Julia Gillard painted a glowing picture of the East Kimberley's future and was welcomed enthusiastically during a whirlwind visit in which she pledged millions of dollars for infrastructure and community projects.
In Kununurra yesterday, the Prime Minister met members of the "mums and bubs" group before planting a scarlet gum in Celebrity Tree Park.
She then made the nation's first prime ministerial visit to Wyndham.
Ms Gillard inspected the recent $10 million port upgrade and opened the $1.7 million Early Learning Activity Centre, where she pledged an extra $100,000 for a women's leadership program.
She announced $14 million towards the replacement of the single-lane Big McPhee Bridge on the Great Northern Highway, the only sealed road between Broome and Kununurra, with a dual-lane bridge that could withstand floods.
The Prime Minister said the region understood the benefits stemming from diversification of the economy and had a vision for the kind of future she wanted for the whole nation.
“You’ve understood the opportunities for it in … a century of change in our region and a century of economic growth in our region,” she said. “Whether it’s mining, the tourism, the food industry… your economy is supplying it and going from strength to strength.”
Ms Gillard would not be drawn on rumoured whole-scale Chinese investment in the 15,000 of land available through Ord Stage II, saying negotiations and approvals processes were still underway and it was not appropriate to pre-judge the outcome.
But Special Minister of State Gary Gray, travelling with her, said the Federal Government embraced the idea of Chinese investment in Australia and “we embrace the idea of Australia as a food bowl”.
The State Government is expected to announce the successful bidder in September.
Ord-East Kimberley Expansion Project director Peter Stubbs said the East Kimberley was already a global community and global investments should not be an issue.
“We have a lot of German families … we have Americans who run El Questro … we had the Korean interests who ran the sugar mill for six years,” he said.
“From the very early days, we’ve had investment from all around the world and we’re better for it. I think the community here is quite comfortable with it.”
Mr Stubbs said Ord Stage II needed significant capital and must be large-scale to ensure it was commercially viable.
“You won’t see investment in industries like sugar, unless there is sufficient scale … that’s what we’re trying to do, develop enough land and get it into production,” he said.
He pointed out proponents would also have to invest more than $500 million.
“It’s not easy for families in Australia to make the sorts of investments sometimes that are needed … we need to bear that in mind,” he said.