Australian politics, society & culture

Queensland. What is It?

To understand the place you must first understand the Bundaberg Bear

John Harms

Long read9500 words
 

Sarge, a Sunshine Coast solicitor, was born in the north. He grew up knocking around the beaches outside Sarina. He loves the weather and the water. And fishing. He’s going out on his boat tomorrow. Tomorrow’s Tuesday. He talks about his kids and the carpet snake that lives in his shed. He loves the old Queensland but he says it has changed. “The joint is full of bloody southerners these days,” he says. “They’re looking for a lifestyle. Most of them are running away from something. They’re either damaged or they’re re-inventing themselves. We call it The Coonabarabran Transformation. They sell the house, buy the big car and head north. Somewhere deep in the Pilliga, the postal clerk from Doncaster becomes a retired brigadier. He grows a moustache and he’s a new man by the time he’s in Noosa.”

Cover: October 2005
October 2005
Andrew Stafford
Edmund Campion
Kerryn Goldsworthy
Mungo MacCallum
The last word on Mark Latham, the man everyone is hearing but no one is listening to
Robert Manne
Keith Miller, and the struggle to capture him on paper
Ramachandra Guha
Falling for Nana Mouskouri
Robert Forster
The thin veneer of his characters' self-command makes him exciting to watch. Russell Crowe and the art of violence.
Helen Garner
Catherine Ford
Can a thoughtful Dutchman who is worshipped in Korea take the Socceroos to the 2006 World Cup?
Simon Kuper
To understand the place you must first understand the Bundaberg Bear
John Harms

Sarge is firing up. “Noosa is the re-invention capital of the universe. It’s all a facade. The houses are like a Western movie set. Big fronts and nothing behind them. And the pricks are furtively pulling cans of Home Brand baked beans off the shelves so they can pay their mortgages. It’s all so self-conscious. They are looking for a dream but they won’t find it here.”

Queensland. What is it? The answer seems so obvious: Queensland is a state of Australia with nice weather and fabulous beaches. But it’s not obvious. Say the word again: “Queensland.” Already it has taken you somewhere else. Queensland is a place, a people, a history, a climate, an architecture. But it is also a mood, a feeling, a spirit, a state of mind. It is known for its political eccentrics, its down-on-the-farm conservatism, its parochial uncomplicated people and its get-the-big-bulldozer economy. Yet it has produced radicals and ratbags, artists and thinkers.

I’ll say it one more time: “Queensland.” And now I’m smiling like a fool. I’m thinking of winter mornings, sitting in the bay window of an old rented Queenslander, with a cuppa, reading, sunshine streaming in. Muggy January evenings of verandah beers and mosquito coils, TV cricket in the background and the lightning getting closer. Warm rain. The grass growing as you look at it. The compost heap almost too hot to touch. Possums. And flying foxes feasting on mangoes. “That’s so Queensland,” you hear people say. But what do they mean? You can’t analyse Queensland if you want to get close to understanding it. You can only observe and participate in it.

I’m sitting in a Qantas plane on the Tullamarine tarmac, thinking about the adventure ahead: a three-week tour of Queensland. It is nine degrees outside. “Subtly,” a voice blurts out, “all aircraft are different.” Qantas started in Queensland – in outback Queensland. Just another thing that doesn’t really sit with the southern view of Queensland. Just another piece of paradox in the puzzle.

 

I have a relationship with Queensland. It’s not an affair – it has gone on too long for that – but it’s not a marriage either. Queensland is not my mother: it is too harsh. Nor is it my father: it lacks a wise calm. I was born in Queensland, in a little town called Chinchilla, four hours west of Brisbane. My mother is a Queenslander, a fourth-generation Queenslander, who grew up on a potato farm at Tent Hill, outside Gatton. They grew spuds and watermelons and whatever there was a quid in. They battled. They lived in an old Queenslander with trees and a large garden, a running creek out the back – with a platypus. There were six kids. Although Mum was a top student Granpa couldn’t afford to keep her at boarding school beyond Junior. So she joined the bank. And married my father, a southerner, young.

Before my first birthday we moved to Wangaratta in Victoria, and later to Shepparton. Occasionally we would drive to Queensland for holidays. To the beach. And to visit relatives. I remember staying with Uncle Stan on his cabbage farm in the Lockyer Valley. He had massive hands and deep cracks in his feet – still has, only now he’s gone fishing on Fraser Island. At Uncle Stan’s we had to use the outhouse with its dunny can, wooden seat and squares of newspaper (“We’ve run out of corn cobs”). That was about 1968.

I did lots of Victorian things, like follow the football. And just when I thought I was Victorian we returned to the Darling Downs, to the town of Oakey, west of Toowoomba. I was ten. My Victorian classmates laughed when I said I was going to Queensland. “They play rugby,” they said. “They can’t even spell BEER. They have to call it XXXX.”

Queensland certainly felt different. A bit old. I remember my first day at Oakey Primary, a school established in 1874. It was a standard colonial government structure on stilts, with a staircase up to the main building. I was in Grade 5. The boys lugged ports on their backs and wore old-style hats, which they put on hat-racks. Very few wore shoes. They had big Adam’s apples and 1945 haircuts: short back and sides, with the sides almost shaved. The girls wore bloomers, Granny Clampett bike pants in blue with a yellow trim. For modesty. You could see the yellow sticking out below their school dresses. The class sat at ancient desks with ink-well holes, and when the teacher asked for their attention they sat bolt upright with their arms folded.

I grew to love it. Our Grade 6 classroom, with high ceilings and tongue and groove walls, had a fireplace. The bell was rung by hand. The kids who “did the bell” knew they had to ring it at the right moment in the morning, but the teachers didn’t mind them being a few minutes late after lunch. We played cricket and rugby league, and tennis with flat tennis balls. We had a fife band led by Mudguts Hudson, and I’d set the beat with the bass drum. By the end of high school I had worked out there was an old Oakey. Local. Closed. Uncomplicated. Wary. We had a class of 120 Grade 10s. Only 30 went on to Grade 11 and 26 finished Senior, as it’s called. I liked Oakey but I always knew I would move on.

In 1980 I enrolled at the University of Queensland. Back then Brisbane was very much old Queensland. The Glen Hotel was halfway to the Gold Coast. It is now part of a suburb, and not even near the outskirts of what has become a ridiculous sprawl. The southern migration was just starting. I got a (very average) arts degree and stayed. I didn’t make a decision to stay. I just did. And apart from a year in Adelaide and a year in Europe, Brisbane was home for 20 years. It was pleasant enough.

Two years ago we moved to Melbourne. Not to escape Brisbane. But to experience Melbourne. Just for 12 months. We have learnt about living in a big city and what else is possible. We have learnt about cooler weather and the indoor life. And we haven’t returned. Yet. Time away has confirmed what I knew: that Queensland is different. But what does that mean?

I watch the Melbourne of my imagination disappear under low clouds. Urbane Melbourne, where conversation matters, where people take an interest in what is going on and have a pride in the culture they inherited and are adding to. It is a place that has lived up to my expectations. I don’t think it’s home. I’m flying north but I don’t feel like I’m going home either. I do feel like I’m going to a place I have a great affection for.

I start reading Pig City, Andrew Stafford’s history of the Brisbane music scene since the The Saints first hit the pubs in the mid-’70s. It places music in the context of the times. Joh. The National Party. Outrageous legislation. Police powers (and occasional brutality). The quelling of dissent. The cavalier attitude to due process. The failure of leaders to comprehend the very political system of which they were custodians. Anti-intellectualism. Bigotry. Racism. The demolition of cultural heritage. The sheer spiritual torpor. The Queensland I grew up in.

The book celebrates the phenomenon whereby, out of this apparently stultifying culture, emerges artistic talent like The Go-Betweens, a pop band, who wrote in their song “Lee Remick”: “She comes from Ireland, she’s very beautiful / I come from Brisbane, and I’m quite plain.” Of course, they left Brisbane. So did Tex Perkins, another muso. “Brisbane,” said Perkins, “you have to leave. You come out of your mother, you go to school and you think, oh shit, what am I doing here?” The Go-Betweens eventually came back and are now part of a body of evidence that enables the burghers of Queensland to re-state their “Brisbane has come of age” mantra. The 1982 Commonwealth Games was Brisbane’s coming of age. Expo 88 was Brisbane’s coming of age. Outdoor dining was Brisbane’s coming of age.

We fly up the Tweed Valley, Coolangatta to the right. Burleigh Heads. Highrise forever. Surfers Paradise. A strip of holiday-makers and deal-makers, fundamentalist Christians and aromatherapists. Across the canefields of Woongoolba. Over the urban sprawl. This is new Brisbane. So many southerners have moved north over the past 30 years that the population of Queensland’s south-east has doubled. People have come in search of opportunities. And the place has changed. This new Queensland, the Queensland of the south-east corner, has altered the old. We bank over Moreton Bay and land. Stepping off the plane you feel the midday warmth: 24 degrees. I’m in Queensland. I know this feeling.

The taxi driver talks rugby league. He is one of those punters you used to see at the Gabba greyhounds. The river is bluer and Brisbane is looking neat. I am invited to Wordpool, a sort of weekly literary cabaret at the Irish Club. Matt Foley, Queensland’s former attorney-general and arts minister, is MC. Local councillor Kelly Rae speaks. She is thrilled that Brisbane now has a creative life. She tells us she is a reader. She has just finished the latest Harry Potter. I am waiting for what comes next, and I am not disappointed. “Brisbane,” she says, “has grown up.” It’s not quite the words of the mantra, but I don’t have to wait long. Madonna Duffy, publisher at University of Queensland Press, assures us: “There is a fabulously supportive writing community in Brisbane.” And then the mantra, precisely. “Brisbane has come of age.”

Next morning is warm and sunny. I pick up my car, a VW Beetle convertible, from near the Breakfast Creek Hotel. It’s a beauty. Cream. With New South Wales number plates. The perfect vehicle for a road trip. But the Beetle needs a name. After a few top-down kilometres I realise he’s definitely a he, and he strikes me as a little aloof, barely tolerant of the driver. I am reminded of the butler in Arthur. I call him Gielgud.

Gielgud takes me to New Farm, right next to The Valley. I drive down Brunswick Street where once, on my way to the old Village Twin theatre, I saw a trannie in a white mini-skirt and top, bent over working on the engine of an old EH. All 6ft 3in of him, in high heels. The stately old Catholic presbytery sits among shady trees. I have an appointment with Archbishop John Bathersby, whom I have never met, but I reckon he has the old Queensland in him and an intellect that allows him to articulate what that means. I am happy to hear his confession. “I feel like a Queenslander,” he confesses. “I love that rather laid-back Queensland culture and laid-back Queensland person.”

The Archbishop was born in Stanthorpe just before the war. His father was an SP bookie who won the Golden Casket – a state-run lottery that helped fund the free hospital system – and bought a pub. The Archbishop grew up with rugby league and cricket and horseracing and was surrounded by real characters. He says of Queensland: “I think the isolation reinforced the mild eccentricity of the people growing up there … And the lack of transport bred a type of local community in which you knew everyone. I can go up to Stanthorpe Cemetery and see the graves. My father’s there, and the guys side by side, just like when they were drinking around the bar together.”

He starts talking about Stanthorpe blokes like Craney Lake and Jimmy Mann, always looking for ways to make slow racehorses quicker. The Archbishop mimics Jimmy’s voice: “We’d seen someone else give a bottle of whisky to a horse. So I said, ‘We’ll give it a go.’ So we gave the bottle of whisky to the horse. When we put the jockey on, the horse went at the knees. They got him to the barrier but when they jumped he was left behind. He circled the field but in the straight he started pig-rooting and the field went past.” They had to find a different method.

The Archbishop remembers Queensland’s little brother syndrome. There was a sense, he says, that Queensland was not as developed as the southern states. There wasn’t the same regard for education: he went to Brisbane to study, then to Banyo Seminary, and then to the Vatican where he got his doctorate. There was, however, a fierce sense of community, a pride in the Queensland type. The Archbishop came back. “There’s a great love of Queensland, of the huge expanse of Queensland, a great love of the variety of Queensland, and the climate of Queensland, and of the beaches.”

Gielgud takes me to lunch at the Regatta Hotel where I catch up with some old Queenslanders from my uni days. Geoff’s family were Scottish immigrants in the 1850s. “The future of Queensland,” he once told me, “is in airconditioning.” And went on to explain that there will not be a culture of ideas in Queensland until such time as the weather is tamed. “It’s very well-known that the closer a place is to the equator, the less civilised the society.”

Thankfully the come-of-age mantra is not spoken. This bunch are too cynical. They want rare steak and red wine. They’re slinging off at the ineptitude of the government and the failure of the health system. They’re disappointed that the Regatta has been so pristinely renovated. The public bar used to be tiled, and when we were at uni the tile on the very corner of the verandah fell off. The gap was blackened in with Niko pen or its 1980 equivalent. This blackened tile was deemed THE CENTRE OF THE UNIVERSE. Since the renovations, the spot no longer exists.

I thought we were lost in the cosmos.

 

On a sunny Monday I head out along Coronation Drive, past the Royal Exchange Hotel in the inner suburb of Toowong. When I first went to uni there was a sawmill opposite the pub – barely two miles from the centre of town. In those days the beer garden had a dirt floor and an old trumpet vine had wound its way through the timber structure, which resembled a pergola. One of the barmaids, Madge, had no teeth, and when P.J. Keightley – who always wore the same pair of all-purpose, maroon-coloured, nipple-soled golf shoes – got far enough into his dentistry degree he made a set for her. The RE was very old Queensland. You almost expected a tram to come around the corner and a few blokes to jump off with their Gladstone bags and dive in for a couple before walking home for tea. It’s changed now: all neat and over-designed and the bar-staff in monogrammed polo shirts. With pokies.

Gielgud takes me up the hill to Elizabeth Street, where I lived in a share house, a Queenslander on stilts which used to be overgrown with a red-flowering creeper and that same trumpet vine. There was the mandatory jacaranda, a pink cassia and a golden shower, with its cascading yellow and its long seed-pods – brilliant for the barbecue. On to Accession Street in the next suburb, Bardon, home of another old Queenlander I lived in. It has been renovated and the new owners have had the Gympie messmates cut down. They were towering gums. And they’ve planted hedges. That light green hedge. Backed by that reddish-maroon hedge. And the mock orange. All ordered. All clipped.

It seems like everyone in Brisbane spends their time renovating. Everything is so neat, and growing in value. There are streets where every house is having something done to it, and the owners are relieved once the topiary goes in and they can sit back and think about what they’ll do next. And wait for some home-improvement show to tell them. It’s like someone has told an adolescent to clean up their room. Out with the lush. Out with the rampant creeper sneaking in the bedroom window. Out with the chaos.

My brother lives in a renovated street. “What is it with Brisbane and hedges these days?” I ask him.

“Well,” he explains, “we all bought hedge clippers, so we had to plant hedges.”

I pass the new Lang Park, now a world-class stadium, and much more than a simple renovation of the old Lang Park. This is the spiritual home of rugby league. And rugby league is a key part of old Queensland. It is the old football – the community football of three generations – which helps link city and country. I drive past the Exhibition Grounds which are about to come to life. The Ekka, Brisbane’s annual show, starts Thursday. I head north along Bruce Highway. Past pineapple farms with the Glasshouse Mountains behind them. Past chugging caravans. I can feel the perspiration in the middle of my back. The ABC tells me it’s the anniversary of Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s rise to office. He became premier on 8.8.68. I hit the Sunshine Coast, where flags are in the sand at Alexandra Headlands, two surfies strapping their boards to a red station wagon.

Busy Maroochydore is where I have lunch with Sarge, the solicitor, another old uni mate. What does he think of this assertion that Queensland is becoming increasingly sophisticated? Is the Sunshine Coast more sophisticated? Sarge laughs. “Sophisticated! One of the local members proudly affirmed her virginity in her maiden speech. Didn’t do much for sophistication, but suddenly the frontbench had a new political challenge.” He elaborates some more. “They want it to be a big city. The funniest thing are the traffic reports on radio. For nearly 20 years they’ve hired a chopper so that some fucken idiot can say the same thing every day: ‘Perfect morning in Godzone country. Fantastic up here in the Cool Pools Chopper. Traffic’s moving freely on all major arterials. Fuckin’ Sid Snot for Cool Pools.’”

Gielgud takes me further north, beyond the conurbation of the south-east. Through Gympie, a One Nation Party stronghold, and on towards Maryborough, undulating country, with a few small crops and some cattle. Unpainted Queenslanders are surrounded by wild bougainvillea and rusty car bodies. A dog or two. Chooks. Blokes thinking of entering the World Gurning Championships. Even in the Queensland imagination this is card-carrying redneck country.

The sun has gone down by now, and I accidentally flash my high beam. The old bomb ahead slows to let me past. I think nothing of it until he catches up behind me. One metre behind me. I don’t know whether to go faster or slower. I choose faster but he sticks right on Gielgud’s bumper bar. We continue in formation for a kilometre or so, when I make the decision to slow down and pull off the side of the road. He is so close he has to follow. As I draw to a stop he has nowhere to go: it’s either up the tail of a VW convertible with NSW numberplates or into the long grass and saplings.

He chooses the latter and comes to a halt in three-foot high grass. Two doors open. I am in strife. I am thinking of Mississippi Burning. A large hairy man in his thirties comes at Gielgud. I think of getting out to placate him, except I’m wearing my Opera Queensland polo shirt, and I’m not sure he’ll appreciate it. “I’m going to kill you,” he yells, “you stupid fucking cunt,” which Gielgud takes as a cue to take off at a million miles an hour. I sleep at Hervey Bay in a holiday unit, with Gielgud safely concealed, then head for Maryborough.

 

It’s a town of colonial buildings: picture-postcard Queenslanders with big verandahs overlooking the Mary River, surrounded by poincianas and philodendrons. Steve Austin, the ABC morning show host, announces that today is the anniversary of the birth of P.L. Travers, author of Mary Poppins. Travers was born in Maryborough – hence the name Mary Poppins. Queensland, for all its suspicion of too much learning, has done this for years. Another Maryborough boy, P.R. ‘Inky’ Stephensen, made a name for himself as a thinker in the first half of the 20th century. I find the old grammar school building, with its big gates and driveway and peaked roof. Stephensen was a charismatic figure there as a boy. When the school board sacked the headmaster, Stephensen, then a Grade 11 student, led a campaign to have him reinstated. And was successful.

I twirl the dial and find the local station. Like so many commercial stations in Queensland, it takes John Laws. This doesn’t quite fit: Queenslanders are supposed to be wary of southerners. Maybe it has something to do with Laws’s ability to make his politics sound like “commonsense”. Gielgud takes me through sugarcane farms and into Bundaberg (home of pioneer aviator Bert Hinkler). Past the airport. A huge Bunnings. Past the infamous Bundaberg Hospital where Dr Patel practised surgery (but didn’t get any better). The Morris Inquiry is going on and Peter Beattie, Queensland’s premier, is wondering how to deal with it.

Bundaberg has a sub-tropical feel, even in winter. Palms. Old pubs. There are more Murries than down south – enough for me to notice. I have lunch at the Grand Hotel, XXXX and Bundy signs everywhere. They remind me of the old XXXX ads, so Queensland:

 

Fish are jumpin’, waves are pumpin’

Steak is sizzlin’, this is livin’

An ocean as blue as the sky up above it

We love it up here

We don’t just like it, we love it

The people, the places, the mates, the faces,

The XXXX mate,

We love it up here.

 

“Do people really drink rum here?” I ask a woman, a well-dressed small-business owner, in the street.

“People drink rum everywhere in Queensland.”

“What do you drink it with?”

“We drink rum with our rum.”

Bundy rum has given rise to several songs, one of which was penned – to the tune of the hymn of the US Marines – during a mid-’80s rum shortage.

From the hills of far-off Townsville, to the shores of Maroochydore

We have come from every corner to sit and drink some more …

Our challenge rings out on the breeze to each and every one

We have drunk in every pub we’ve found where they serve Bundy rum

When those southern cunts come to steal our rum and stand on Queensland green

They’ll find the border guarded by: four chaps, pissed and mean.

 

Bundy somehow embodies Queensland-ness, and the famous Bundaberg Bear of the TV ads has tapped into that. Understand the leadership provided by the Bundaberg Bear and you will have an idea of Queensland politics. The Bear can handle any situation. He’s smart in the way that is permissible in Queensland. Not Maths I and Physics smart, but people smart. Consider the Swedish-backpackers-camping ad, or the punctured-inflatable-raft-in-the-Whitsundays ad. The Bear knows what Queenslanders want and he knows they’re not exactly sure how to get what they want. So he helps them. They never tell the Bear they think he’s smart. But clearly he’s one of them, they’re thankful to him, and they trust that he has their interests at heart. Just like a Queensland premier.

Heading further north towards Rockhampton, the troubled new senator Barnaby Joyce is in the news. Barnaby is standing up for Queenslanders in the bush. The government he belongs to wants the Telstra sale to go through. But Barnaby can’t do that to his fellow Queenslanders, who fear their communications needs will be ignored by a huge profit-driven corporation.

Rocky, 650 kilometres from Brisbane, is a cattle town. A statue of a Brahman bull sits on a pedestal in the middle of the first roundabout. I get a room at the Criterion Hotel, which has stained glass windows and a ghost, and get talking to the two barmen, Andrew and Neil. (“Are you a Queenslander?” “Bloody oath I am.”) They tell me how busy the pub gets and that there’s hardly ever a blue. I order a rump and a bottle of Jimbour Station merlot, Jimbour House being a homestead on the Darling Downs and the subject of Andrew McGahan’s The White Earth. I don’t mention the novel. Instead we talk rugby league.

The backpacker next to me is writing in his journal. I say g’day. He is Paddy Dillane from Ireland. “I haven’t met one person in Queensland who wouldn’t speak to me. Not one person has been rude. Not one person has treated me with the slightest disrespect.” The barmen look quietly pleased. The conversation turns to books. The boys last 45 seconds; nothing gets rid of a Queensland barman like the mention of books. We talk about J.P. Donleavy and Seamus Heaney, who was one of Paddy’s lecturers, J.B. Keane and Flann O’Brien. Paddy quotes The Simpsons and Bill Bryson and speaks about a religious epiphany he had in Iowa. Paddy drifts off and I find myself yakking with another bloke, maybe 60, who grew up in Longreach. “My grandfather had hotels on the Cobb and Co routes. He was an original shareholder in Qantas. Invested 50 quid. Then withdrew it coupla days later. Didn’t think it would come to anything.” He laughs. It is the laugh of a man who understands that ultimately it doesn’t matter.

He has strong views on Telstra though. “You hear Ziggy and those blokes saying how good it is in the bush, how committed they are to servicing the bush. They wouldn’t have a clue. No idea. A sheet gets put in front of them and they read from it.” I can see how much he loves western Queensland. It permeates his conversation. It is his conversation. He believes the tough conditions produce a particular type of character. “For years people who’ve come with any expectations have been let down, and left,” he explains. “It’s the people with no expectations who’ve stayed. They’re the ones who’ve been captured by it. By the people. By the place. By the casual attitude. No mindset. Things just happen.” He should be on the tourist board. “Wait till you get out there,” he carries on. “Even though it’s huge – you know, big, big distances –everyone knows each other. People chip in. If some bastard’s down on his luck, people will give him a hand.”

He has stories: about chartering a plane to get to State of Origin matches; about how the football is no longer on free-to-air TV and the way it’s affecting the game; about a horse that won successive Mackay Cups in the early ’80s; about Aunty Madge who used to take them for beach holidays to Maroochydore in their old Humber. He gives me some names of people to visit: an archaeologist, a grazier, a publican and an old telephonist who put the last ever manual connection through at Longreach. We’ve had a few by the end of the night. As I climb the stairs I realise that the Irishman could find the common language through the stories of others, but the Queenslander had story after story of his own.

 

The further north you get, the more tinnies you see tied to the roofs of four-wheel drives. Barnaby Joyce is on the radio again, caught already in the dilemma of party politics. He wants more time to consider his position on the Telstra sale and on voluntary student unionism. Both reflect a mindset prevalent in rural Queensland – that things shouldn’t be itemised according to cost, that costs of services should be borne across entire communities. Barnaby is being tested. “We’re just going along representing the people of Queensland … and if we get a few bruises along the way, so be it,” he says. An emphysemic bloke with a voice enhancer rings in to say he’d voted Labor for 40 years but now he’d like to vote for Barnaby. “It’s a vote for decency.”

At Marlborough Roadhouse a bloke in tracksuit pants and black leather shoes, with a filthy grey beard, arrives on his push-bike. He becomes agitated when he discovers that his latest instalment of World War II magazines hasn’t turned up. I have a coffee and while I’m at the pissoir the grey nomad next to me finishes. And as he shakes he says: “I’ve done my bit for the country today.”

We get to Mackay. It’s 26 degrees. I ask a bloke called Dave where he comes from. “Nowhere,” he says. “We sail. Vanuatu if anywhere. Been on the boat for 18 years. Only way to beat the debt collectors.” Another bloke tells me north Queenland’s starting to give him the shits. “Too many Kamikaze pilots,” he explains. He detects my confusion. “Too many Japs.” Towards Proserpine, the islands jut from the blue water. Gielgud continues on to Bowen, part of the electorate once represented by Fred Paterson, Australia’s first and last Communist Party MP. In 1944 he had the support of the local miners and cane-cutters, many of them Italians who had abandoned Mussolini’s Italy.

Past the world’s biggest capsicum paddock – enough to keep Lygon Street going for a year. (The ABC tells me it has been snowing in Melbourne.) Catherine McGrath is interviewing Barnaby. He’s fair dinkum. He’s nearly come to blows in the party room with Bill Heffernan, and Wilson Tuckey has called him a dopey so-and-so. “I think people want you to stand up,” he tells Catherine. “That’s the big problem people have when they reflect on politics. They say: ‘Why can’t you express the views you expressed to us back at the branches? Why is it the views suddenly change because you arrive on top of a hill in a place called Canberra?’”

I find a motel in Ayr. Outside one of the rooms a gang of railway workers has settled in: two tattooed blokes with long hair, a young Murri bloke in footy kit, and another Murri bloke and his girlfriend. They laugh at Gielgud. “What the fuck is that? A BMW?” They’ve knocked off at 2.30 and a pile of 12 or so cans sits at the feet of each bloke, with a fresh carton in the middle. They smoke and laugh. It’s like a 19th-century fettlers’ camp, only it’s in a motel car park. In the restaurant are a group of engineers and chemists, some from a local mine and the others from one of the mills, where there is a multi-million dollar project to convert waste product into electricity. They talk about the economics of car ownership in China. They eat big and drink well, and I wonder whether their per diem was granted to include four Sambucas as a nightcap.

Next morning I check out the town clock, a 1928 art deco memorial to local pioneer John Drysdale. From its speakers The Seekers sing: “There’s a new world, somewhere they call the promised land.” I look for a paper. Gloria Wellington, daughter of a cane-cutter, has been a newsagent owner for 24 years. She is a Queenslander through and through. But north Queenslanders are different from south-east Queenslanders, and she would happily secede. It’s a view that has been held in the north since the 1890s. “I think a separate state would be really good,” she says. “Townsville would be the capital. We’d just let Mackay in.” It would be a state free of party politics – a parliament of Bob Katters. “Our dear Bob,” she says. “You’ve got to love Bob. Bob is just normal.”

This idea of normal is often repeated in Queensland. Pauline Hanson is normal. Peter Beattie is normal. Barnaby Joyce is establishing his credentials as normal. It’s as if Left and Right are not as relevant as the spectrum of normality. “Bob doesn’t change,” Gloria assures me. “Politicians get in and they become slick. Bob has never become slick. Bob is Bob. He talks to everyone the same.”

What about Barnaby? “I admire what he is doing but I think they’re going to get him. He’s being made to toe the party line. Sorry, but you’re put in to represent the area that has voted for you. And you should vote how your area wants you to. We have Deanne [Kelly]. She became slick. Power changed her. There’s a lot of outside pressure … and you’ve got to be very strong to stay true.”

In Queensland you are born true. You start true, because you are a Queenslander. It’s as if growing up in Queensland confers on babies a purity. Queenslanders don’t have to look forward to a life of searching for truth. They have the truth. They live in a state of Queensland grace. But that elevated
status – being a Queenslander – can be corrupted. It is under constant threat of corruption by excessive thinking and theorising, and by time away from Queensland. It will definitely be corrupted by time spent among the infidels of the south. And the whole Queensland way is in jeopardy if too many southerners are allowed in.

Queensland leaders only become real leaders when they can demonstrate they have taken on the southerners – the tricky journalists, the academics, the complicators – and remained true. In the Queensland odyssey these are the tests. Once Joh, Pete, Pauline and Bob have done that, they are free to lead. And they can continue to lead as long as they keep Queenslanders enjoying the life they cherish.

 

Near Townsville, the local commercial station crosses to ‘Pricey’ at Brisbane’s Roma Street station. He is joining the old diggers on the troop train to Townsville for the 60th anniversary of VP Day celebrations. Pricey has Peter Beattie with him. “You must be proud,” Pricey suggests. Beattie, a north Queensland boy himself, gushes. “I’m very proud … it’s fantastic … these [veterans] are real heroes. They prevented the need for the Brisbane Line and north Queensland got looked after … These people saved Australia. They saved the democracy and they did it at a very difficult time.” It’s 23 degrees at a quarter to nine.

The Brisbane Line is not forgotten up here. Although it never actually existed, it continues to serve the local mythology – that the south abandoned the north and continues to abandon the north. It is the southerners who are advocating free trade. It is the southerners who are ruining the sugar industry. It is the southerners who wrecked the tobacco industry. Canberra, even Brisbane. But Beattie’s all right. He’s true. In Ingham, many of the locals are of Italian heritage. I wander into the newsagent and ask where the bookshop is.

“There isn’t one,” the assistant says.

“Where do people get their books?”

She looks at me. “They don’t.”

I have lunch at an Italian cafe. There’s a mini-David and a mini-Venus de Milo. On one wall a mural of the ruins of the Roman forum looks down on the people eating their pasta. I feel like I’m in Queensland. On the other wall is an Australian flag, an Italian flag, a photo of Lady Di and a framed Joh poster – the well-known one with the portrait of Joh, his signature, his wife Flo’s signature, the words “don’t you worry about that”, “JOH” in the top right corner and “QUEENSLAND” across the bottom. It is 18 years since Joh was premier.

Gielgud takes me through canefields that almost overhang the road. The homes have no fences. Mango trees. The couch grass grows to the edge of the bitumen. Through Cardwell and Tully, which vies with Babinda, just up the road, for the title of wettest place in Australia. Naturally there’s a shower as I pass through Tully; in Babinda, not to be outdone, there’s water on the roadside. Cairns is full of advertising signs and businesses and looks like a town on the make. Whatever it takes. One old-timer laments the change. “It all started with the parking meters in ’67,” he concludes. “Back then you could pick a Cairns man, ay. He used to wear shorts and long socks and say ‘ay’.”

Gielgud takes me up the escarpment of the hinterland. Through Atherton, Beattie’s hometown, and onto Yungaburra and the Lake Eacham Hotel. It’s run by white refugees from Zimbabwe, Rob and Tinkie. I get a room and start chatting to Chris Luscombe, an engineer cum handyman. Turns out he’s from Melbourne. His father Tom was Bob Santamaria’s press secretary. Chris was at Monash during the hotbed years of ’70 and ’71, did four years of a fine arts degree, then took off to Darwin. Broken relationship. Since then he’s drifted. “I’ve had a brilliantly mismanaged life.”

Rob and Tinkie were forced off their tobacco and cattle farm during the Mugabe acquisitions by men brandishing machine guns. Tinkie loves Queensland but it frustrates her. “The locals don’t listen. They don’t understand our story. They just don’t realise what they’ve got. Freedom of speech for a start. And a vibrant economy. We can come here and try to start a business. We are 62 and 59 but we are trying to build a little for our retirement.”

I walk up to the bookshop, where the proprietor is the former security head at Parliament House. He remembers looking after Joh in Canberra during the 1985 SEQEB strike. “There was a big rally out the front,” he recalls. “Lots of protesters. Really angry. When things turned nasty like that we had this way of getting them out through the back. But Joh said he was walking out the front door. It was amazing. He did. He just walked out. The mob abused him. And he just stood there. He picked out individual faces. He knew them. ‘You’re Fred Smith. I know your father. You should be ashamed of yourself.’ He was strong. Really strong.”

I tell him the few locals I’ve met don’t say much, and I ask what they’re like. He says they’re very friendly. Later he says they’re very racist. “It’s all very raw,” he explains. “This place was only settled at the turn of the century. The last [incidents] only occurred two generations ago. Poisonings. Shootings. The blackfellas don’t come here. It’s a bad place. There’s a burial ground, Bones Knob, because of all the bones … Most of the Murries who remained were moved to Yarrabah [the Aboriginal settlement near Cairns]. If they played up at Yarrabah they were moved to Palm Island. Or to prison. There’s a jail at Mareeba and 80% of the prisoners are Aboriginal.”

I buy a copy of Hugh Lunn’s Behind the Banana Curtain. He writes: “I grew up in Queensland but it wasn’t till I returned from seven years abroad that I began to understand my home state.” He also writes: “Queensland is a place where people are more successful at fighting sharks than at fighting racial prejudice.”

 

We have to get to Townsville by midday and Gielgud is up to the task. We cruise through the canefields. Warren Boland, former rugby league player, is broadcasting from the Ekka to all of Queensland. He asks a woodchopper why nominations are down this year. “A lot of southern axemen don’t like strong wood,” he explains, “and over the last few years the wood at the Ekka has been pretty strong so there aren’t so many nominations.”

From Townsville, Gielgud cruises west over the Burdekin River, where an Aboriginal family is camped under the Macrossan Bridge. Through Charters Towers, a town in its prime more than a century ago. It’s still ten hours to Mt Isa. The creek-beds are dry and sandy. Anthills. Dilapidated timber homes with crap around them. The distance between signs of life is increasing. Wests are flogging the Cowboys on the radio. We follow the railway line.

After four hours we arrive at Hughenden, where I stay at the Royal. The dining room is full of travellers. A posse of palaeontologists speak German to each other and perfect English to everyone else. A posse of Queensland Rail workers, still in their iridescent orange kit, have settled at the bar and can hardly speak at all. Kevin, it turns out, grew up over the hill from my mother. “I’m the son of George William Kitchener Pickering,” he says proudly. And then proceeds to tell me how to shoot a pig. (“You gotta get up a tree, mate … You need to be high.”) His mate cackles. He has his own pig story. How he put 14 shots into one and it still didn’t go down. “I yelled to the missus: get the fucken big gun. That fucked him. Good eating too, ay.” He laughs to reveal a front tooth missing. Next morning I can’t get the day’s paper but I am able to buy the latest issue of Bacon Busters, a pig-shooting magazine that features photos of bikini-clad women holding knives alongside enormous wild pigs which have been shot and hung by their hindlegs, in the same way a marlin or shark is displayed.

We head further west and into dinosaur territory, home to some of the world’s finest fossils. The museum in Richmond has a replica Kronosaurus Queenslandicus outside. The green and yellow bins down the main street are in the shape of dinosaur feet. The sandwich board outside the Federal Palace Hotel advertises the special, written in chalk: SPAGHETTI AND MINCE $8. At Julia Creek a wiry stockman is buying supplies – Home Brand fruit cake mostly – before heading bush again. He has no arse to speak of and his R.M. Williams dacks rely totally on the belt to keep them up. We pass through Cloncurry (The Curry) and reach Mt Isa (The Isa), a mining town of 20,000 people in the middle of nowhere. On the outskirts of town a dozen Murries see Gielgud and wave and cheer, their faces bright with flashy smiles.

Mt Isa is hungover, recovering from the annual rodeo which brought an influx of another 20,000 people. The police have sent out press releases congratulating revellers on their behaviour. No known deaths this time. Everything revolves around the Irish Club, which runs shuttle buses from the motels. I can see why Sarge calls it the Restaurant at the End of the Universe: it’s a pleasure palace of grog and food and TAB and pokies. It’s chockers and it’s only Monday night.

On another perfect morning, Gielgud takes me south through the red country. We strike Kyuna. Population 20. A roadhouse, a police station and the Waltzing Matilda Museum, a large shed of soiled documents and dusty artefacts run by Richard Magoffin. I went to uni with his three sons. I’m keen to chat. His offsider is an old bushie. It’s just after lunch but already the bushie has had a few. I tell him I’m keen to talk to Richard. “Old mate’s asleep,” he says. “Just gone down.” So we resume our journey down the Matilda Highway, and I realise there is a whole outback way. It values freedom. “Waltzing Matilda” makes a lot of sense.

After a quiet night in Winton we head to Longreach. They have had more than four inches of rain this winter and the countryside looks fantastic. Green. Well-stocked with healthy-looking cattle and sheep. I sit at a table outside the Merino Bakery. At another table a big old bloke with busted teeth sits with a young Murri woman. He has been mowing and is covered in dust. They are talking about drink-driving.

“Fucken cops get everyone,” he says. “They got me drunk in charge of me ride-on-mower.”

“They got my mate drunk in charge of a horse,” the woman says.

“They got Smithy drunk in charge of his golf buggy.”

“You goin’ home?” she asks.

“Nah. I’ve gotta do that cunt of a triple yard up behind the bowls club.”

I say g’day and ask him if he’s a Queenslander.

“Bloody oath I am.”

“What is a Queenslander?” I ask.

“Mate, a Queenslander is a Queenslander.”

“Yes, but what does that mean?”

“Mate you not fucken lis’nen to me: a Queenslander is a Queenslander.”

“Yes, but what makes you a Queenslander?”

He looks at me as if I’m thick. “Mate, I was born ’ere.”

 

An hour east of Longreach, with its little bit of Disneyland in the form of the Stockman’s Hall of Fame, is Barcaldine. Local gardener Mick Hayden is giving The Tree of Knowledge, birthplace of the Australian Labor Party, its weekly drink of water. As natural monuments go it isn’t exactly thriving, but it’s hanging in there. It was in strife a few years back but some heavy pruning has helped. It’s just a bit mis-shapen now. “One year,” Mick recalls, “Bob Hawke and a few of the ministers were out here. It was the time of Halley’s Comet. They only had one minder and he was off having a smoke. Gareth [Evans] couldn’t see the comet. So there I was, arm around his shoulders, trying to point it out to him. I remember thinking: this is a great country.”

Around the corner is the Australian Workers’ Heritage Centre, housed partly in some old school buildings. As I walk through I am transported back to Oakey Primary. The shape of the rooms. The timber walls. The windows. The fireplace. The verandahs and the port racks. The posts underneath. I am surprised by how much it moves me.

The next day, clear and sunny again, is the 70th anniversary of the cane toad’s introduction. I hear about it on The Country Hour, which is broadcasting live all week from the Ekka, excitement in the voices of the two women presenters interviewing cattle breeders. The cane toad is a pest and a testament to human folly, yet it is also an important Queensland symbol. Cane toad iconography is everywhere. We are way out west. Vast plains. I stop for a cuppa at Tambo where a Murri woman, Karen Briggs, is sitting on the cafe verandah, drinking tea and smoking a rollie on a short cigarette holder. Her husband is a bulldozer driver, and she says being in a cross-cultural marriage has had its difficult moments. “The family didn’t much like me because I was an Aboriginal woman. But I didn’t marry them did I? Some things have changed but not a lot has changed. There is still an assumption that black is bad.”

She’s not interested in politics, she tells me. “Because it doesn’t affect me.” It’s a view shared by many Queenslanders: the view that things have currency only if you experience them yourself, or see them with your own eyes, or if you are actually part of the conversation. “What would we know about Peter Beattie? He’s a long way away.” Through Augathella. At Charleville we turn and head back for Brisbane, 750 km away, through grey-green stunted gum country. Wild goats. Red soil. Prickly pear.

In Mitchell I stop for an hour at the old picture theatre, now a library and community centre, and watch 19-year-old Kate run the place. She is a child minder (she runs after-school care for about ten kids), a social worker (she phones Centrelink to make an appointment for an old pensioner), a librarian and a community worker (she is preparing for the youth council meeting). She is from Sydney (“a foreign place to these people”). “There are real divides here,” she says. “Those who stay and finish school at Year 10 are very pessimistic about things. You should see the Centrelink lines.” She’s noticed a racial divide too. “There’s always the nice smile. But it’s how they act around each other. They treat each other differently. Some people speak to the Aborigines like they’re five-year-olds.”

We head towards Roma, the sun low in the west, the magnificent grazing paddocks around Muckadilla illuminated in the golden light. Most places in Roma are full because there’s a big bull sale on. I stay at the Bottle Tree Motel. The next day brings one of those pure Queensland mornings, with a zippity doo-dah ambience that puts you in a pleasant mood. Unpressured. And familiar territory is up ahead.

In Chinchilla I find our old house: 66 Hypatia Street. It looks neglected. There is no garden, and I don’t feel much of a connection.

In Oakey I feel a lot more connected. I drive around the streets, the golf course, the footy field, the creek, the two schools, Cecil Cafe. Gielgud sits outside our little house. I grew up here.

Gielgud takes me down the range through Gatton, past the hills around Granpa’s farm, long sold. I must have something of Queensland in me. And I’ve driven 6,000 km in two weeks.

 

Queenslanders have many gifts: the gift of loyalty, of hedge-growing, of horse-training, of pig-shooting, of storytelling, of rum-drinking, of being true. Few have the gift of contemplation. That rare Queenslander who is called to contemplation grows up feeling different. Queensland is not a contemplative culture and so the contemplators leave, attracted by other cultures where they believe contemplation occurs in the everyday. When they are away they find their new place much more encouraging – even, momentarily, satisfying. Yet there is a tug back. What is that tug?

Queensland’s weather affects its character. Mostly the weather is agreeable and creates a happy torpor. But it can be wild. Severe heat. Oppressive humidity. Drought. Floods. Cyclones. Queenslanders believe there’s no point getting too worried about things because they could all be washed away tomorrow. There’s no point working too hard. As long as we have a roof over our heads. Something to eat. Something to drink. There is also a sense that Queensland is still a long way away, so far away that it hardly matters. This old Queensland fatalism is deeply entrenched.

That fatalism is nowhere near as strong as it was. In the new Queensland, the ego has risen. People have convinced themselves they’re in control and can make things happen. They can build empires and keep their hedges perfectly square. A competing mythology of busy-ness and activity is flourishing. It is not the only mythology though. Not yet. Even the new Queensland is still Queensland by virtue of the fact that it is not New South Wales or Victoria. Barnaby Joyce, in the end, voted in favour of the sale of Telstra. Even then he was serving the Queensland mythology. Had he voted against it he would have been true. He voted for it because he was forced to by the morally bankrupt party system of corrupt Canberra.

Most Queenslanders do not ponder these mythologies. They have internalised them. The words “Queensland” and “Queenslander” are said so often. In the space of half an hour, listening to the radio between Cardwell and Tully, the announcer managed to assure me of the following Queensland qualities: resilience, resourcefulness, uniqueness, reliability, heroism. Billy Moore’s celebrated State of Origin moment, when he spontaneously yelled “Queenslander” in the tunnel before running out for the second half, is actually profound. It’s enough in Queensland to encapsulate the essence of the way of life in that single word. The lawn-mower in Longreach was right after all.

When I think of Queensland I still smile. That means, in my mind, that a romanticised view prevails, a view that has been conditioned to ignore the racism and bigotry, the materialism and hollowness. The tug is there. The tug is Queensland’s liberating fatalism, its acceptance of things beyond its control, its mood of freedom, its call to ratbaggery. But I wonder if the tug is strong enough.

Queensland is too confident for me, too sure of itself. I am preoccupied with my own thoughts; Queenslanders just get out there and live. They are not lost in the cosmos. They know exactly where they are. They are in Queensland.