Asia - the Northern Territory's Lost Frontier? New Chief Minister Clare Martin Promises to Refocus on Asia. Business Asia Investigates Whether the Government's Platitudes and Promises Will Be Translated into Results. (Northern Territory)

Article excerpt

FOR THE Northern Territory in recent years, it's been all quiet on the Asian front.

Once a central hub for Australian relations with Asia, the Northern Territory has displayed wavering enthusiasm towards fostering trade relations with its neighbouring region -- trade agreements have been left at a standstill, new business gained has been sporadic, and growth has stalled.

When asked the reason behind the apparent decline in relations with Asia, Chief Minister Clare Martin, whose Australian Labour Party (ALP) team took office from the previous Country Liberal Party (CLP) government in August 2001, cites the impact of Asia's economic downturn. Not surprisingly, Martin is also highly critical of her predecessor, particularly in regard to relations with Asia. She attributes the cooling of relations to a lack of drive from the Denis Burke-led CLP government.

"They had an Asian Relations Minister who only travelled four times to Asia in the last year," Martin says.

Former Chief Minister and now Opposition leader Denis Burke rejects Martin's claims that his government dropped the ball on Asia. Burke says it was his government, and the work of previous governments (and for many analysts, Shane Stone's Government), which had paved the way for Martin's early successes.

"The new Government needs to show it's bona fide in Asia ... (the Government) has a lot of work to do," he said.

Burke says a lot of work had been done over the past 20 years, particularly in Indonesia, and it was now up to the new Government to pick up the challenge.

With the Northern Territory in a state of recession, (the incoming Martin Government immediately had to contend with a deficit blowout of $95 million, in a region that experienced no growth in the last financial year with no relief on the horizon) one of Martin's key weapons to lash the economy back into shape has been to renew the focus on making the Territory the nation's gateway to Asia.

For now, the six-month old Martin Government is making all the right noises about Asia, but only time will tell whether the good intentions result in better trade and investment.

The Northern Territory at least has the advantage of having widespread contacts throughout the region. The Territory is recognised throughout Asia as a distinct entity, according to Martin, despite having a population of only 200,000.

Something both Martin and Burke seem to agree on is the importance of southern Asian markets, particularly Indonesia, rather than focusing on the more lucrative markets of the north.

"We're picking markets where we can realistically work," she said, citing Indonesia as a key market for Territory trade.

The new Government has been busy working on bonds with Asia that were supposedly left to weaken by the previous leaders.

Several memorandum of understandings exist between the Territory and South East Asian countries, including Indonesia, the Philippines, Khanh Hoa Province of Vietnam and Brunei, which Burke says "have led to small but very important relationship building."

Territory Asian Relations and Trade Minister Paul Henderson says the Government will re-commit to these memorandums. "At the moment they are little more than pieces of paper hanging on walls. We're going to change that," he said.

Turning political relationships into trade relationships is something Northern Territory International Business Council manager Kevin Peters says is an extremely important step that needs to be focused on. The IBC, affiliated with the Northern Territory Chamber of Commerce, has a facilitation role in assessing prospects for trade, such as setting up meetings between interested parties.

Peters says the past 10 years had been a difficult time.

"10 years ago Asia was on the up... (Asia) had become far more outward looking and was a lot more receptive to Australian companies," he says. …