Western Australia's Ord River Irrigation Scheme has been controversial since its establishment more than twenty-five years ago. A substantial expansion of the scheme, known as Ord Stage Two, is currently underway as a joint project of the Western Australian and Northern Territory governments. In this study I examine and compare Stages One and Two in the context of the significant social and economic changes that have occurred during this period, focusing on attitudes to, and conceptualisations of, nature and the human place in it. Despite a context in which consideration of both Aboriginal and environmental issues is now integrated into the development process, three colonial themes persist in the rhetoric of Stage Two. These are the empty landscape, the invisible Aborigine, and the idealisation of agricultural land use. When expressed together these three help to naturalise the development process as both inevitable and strategically implemented. The contradictions inherent in this process enhance existing doubts about the social and ecological sustainability of continuing attempts to 'develop' Australia's north.