Australian politics, society & culture

Beattie’s Babylon

John Birmingham

Medium length read3600 words
 

In February of 2004, as south-east Queensland sweated through a fourth year of drought, a small piece of Melbourne’s inner-city culture broke off and floated north to the grimy but groovy inner-city Brisbane suburb of West End. Think St Kilda of ten years ago, or Newtown with steam-press humidity and geckoes, and you’re part of the way there. West End is a sort of wildlife reserve for Brisbane’s surviving counterculture. Anarchists, lentil-eaters and ageing campaigners for an alternative vision of the Deep North can all be found there, sheltering from the summer heat and holding fast against the yuppie invasions that have turned the south bank of the Brisbane River into a developers’ wonderland.

Cover: June 2006
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Just up from the corner of Vulture and Boundary streets, where the short commercial strip of indie cafés and bars gives way to a remnant cluster of slumping, unrenovated wooden houses and the occasional Whitlam-era unit block, the West End Coffee House looks very much in character with its locale; much more so than the abandoned office of a high-tone real estate agency a few doors down. The company had attempted to lead a new-money charge into the old neighbourhood, only to crash and burn in April. For weeks the office sat almost empty, with just a few items of the grotesquely expensive fit-out left behind as a cautionary tale, including a beautifully polished chrome espresso machine.

Linda Parmenter, one half of the Coffee House crew, did eye off that baby, but the joint she runs with her brother Guy is a simple affair and wouldn’t lend itself to the Brave New World aesthetics of the failed property pimps. The West End Coffee House is a simple space of scuffed wooden floors, small tables and a basic menu. And, of course, great coffee. Moving back to Brisbane in early 2004, Linda had been unable to lay her hands on a decent cup. Long story short: she and Guy opened their own café.

At first blush it seems a sizeable thematic arc from the West End Coffee House to Premier Peter Beattie’s corner office, high up in the Executive Building on George Street, but in fact the trip is short and direct. Guy and Linda are typical of tens of thousands of Queenslanders who have moved back north of the Tweed after years of travel, bringing with them capital and skills, and turning Brisbane into the second-fastest growing city in the developed world. (Phoenix, Arizona shades the Queensland capital by virtue of a recent high-tech boom).

For Linda, the reasons for returning were simple. Like many in the army of prodigals, she had family and memory to call her back. “It’s where I grew up. You recognise everything. Where else would I go?”

Where else, indeed?

Peter Beattie has never set foot inside the West End Coffee House. In fact, setting foot inside the boundaries of West End proper would be a chancy game for him. Angry hippies still run free there: angry hippies with no sense of respect at all. He wouldn’t be allowed to drink his coffee in peace. But Beattie is a different kind of Queensland premier and, unlike his predecessors, he can deal.

“People have changed,” he smiles. “We have an openness here now. People can protest; about me, about anything.”

He is cherubic when he smiles, which he won’t thank me for writing, because he’s a demon for exercise these days and probably does not care for allusions to his, ahem, chunkiness problem of a few years back. All those long state dinners and business luncheons can sit heavily on a bloke if he isn’t careful. Beattie wasn’t, and it showed. But nowadays he walks the dog every morning, and on the weekend he and his wife hit some of the bike paths on which his government and the city council have spent nearly $200 million.

In explaining the wider importance of those bike paths, Beattie deploys some of the self-deprecating charm that has made him such a popular figure, at least until recently. When we met, he’d just returned from opening a conference about obesity, at which the federal health minister, Tony Abbott, had made it clear that he was deeply uninterested in constraining the freedom of junk-food retailers to advertise to children. I wondered aloud with the newly svelte Beattie whether that might be one of the few real remaining ideological differences between the mainstream parties: a fundamental disagreement over the relative merits of state versus private initiative.

“Sure, you’ve got to encourage people to take personal responsibility,” he said, “but if there are no footpaths in your housing estate, or you find it hard to access a playground or a park, or somewhere that’s going to have fresh food … Well, that’s different, isn’t it? So yes, people have to take responsibility, but we have to create an environment where that’s easier than it is now.”

Warming to his point, he turned in his chair and looked out of the window across the city lying below, tucked into the folds of the Brisbane River. For years Brisbane turned away from the sludgy, rank-smelling watercourse. A previous National Party government built the Riverside Expressway as a sort of Berlin Wall, forever locking the CBD away from the river. But the same administration, Bjelke-Petersen’s, then reclaimed it by locating the 1988 Expo on the south bank, and with one grand gesture re-imagined the river as the heart of the Queensland capital. Since then, billions of dollars in private development have created an effect not dissimilar to that of the harbour in Sydney, with foreshore exposure becoming an expensive luxury item. Private mansions, modern townhouses and enormous old woolstores converted into enormous new apartment complexes all attempt to muscle each other aside for a precious glimpse of brown water. Unlike Sydney, though, Brisbane has retained public access through many kilometres of walking and bike paths, some of them built at great expense on floating decks over the river.

“You build these things,” said Beattie, genuinely enthused, “and you suddenly get middle-aged people like my wife and I who discover riding bikes again. You see people out there walking, from the beautiful to the ugly …” He paused just long enough before adding, “and I fit into the ugly category.”

A boyish grin inevitably followed, instantly opening a synaptic pathway to a couple of lines I had just read in Martin Amis’s essay collection The Moronic Inferno. Pondering the success of Ronald Reagan, Amis attributed it to his mastery of the ingenuous. “It’s a celebration of good intentions and unexceptional abilities. His style is one of hammy self-effacement, a wry dismay at his own limited talents and their drastic elevation.”

In this way, Beattie’s everyman routine is much more convincing than that of, say, John Howard, who can’t really do winsome self-deprecation because it contrasts so starkly with his Hobbesian world view. Beattie has that rare gift of being able to speak in soundbites that transcribe into completely natural rhythms. Given the right audience, he can sound like any punter leaned up against any bar in the state.

“It’s like with TV,” he said, responding to Tony Abbott’s statements at the obesity gig. “See, Abbott doesn’t support limits on advertising, but if you look at the stats, where is most of the confectionary and fast food advertised? I think it’s somewhere in the vicinity of two-thirds of the ads for confectionary were in the children’s viewing timeslots. People can have personal choice, but what about little kiddies? Are they capable of making that choice? No, I don’t think they are. I think that’s a bullshit argument.”

So much of Beattie’s public speech takes this casual form, especially when dealing with crises, which have been coming thicker and faster of late, that it is often impossible to parse his rhetoric into core content and “bullshit argument”. In this way he shares an almost anti-rhetorical gift with Pauline Hanson, a woman for whom, unsurprisingly, he has no time or kind words.

“She is insular. She is Old Queensland.”

Old Queensland is bad Queensland.

It can be a touchy line of argument, but the new Queensland is Sydney. Every week Brisbane takes the wrapping off about seven hundred freshly minted Queenslanders. Most of them arrive as refugees from NSW; a smaller number, like the Parmenters of West End, come from Melbourne. The overseas arrivals are mainly from New Zealand, the UK and South Africa. And many Queenslanders are returning, having fled the state during its late Dark Age period, the 1980s. They bring with them billions of dollars in private capital, much of it made in the southern housing boom, but also plenty earned in the businesses they bring north with them. Beattie has a fondness for these people, be they prodigals or not. It is not simply the wealth they have transferred, but the political and cultural relativism that attends their arrival.

“They’re people in their thirties – young families, small-business people – with money to invest,” he explains. “Costs in Sydney are too high, so they’re coming here and they’re doing really well.”

More importantly, politically, they have an outsider’s perspective, even if they grew up in Queensland. The local health system crisis, which is a headline problem for Beattie, is no different from the crises being managed, or mismanaged, by every other state and territory government in the country. The demographic and infrastructure problems that plague Sydney are repeated in Brisbane, except that with an expanding revenue base and room to grow the city, Beattie has options that aren’t open to his New South Wales counterpart, Morris Iemma. A master plan for the south-east corner of the state has already laid out and funded $55 billion of public development that will be needed to accommodate the extra million people who will squeeze in there over the next two decades.

“This is an unpopular thing to say, because we like people from Melbourne,” he said, grinning. “But Melbourne is in the wrong part of Australia. Over the next hundred years Australia is going to move north, and that’s why places like Cairns, Townsville and Darwin will be become more important. Perth, too, because it’s closer to India. So we’re rebuilding all of our ports: not just Brisbane, but Gladstone, Townsville. Most of the cars coming into Australia will come in here because we’ve got the area set aside for it. We’re rebuilding the cruise terminal here in Brisbane, building another in Townsville and one at the Gold Coast. We’re putting a lot of money into infrastructure and we have the capacity to grow.

“Some of it will be controversial. We’re building two new dams, that’ll be controversial. Some of the local communities won’t like it. Of course they’re not gonna like it, but we’ll give ’em proper compensation. That debate’s going on right now. But if we don’t do it, we’re gonna have no water. That’s why the bill is so high. The plan was $55 billion when we released it. It’s probably $65 billion now. But one of the advantages for us is that a lot of people who’ve left Sydney understand exactly what we’re trying to do,” said Beattie. “You asked, does that change the place? Yes, it does. There are enough people now who know what it was like in Sydney, and know what we’re trying to do here.”

However, it’s not all upside.

Not all of the migrants are affluent, highly skilled graduates. A significant number of those rushing north are in flight from the outer-metropolitan areas of Sydney and Melbourne. As a demographic, they’re a challenge. Poorer, dumber and whiter than average, they threaten the prospect of a suntanned underclass in the years ahead, as unskilled jobs move offshore to China and India.

“They’ll kill us,” Beattie explained bluntly. “All that low-end stuff. China’s gonna kill us. The simple production stuff – we won’t complete. We’ve got to go for the high end. And why not? We’ve got good universities. Good education. We can be the California of Australia, but it all has to be built on innovation.”

Unfortunately, there is no room in this scenario for ill-equipped lumpenproles. To that end, Beattie’s government is spending a billion dollars on traineeships in a race to improve the skills of the local workforce before the Asian juggernauts crush them underfoot. When Beattie talked about what’s coming, his unadorned rhetoric shifts even further towards brutal simplicity.

“You stand still long enough and you’re dead. We are aggressive about trade opportunities in China and India: we have trade offices in three places in China. But [those countries are] gonna change the world. They’re already changing the world. We have to use our brains to compete, to add value. It’s the same with biotech and IT. We are innovative and have to be or we’ll be left behind … Look at what Singapore’s trying to do. They’re spending a fortune on this, but they don’t have the research capacity that we have in Australia.”

Beattie envisions a high-technology sunbelt stretching from the border with New South Wales up to Noosa, the Monte Carlo of the north and the last outpost of the great south-east. Anchored to emergent bio- and info-tech sectors, it would be a vast urban sprawl shot through with thick swathes of green forest reserve. At the moment, though, it’s a moot point whether Beattie will be in power to see it happen.

A year ago you could not find a more popular politician than Peter Beattie. He headed a government that seemed at last to have figured out the magic trick of transforming Queensland from a hillbilly dictatorship (to borrow from Evan Whitten) into a rich, sophisticated and culturally confident polity, while delivering a record budget surplus and keeping state government levies to a minimum. The conservative Opposition was in such disarray that it would have been cruel to credit them with even a delusion of adequacy.

And now? As the punk-pop group Shampoo sang in 1994, “Uh-oh, we’re in trouble.”

Success brings its own problems, and Beattie’s huge parliamentary majority brought with it one or two honourable members who might better have been left behind, such as Robert Poole, AKA the Invisible Man, who spent so much time in Thailand that Beattie was forced to demand his return (Poole eventually resigned in February). More seriously, long-term underfunding of the state’s public hospital system began to manifest in a series of crises and scandals, most notably in the case of Dr Jayant Patel, AKA Doctor Death, a dusky foreign villain from central casting whose gross incompetence may have killed up to 87 patients.

Beattie tried manfully to shift some of the blame for Patel away from his health department and minister, but without much success. For once, his legendary communications skills were not enough, although he didn’t help his cause by trying to claim some credit for cleaning up the mess. As he recently told Radio National’s Background Briefing, “Frankly, we opened up, lifted the lid on health where governments elsewhere haven’t, and our problems were associated with the fact that Australia hasn’t been training enough doctors. If you look at the heart of this, why did we have a Jayant Patel problem in Bundaberg? Because Australia hasn’t been training enough doctors, and because a lot of countries like Cuba, Armenia, Azerbaijan – all these places train, or have more doctors per head of population than us.”

It reeked of desperation, especially coming so soon after the Energex crisis of 2004, in which power supplies to Brisbane continually failed because the government had stripped 95% of the state-owned energy company’s profits, leaving no money for basic maintenance. The problems of growth, of resource scarcity, seemed to be metastasising, and rather than running an administration that was transforming Old Queensland into new, Beattie was being held responsible for the collapse of services that had been seen as a given by generations of Queenslanders. Nobody gives a shit about biotechnology if they can’t get a sick child into an emergency ward. And dreams of Silicon Valley in the subtropics come to nothing if the power goes out every day.

Beattie doesn’t have to face an election until 2007, giving him time to recover – or, alternately, allowing the pressures that have built up in south-east Queensland to wreak even more damage on his political fortunes. An avowed long-horizon man, he has no choice but to micromanage the immediate future if he wants to see his vision realised. Or at least, if he wants the credit for it.

“Of course, one day we’ll lose. I know that,” he said. “Maybe next time. Maybe the time after. It’s inevitable. But I think the cat’s out of the bag. You can’t wind all this back. You can’t take back innovation and openness.”

He insisted that the Liberals, not the Nationals, will lead the next conservative government in Queensland. For once, he didn’t smile, leading me to believe that there was a bit of three-card monte, with Beattie attempting to bamboozle and upset his conservative marks.

“I don’t think it will be a National Party government,” he said. “I think it’ll be a Liberal-led government. And frankly, that is a better alternative than having the Nationals run the show. They were the worst governments ever in Australia. If the Liberal Party wasn’t so hopeless here, they’d be in a much better position. I wouldn’t be happy about it, but I could understand that Queensland’s future would be in better hands – although not as good as Labor hands.”

With the Liberals reduced not so much to a parliamentary rump as to a boil on that rump, this seems an absurd provocation, but the Labor leader bases his argument in the changing demographics of south-east Queensland. All the population growth has been there, on the Gold and Sunshine coasts and running out through the western corridor into the plains around Ipswich. The next redistribution will create a swag of new seats in those areas, and they will all be fought out between the ALP and the Liberals.

“A lot of the people who’ve come from New South Wales have never voted National in their life, but they have voted Liberal. The last two elections they voted for my government in a landslide, then they voted for Howard’s government in a landslide. The same people,” he emphasised, sounding as though he was warning himself.

“When it comes to the test and we lose, I pray to god it won’t be to the Nationals. A Liberal-led coalition I won’t like, but at least they won’t stuff it up as bad as the Nats, because the Liberals actually believe in the ‘smart state’ as a philosophy. They won’t tell you that. They’ll re-badge it, but they’ll keep it. Because it’s all about rewarding innovation and creative skills, and the ability to have a go but be treated fairly.”

Beattie’s opposite number, the unsettlingly youthful National Party leader Lawrence Springborg, will be hoping that the punters treat him fairly as he has a red-hot go at knocking over the first real colossus Queensland politics has seen since the Bjelke-Petersen era. Springborg shares with Beattie a gift for speaking without sounding like he’s working really, really hard to remember his lines. And as the lights flicker on and off in south-east Queensland, traffic congestion heads towards the singularly awful and the health system lurches along like a Frankenstein metaphor, Springborg will be hoping that people remember what it was like when the place was run by agrarian socialists, instead of pretend ones. Sure, it was backward and grotesquely corrupt, but it worked, after a fashion.

Meanwhile, Beattie and his supporters will be praying that enough people who understand that severe growing pains are the flipside of fantastic growth have moved from more troubled urban environments to the subtropical sprawl of greater Brisbane. The senior Labor leader in Australia will not get his bedtime wish of seeing the Nationals disappear at the ballot box, but he is right about the changes wrought on his state in the past ten years. They are irreversible, and out of them is born a new world.

John Birmingham

John Birmingham is a writer. His books include He Died with a Felafel in His Hand, Leviathan and Final Impact. He blogs for the Brisbane Times and ABC Online.
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