Australian politics, society & culture

There’s Something About Mary

The Politics of Water in the Sunshine State

John Harms

Medium length read3600 words
 

On the night of 26 April this year, Kaili Parker-Price was driving home towards the family farm, just outside the little town of Imbil in Queensland's Mary Valley. The energetic and public-spirited Parker-Price had been at a meeting of Networking With Mary, a group intent on promoting the region to make it as well known as the Hunter or the Barossa.

The Mary Valley is truly beautiful: its fertile alluvial flatlands and undulating hills make it some of the finest dairy country in Australia, the sort of country that appears on TV ads for butter. Strong rain in the surrounding ranges drains into a series of creeks which flow into the Mary River. Sometimes heavy and sustained summer falls test the water system; in years past, towns downstream, especially Gympie, have been flooded. The last major flood was in 1999.

Cover: September 2006
September 2006
A documentary collection
Robert Manne
Joe Boyd’s 'White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s'
Robert Forster
Writing ‘Ordinary People’s Politics’
Judith Brett
The Politics of Water in the Sunshine State
John Harms
Delia Falconer
Kate Holden
David Corlett
Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz

Farmers have done well in this valley for generations, and newer residents, seeking a green change, have also helped the region prosper. Kaili Parker-Price was feeling confident that the future was rosy; that all could benefit from the economic development and tourism that her group was trying to foster.

When she was close to home, the 10 pm news came on. "They said that Peter Beattie was going to dam the Mary River," Parker-Price recalls. "I just went, ‘What! This can't be true.'" By the time she got in her front door, the phone was ringing. No one could believe the news: the announcement had come out of the blue.


The following day, Beattie was flown over the site in a helicopter. At the Gympie airport, he announced to a media scrum that a major dam was to be constructed on the Mary River. The wall would be built at Traveston Crossing, 16 kilometres south of Gympie, and the dam would make a significant contribution to south-east Queensland's water supply. This was a development for the greater good. Just as it had in the 1860s, when gold was discovered, Gympie would save Queensland; the sacrifice of a few Mary Valley people would benefit the whole state.

The locals were shocked. About 7600 hectares (a surface area 1.3 times that of Sydney Harbour) of prime farming land would be lost. Many properties would be resumed - taken over by the government - and then inundated, affecting about 2000 people. Families in low-lying areas knew their lands would be flooded; those on the slopes wondered where the water level would finish.

Jayleen Morgan, a third-generation valley resident, says her family was devastated by the news. She and her husband, Ian, have always lived in the district; their three daughters, now away studying and working, had grown up on their farm. The Morgans have deep connections with the land: the valley is their place; their sense of themselves is woven into it. "We were upset to the core," she says.

But it wasn't only the prospect of losing the place they loved; it was also the total lack of consultation. "We hadn't heard anything. There was no indication whatsoever that this dam was planned," Morgan says. "It was unbelievable. There was anger and confusion. Anger at the way it was done; confusion as to how it was going to affect us. What was our position? We just didn't know. How could someone put people through this turmoil?"


That someone, Peter Beattie, is the focus of the Mary Valley community's ire. Drive around the valley today and you'll see hundreds of homemade protest signs: "Delete Pete", "Peter Who", "Cyclone Beattie floods 900 homes".

Over his years in office, Beattie has employed the I'm-an-ordinary-Queenslander-just-like-you style of politics which seems to work so well in the Sunshine State. And he is an ordinary Queenslander: he uses everyday language, has a healthy suspicion of Canberra, likes Rugby League and wears a big hat. Like John Wayne and Clint Eastwood - like Wayne Bennett - he exudes a homespun wisdom which makes his constituents feel that he knows what is right. Beattie doesn't make things more complicated than they need to be. He has overseen a boom in Queensland: migration from the southern states, consistent economic growth, general prosperity.

When something has gone wrong, Peter Beattie has ridden into town and, in his cut-the-crap way, fixed things up. He has taken personal responsibility for Queensland; when things have gone wrong, has been willing to shoulder the blame. When Terry Mackenroth resigned, Beattie became caretaker treasurer. When the Dr Death debacle was exposed at the Bundaberg Hospital a year ago, he took over the health portfolio.

At the beginning of the year, Beattie's responsibility to supply his citizens with water became a major political problem. South-east Queensland had been in drought for nearly seven years. Dams were down to less than 30 per cent capacity, and the figure was still dropping - some dams were nothing more than sludge. A crisis wasn't far away. Beattie started to blame local government for the water problems, accusing mayors of neglecting to implement long-term water strategies. The mayors struck back, blaming the state government.

When Brisbane was placed on Level 3 water restrictions, which meant that gardens could only be watered with buckets, people started to ask questions. Brisbanites think of their city as a sub-tropical paradise of water, lush green lawns, rambling creepers and hibiscus. Theirs is a wet-summer mindset: thunderstorms and rain depressions near Fraser Island, monsoonal troughs and deep lows (which might turn into cyclones) off Cairns. There has always been plenty of rain: rain which caused the '74 floods, when much of Brisbane was ten feet under water; rain which for years prevented Queensland from winning the Sheffield Shield, even though in every season they led the table at Christmas.

After the massive Wivenhoe Dam was opened in 1985, authorities gloated that Brisbane people would be forever safe from floods, and would never know a water shortage. But now their dams were turning drought-brown.


Peter Beattie waited for the wet season. He knew that if the usual rain fell in February and March, the issue would subside. But it just wouldn't rain, and an election was less than a year away. If it didn't rain by then, people would have no lawn, and they'd be watering the geraniums with grey water from the shower.

A solution that was popular, obvious and simple was needed. Recycling is neither simple nor popular, but dams are. Beattie needed a site for a dam that was close and large enough to convince voters it would make a difference to the city's water supply. And he had little to lose in the Mary Valley: the electorates affected weren't Labor seats, and there's an old adage in politics that you can't lose a seat twice.

There's no doubt that Beattie knew he'd get a terrible reaction from those locals affected by the Traveston Crossing dam, but he probably didn't bank on the organised and rational response that came from Mary Valley. A meeting was immediately held on the property of Rick Elliot, a former lieutenant-colonel in the army, who, along with his wife, Carol, had set up a Dexter cattle stud a few years before. They organised an urgent public rally, from which the Save the Mary River Coordinating Group was formed. A couple of days later, 1500 people gathered in Kandanga, a picturesque town with a population of 400, to voice their protest.

The group knew they had to first try to persuade Beattie that he'd made a poor decision. Arguments focusing on the emotional and spiritual upheaval the dam would cause were unlikely to succeed. They needed to prove their case: this was a bad dam, and alternative water strategies had more merit. If this failed, they needed the support of the electorate, to which they could appeal by demonstrating that some of the tenets of the democratic process had been ignored.

The group lobbied state, federal and local representatives, and formed alliances with environmental organisations. It saturated local and state media, and started petitions. On 28 May, the Flotilla of Hope, which involved people paddling canoes down the Mary River (led by Bob Brown), won national coverage. Poems and songs were recorded, then broadcast by local radio stations; a website, savethemaryriver.com, brought wider attention, while offering information, advice and support for locals. Unlikely political alliances were formed: people who had voted One Nation in previous elections were siding with the Greens. Beattie, meanwhile, maintained his unyielding position, insisting that the dam would be built and taking out full-page advertisements in the Courier-Mail to explain his position.

Information nights organised by the state government failed to satisfy locals. The Department of Natural Resources sent officials who were largely unable to answer the questions asked of them about the process of selecting the site, the evaluation and resumption of properties, and financial support to relocate homes and businesses.

Eventually Peter Beattie had to face the furious Mary Valley community. In Gympie on 4 July, around 2500 people gathered to confront him. As Beattie rose to speak, they all turned their backs. He was visibly shaken. After regaining his composure, he stood for over four hours, responding to questions and comments. It took courage, though Kaili Parker-Price says he couldn't have left if he'd wanted to. "There was this incredible tension in the [place]," she recalls. "The people from round here don't say much. They just do what they do. And here they were, having their say. It was scary. The outpouring of grief was so upsetting."

The locals left feeling even angrier, with the sense that they were being used cynically. One of them, Alan Sheridan, lives with his family in the affected area. Straight away, he puts the dam decision into its broader political context. "It was very clear," he argues. "There was an election due. People [in Brisbane] were asking questions about a looming water crisis. The government had to be seen to be doing something. Dams appeal to the broader population. This was aimed at Brisbane electorates."

Parker-Price, for her part, was becoming more upset by the day. She grew up in the '70s on a share farm just east of Gympie. Her family used tank water for the house and water from their small dam for the yard and the small crops. It was typical rural Australia: the kids, one after another, in the same inch of water in the bath; thank the good Lord for any rain. She could see the awful irony of the Mary Valley situation: "For years we've been conscious of water here. Always. We're more in tune with the cycle of weather. We know what can happen. Down in Brisbane they just expect to turn the tap on. Yet we're the ones getting flooded out."

Her words are echoed by John and Ivy "Chris" Carter, who run the Mountjoy Droughtmaster Stud. Chris finds it ludicrous that a government official would be advising them on good water policy. "You want to know how to manage water?" she said at one public meeting. "Well, ask a farmer. We've been doing it for years."

Many of these residents have been thrust into the political process for the first time. There is a natural conservatism in the valley, as in many parts of Queensland. Such a view sees ordinary life - earning, spending, having a family, going to war - as apolitical, and any deviation from that as political. Apart from taking away the place - the life - that she loves, the proposed dam has had a broader effect on Kaili Parker-Price. "This has shattered everything I believed in," she says tearfully. "I am conservative, politically. So I thought that things just went on the way they did - and that was fine. I was politically naive; I thought people were in positions because they deserved to be there, and they'd do the right thing. The dam has been a real maturing for me."


Cate Molloy is the ALP member for Noosa. She is opposed to the Traveston Crossing dam and has made her views known, even though the Mary Valley isn't part of her electorate. "Dams are 1950s technology," she argues. "We need to explore all other possibilities before we build dams. When they built the nearby Paradise Dam [on the Burnett River], I questioned the minister. And, like Paradise, Traveston is not a good dam." However, she had no opportunity to debate the proposed dam in caucus. "This was an administrative decision made by the executive arm of government," Molloy explains. "They then informed the mini-caucus and then caucus. There was no vote."

"After speaking with good people [from the valley] I was moved by compassion for them," she says. "I told the premier that I thought we needed to explore and exhaust all other options before we commit to this dam." Having struggled with her decision, she informed the premier that she could not vote for the dam in parliament.

When she addressed a demonstration outside the state conference of the ALP, in early July this year, Molloy's political fate was sealed: she was disendorsed as a Labor candidate. She hasn't spoken to Peter Beattie since. "This situation needn't have happened if the premier had been more circumspect," she claims. "The determination to build this dam is bloody-minded politics. He has shown an enormous lack of emotional intelligence in all of this." Molloy has not resigned from the party.


In the days following the ALP state conference, landholders who will be affected by the dam received a letter formally advising them of the situation. The government would buy their properties at full value and then lease them back at just $1000 per year until such time as the dam was completed, which is estimated to be 2011.

A few people thought this a terrific deal and were more than happy to sell up and move on immediately, or even in 2011, but most didn't. They wanted to stay on, but found themselves in limbo. Was the dam really going ahead, or was it just a political stunt? Was it worth continuing to develop your property while the fight was on? Some still want to stay, yet are selling up because they find the uncertainty too stressful.

Those who are fighting the dam know that they have to be pragmatic. They have to engage in the process outlined by the government and be prepared in case the dam does go ahead. "It's divide-and-conquer," Kaili Parker-Price says. "If some [locals] are going, it makes it even more difficult. It creates a momentum, and that's just what they [the government] want."


After Henry Palasczcuk, the minister responsible for Queensland's water, made a number of gaffes regarding the selection of the Mary Valley dam site, he was removed from the portfolio. In stepped the premier, assuming ministerial responsibility. Beattie's photo then appeared on the front page of the Sunday Mail of 6 August. Standing in front of the parched Wivenhoe Dam, he really looked like John Wayne. The following day he declared a state of water emergency, giving him greater powers, and he made peace with the local mayors. There were rumours that he was going to call an early election: the whisper was that the day would be 9 or 23 September.

The protesters continued their challenge, questioning the legality of the dam. Alan Sheridan, a civil engineer with vast experience in water provision in the Pacific region and who now holds a senior position with the Noosa Council, is one believes the government's plan is suspect. "I'm certain due process hasn't been followed," he says. "This dam has never appeared in planning documents. As late as March this year, the state government released a fact sheet regarding the raising of the Borumba Dam ... We still want to know what the basis is for this decision. Where are the environmental assessments, the cultural assessment, the cost-benefit analysis, the cost-effectiveness studies, the impact statements? What is the rationale for the decision? Where are the documents comparing this with the alternatives? How was the recommendation made? We just want to see some of these things."

There is other evidence to suggest that the government's decision was rushed. Over the last year, considerable money has been spent on plans to upgrade the Bruce Highway. According to the Save the Mary River Coordinating Group, some of the places where money has been spent will be inundated by the dam, and significant powerlines will have to be rerouted.


The protesters mount numerous arguments against the dam. For a start, it will destroy good farming land, and it is pointless to build a new dam when existing ones are failing: if weather patterns are changing and there is now less rain, how will the valley's dam ever be filled? Despite a huge wall - 79 metres high and about a kilometre long - the dam will be spread out and shallow, so evaporation will be a problem. Then there is the risk of contamination from industrial sites; there are engineering issues, and other saddle dams will also have to be built; the towns of Kandanga and Imbil may have to be dyked. Not to mention the amount of money it will require: Sheridan claims the government has provided only a gross underestimation of the dam's total expense, ignoring the cost of new roads in the valley.

There are alternatives. Steven Lang, a writer (his novel An Accidental Terrorist was recently on the Miles Franklin long-list) and bookshop proprietor in the region, is somewhat critical of the way farmers have exploited the Mary River - regarding it as an economic resource - but he is sympathetic to their cause. He argues that if the government provided every home with a 45,000-litre water tank, average rainfall would fill it twice a year, providing almost as much water as the proposed dam. Desalination plants have also been proposed. And, while the referendum to recycle water and treated sewerage failed in Toowoomba, Courier-Mail surveys show that there is support for such an initiative in Brisbane: one poll indicated that 66% of residents are in favour of recycling water.


There is, however, something that is more likely to impede Peter Beattie's grand plan. The Mary River system is home to a number of rare and endangered species: the Mary River turtle, the Mary River cod and the Queensland lungfish. Dr Eve Fesl, a Gubbi Gubbi elder and an anthropologist and linguist who has taught at Monash and Griffith universities, is concerned about the fate of the lungfish, the sacred fish of the Gubbi Gubbi people, which they call Dala. It is found only in the already dammed Burnett River and the Mary River. "My people were made custodians of Dala, and we have cared for this fish for tens of thousands of years," she explains. "We are not going to let Dala die off now. Its only viable habitat is the Mary River. We must stop this dam."

Fesl is not the only person with an interest in the lungfish. In fact, the rare fish, which can live for a hundred years and grow to 1.5 metres in length, may be the best hope of the Mary Valley protesters. Jean Joss, professor of biological sciences at Macquarie University, has committed her research life to the study of the lungfish and its use in understanding human evolution. "The lungfish is of vital importance to the whole world," she argues. "It is a very old species. It hasn't changed in 150 million years. It is one of only eight species which make up the group of fish which gave rise to land vertebrates. It has a lung. And the early development of the internal skeleton of the fin resembles the internal skeleton of the human arms and legs. Its genome is twenty times the size of the human genome."

Evidence shows that the damming of the lungfish's only other habitat, the Burnett River, has reduced numbers. Joss is applying to have the fish classified as critically endangered, while also campaigning to make people aware of its crucial scientific value. News of the proposed dam has spread among the world's biologists and zoologists. Remarkably, its potential impact on the lungfish has been reported internationally in numerous publications, from Nature magazine to a Finnish newspaper, and articles have been commissioned for New Scientist and the New York Times.

If Joss is successful and the classification is changed, the lungfish will be protected by law and the dam will be challenged in the courts. The Mary Valley protesters' case will be far stronger.


On 15 August Peter Beattie announced the date for the state election: 9 September. It was probably the first time in Queensland politics that the Nationals were hoping it wouldn't rain. Their leader, Lawrence Springborg, announced that a Coalition government would scrap the Traveston Dam project. Beattie, of course, remains determined to build it.

At the Railway Hotel in Imbil, an old bushie nurses a beer and strokes his long wispy beard. On the bar sits a jar with a sign that reads "Put a Pin in Pete". Pay 50 cents and you'll get a pin which you can stick into the Beattie rag doll hanging on the wall. The bloke looks up and says, "There's a lot in his arsehole, mate."

The residents here feel that their lives have been hijacked. "You think about it all the time," says Kaili Parker-Price. "All normal conversation has gone out the window. You can't go anywhere and talk about anything - except the dam." For some, the issue has been too much and they have left the area. "We're not angry anymore," Jayleen Morgan, who is still living in the valley, says. "Just sad. Overwhelmingly sad."

Yet still they fight on. And despite the many arguments against the dam, it could be an ancient fish, neoceratodus forsteri, which once crawled from the water onto the land, that will save the Mary River. Peter Beattie may yet be stopped from building his dam - though perhaps he has understood this all along.