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Thu, 28 Jul 2016

Award-winning author explores the ‘Empty North’

russell mcgregor

For 70 years after federation, Australians fretted over the “empty north” of their continent.

In a new book, a James Cook University professor has explored why they were worried and how their anxieties about Australia’s tropical regions shaped the self-image of the nation.

Multi-award winning author Russell McGregor, Adjunct Professor of History at JCU (pictured above), has written Environment, Race and Nationhood in Australia: Revisiting the Empty North.

The book offers a timely and compelling account of why past generations of Australians saw the north as an empty land and why those past perceptions matter. It explores the environmental misgivings that still run through debates about northern Australia.

Anxieties over the north flowed from many sources: from fears of invasion and moral qualms about leaving resources lying idle; from apprehensions about white nationhood coming under international censure, and misgivings about the natural attributes of the north. This book tells how those fears and anxieties swirled through the national imagination during the first 70 years of the twentieth century.

It also charts Australians’ changing appreciations of the natural environments of the north, their shifting attitudes toward race and their unsettled conceptions of Asia.

“One of the themes of the book is the repetitiveness of development proposals in northern Australia: the same sorts of proposals for developing the north kept recurring over the previous century, along with the same misgivings about those proposals. And much the same proposals and misgivings continue to surface in today's rhetoric about developing the north.”

Professor McGregor’s Awards

  • 2012 - NSW Premier's Prize for Australian History
  • 2012 - Shortlisted for Prime Minister's Prize for Australian History
  • 1998 Australian Historical Association's W.K. Hancock Prize


  • Research Fellow, Cairns Institute
  • 1997 - Australian Studies Fellow, Eotvos Lorand University, Budapest
  • 2016 to 2017 - David Scott Mitchell Fellowship at the Mitchell Library, Sydney

The book can be ordered from the Palgrave Macmillan website or bookshops.


For interviews: Professor Russell McGregor, tel 0434 178 899

JCU Media contact: Caroline Kaurila tel: (07) 4781 4586 or 0437 028 175