recently held true today, with Canada doing the bulk of its trade to the U.S. However, with the blocking of Keystone XL, a pipeline which would have run along that north-south axis, Canada is now rejiggering itself towards an east-west axis of trade, with the direction now pointing in the opposite direction: across the Pacific, towards Asia, rather than across the Atlantic.

Australia’s NT, too, has long been a source of natural resources. Gold mining was taking place as early as the 1870s, with bauxite and manganese mining emerging in the 1960s and 1970s. Now, the regional economy has been booming thanks to onshore and offshore oil and gas development. This isn’t necessarily good news for the local economy down the line. Karim-Aly, citing Michael Pretes (1988), says: “Staples dependence leads to underdevelopment in the long run because socioeconomic policies are not geared to sustainable development based on local needs. Ultimately, staples development removes cultural and economic leverage from the people who live within the region and places it firmly on foreign markets.” This is especially true when there is a large, historically oppressed indigenous population, as is the case with both the NT and northern Canada.

Karim-Aly claims that government transfers subsidize the quality of life in the north, while foreign companies reap the profits from resource extraction. It’s unclear whether or not this is true, but there is certainly a large amount of foreign investment in Canada. Controversially, CNOOC, a Chinese state-run company, recently purchased Nexen, a medium-sized petroleum company based in Calgary, for CAN$15.1 billion. Malaysia’s Petronas bought Progress Energy Resources Corporation for CAN$5.2 billion. Perhaps trying to quell discontent among the electorate, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said, “When we say that Canada is open for business, we do not mean that Canada is for sale to foreign governments.” In Australia, FDI has grown by 60 percent in the past five years, and in the NT, over 20 Chinese companies alone have invested in the minerals sector. Yet Australia’s recent tax hike on minerals is doing little to keep more of the profits in state coffers.

Defense and Infrastructure

On top of resources, frontiers are also useful for defense even though they are so far away from the metropolitan center. During WWII, the NT proved to be a vital link in Australia’s defenses against Japan. Vegetable farms growing everything from pineapples to cauliflowers stretched in a chain from Darwin to Alice Springs, in the south. This draws a parallel with the DEW Line in Alaska and Canada, which came after WWII but also served as an important part of the radar defense against the Soviet enemy.

The DEW Line.

The DEW Line.

The question of how best to consolidate sovereignty over sparsely populated land has occupied governments in both corners of the former British Empire. In the 1940s, Australian politician Charles Abbott wrote, “I consider that settlement in this area is vital, as it is bound up with the all-important question of Australian and, indeed, Empire defence. Northern Australia escaped invasion in 1942 only by a hairbreadth. It is not easy to foresee the future but it is clear that an empty and unpeopled north will always be a very definite danger to Australia.” In both Australia and Canada, the “empty” north threatens the security of the populated, “civilized” south. The idea of an “empty and unpeopled north” completely overlooks the thousands of years of Aboriginal settlement in Australia. Similar tropes are found in discussions about the great white north of Canada, where few people venture and few people live, at least in the popular mindset. When landscapes are viewed as empty, it becomes acceptable (in the extreme) to test and detonate nuclear weapons, as was almost done in Alaska. Less extremely, the government also finds it easier to create huge dams and mining projects in places it presents as voids. Furthermore, Western states also tend to only respect permanent settlement; without that, the land is considered “empty.” This rationale led Ottawa to forcibly move hundreds of indigenous peoples north to essentially stake out and demonstrate presence and sovereignty through permanent homes, even though they had been more nomadically and ephemerally crisscrossing the lands of northern Canada for centuries. For Canberra and Ottawa, ownership trumps occupancy.

Aside from creating defense infrastructure and permanent settlements, civil engineering projects are also seen as a way of taming the wild land and sparking development. In Canada and Australia, development is viewed as a national imperative to bring the frontier up to speed with the rest of the country. Abbott said of the NT, “In no other part of the British Empire is there such a vast tract of land which is so lagging in development and which would so respond to it.” He strongly supported the construction of a railway from southern Australia up to Darwin. “Without adequate railway communication,” he said, “it is not possible to develop the NT.” The NT eventually got their railway, but northern Canada never did. Prime Minister Stephen Harper promised during the last election to complete the Dempster Highway. These huge infrastructure projects would certainly benefit some of the major points of population, although there could probably be more useful ways of aiding social development, such as by building more housing to relieve overcrowding or creating a university. However, governments tend to often favor large and impressive projects such as railroads, for they visibly demonstrate national power to both civilians and the outside world.



Massive infrastructure projects are at one end of the Western spectrum of what constitutes work, as huge amounts of human (and mechanical) energy are poured into the soil, making the land almost unrecognizable from before. At the opposite end of this spectrum are Western conceptions of many of the things indigenous peoples do, near laziness and idleness. Yet for Aborigines in the NT, what appears to be leisure to the Western observer is actually a form of work. Relaxing and sitting around can actually entail observing nature, gathering important information about the environment and potential food sources. Work can thus be done without a finger being lifted, contrary to the Protestant work ethic driving the belief that land must be actively manipulated. While discussing this blog post with a friend, he reminded me, “The Devil finds work for idle hands.” If indigenous peoples were or are still seen as idle, then it is little wonder that settlers in the Protestant tradition sought to dispossess them of their land. In both the NT and northern Canada, however, what is actually a conflict between two ways of seeing the world – one a dualist, rationalist vision based on the Enlightenment, and the other a “Dreaming” world that does not separate between man and nature – is reframed as a simplistic land claims conflict (Povinelli, 1995)

Horizons in Asia – and beyond

The economies of both Australia and Canada are heavily dependent on the export of commodities. Yet those commodities are not evenly distributed with either country; instead, each country has their cores and peripheries. It is in these peripheries laden with oil and minerals that Asian investors are extending their reaches. As the markets of China, Japan, Korea, India, and the like grow, they are seeking out resources in frontiers north and south. The NT’s top 10 merchandise trading partners are the U.S., Singapore, Indonesia, Japan, China, South Korea, India, Kuwait, Oman and the UAE. Plans are in the works for INPEX, a Japanese company, to build a gas pipeline from the Ichthys field in the Indian Ocean to Darwin, a port city in Northern Territory. The gas would then be exported as LNG to Asia. More LNG plants are being planned, too, by companies such as Shell and ConocoPhillips. The Economist reports that the LNG-investment boom is worth A$180 billion ($187 billion). Japanese investment in Australian LNG brings to mind Kogas’ investigations into building an LNG terminal in Bathurst, NWT. Though that plan looks scuttled for now, Kogas, together with Japan’s Mitsubishi and China’s PetroChina will build an LNG terminal in Kitimat, British Columbia for exporting resources to Asia.


Aborigines are seeing little of the revenues generated by gas and mining – again, a similar situation to places like the NT in Canada, where many of the money flows out back to the south. Indigenous peoples in Canada, though, might be faring better than in Australia, as they are often more closely involved in the decision-making process regarding mining, for instance, thanks to the land claims agreement, and many are also employed by the industry. But Dr. Elizabeth Povinelli illustrates the dispassionate nature of such a train of thought, stating, “Most contemporary land claims include supplemental reports on the economic benefits of them to the indigenous community, on the development prospects of the area for local and regional governments, and on the environmental consequences of maintaining or developing the area.” Such reports overlook the fact that quality of life for many indigenous peoples might not be able to be measured simply by dollar signs.

As Canada looks east, the NT is looking to develop ties with Indonesia, to the north. The territory’s chief minister speaks Indonesian, and he is the leader of the conservative Country Liberal Party, which wrested power from the Labor party after 11 years.  It was not too long ago that Kevin Rudd was prime minister of Australia, and he spoke Mandarin. Thus, just as Australia is forging better relations with China, its biggest trading partner, and other countries in Southeast Asia like Indonesia, many states in the Arctic are doing the same. However, they are focusing more on northeast Asia – countries like Japan and South Korea, alongside China. Perhaps soon, a premier or MP from one of the territories will speak Chinese.

Sizing up the future

The Economist writes, “[Mr. Mills] contemplates a future for the territory that belies is tiny population and remoteness from Australia’s power centres: ‘Our role is to broker better advancement for aborigines and engagement with Indonesia.’” A similar story is told in northern Canada, where many politicians advocate for indigenous rights and economic development, and Alaska. That state’s Lieutenant Governor, Mead Treadwell, recently declared, “We need to prioritize the health and wealth of our communities if this is going to be a golden age of the North” – again, perhaps a vision of a future that transcends small populations and large distances. Leona Aglukkaq, the Member of Parliament for Nunavut (also from the political right, like Mills), puts forth similar goals when discussing the future of her riding and the larger Canadian North.

Next, it might be interesting to view the Arctic as homeland rather than an extractive frontier. Then, instead of examining commodities chains and comparing how resources are exploited from one region to another, we might begin to draw similarities between the indigenous peoples of the world and their cosmologies. Such a comparison could help foster more inclusive and fairer decision-making over the use of resources and land around the world. One might not look at the extraction of tar sands in Canada next to the harvesting of rubber trees in Brazil, but rather the ways in which indigenous peoples in both places view their natural surroundings as home. For while the frontier represents a faraway dreamworld to people at a distance, it can be home for the people who live there, centuries in and centuries out.

Works Cited

Abbott, C.L.A. “Australia’s Frontier Province.” Wiley on behalf of The Royal Geographical Society ( with the Institute of British Geographers ) Stable URL : . JSTOR to digitize , preserve and extend access to The Geographical Journal, 111(1), pp.22–31.

Karim-Aly, Kassam. “North of 60: Homeland or Frontier?.” (2001).

Povinelli, E. “Do Rocks Listen? The Cultural Politics of Apprehending Australian Aboriginal Labor,” American Anthropologist , New Series, Vol. 97, No. 3 (Sep., 1995), pp. 505-518



Mia Bennett
Mia Bennett

Mia Bennett is pursuing a PhD in Geography at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). She received her MPhil (with Distinction) in Polar Studies from the University of Cambridge's Scott Polar Research Institute, where she was a Gates Scholar.

Mia examines how climate change is reshaping the geopolitics of the Arctic through an investigation of scientific endeavors, transportation and trade networks, governance, and natural resource development. Her masters dissertation investigated the extent of an Asian-Arctic region, focusing on the activities of Korea, China, and Japan in the circumpolar north. Mia's work has appeared in ReNew Canada, Water Canada, FACTA, and Baltic Rim Economies, among other publications.

She speaks French, Swedish, and is learning Russian.

Follow her on Twitter @miageografia

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