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How good is Queensland?
The hallway leading to Kevin Rudd’s door is lined with cardboard boxes of autographed handballs. We meet on the 36th floor of Waterfront Place, a monument to post-Joh Brisbane that opened when Rudd was chief of staff to Wayne Goss, the former Labor premier who in 1989 had ended a 32-year conservative dynasty. Through the tinted windows, the Story Bridge sits on a pale blue horizon. Glittering yachts dip in a shit-coloured river below a skyline climbing higher by the hour.
Since Goss’s election, Labor has been in power at state level for 25 years from a possible 30, a reign that provided the first popularly elected female premier in Australia, and also the first female premier elected from Opposition.
Queenslanders don’t mind Labor, just not the national kind. The prize of federal government will continue to elude the party until it appreciates why.
From the past nine attempts, Labor has won an average of 7.33 seats here per national election. Its worst result was two seats from 26 in 1996. Its best by some margin was 15 from 29, courtesy of Kevin07. This year, Bill Shorten’s Labor won 62 seats to the Coalition’s 54 in the other states and territories, but maroon voters rode Scott Morrison home: Labor won just six of Queensland’s 30 seats.
What did Queensland voters see in an evangelical ad man that was missing from the unsure Victorian? Themselves. Morrison smashed pies, sculled schooners and bashed eskies after Sharks wins. Indeed, the King of Cronulla seemed more like a Queenslander than a southerner. He told punters in the Deep North that Australia needed to be more like them, not the other way around, eliciting pride instead of inferiority.
The affection was mutual. “How good’s Queensland!” the re-elected PM famously shouted at the entire country in his victory speech in May, as a hallucinating crowd at Liberal headquarters in New South Wales chanted “QUEENSLAND! QUEENSLAND! QUEENSLAND!”
Kevin from Queensland hasn’t spent much longer than a fortnight in one visit here since 2014. Still, you can take a boy from the farm out of Queensland and rent him a flash townhouse in upper Manhattan as he literally pursues world leadership, but his true devotions will boil over at a moment’s notice. He eats a chicken salad for afternoon tea and quietly provides five key reasons for Labor’s acute humiliation, referring recurrently with a Zen-like contempt to “the view down south”.
“I’ve used that term since I was a kid,” he muses.
Rudd says that the underlying reason for Labor’s electoral difficulties stems from the wider ideological expectations placed on centre-left parties. He invokes Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: voters have a pyramid of priorities, with money and safety at the bottom, personal rights at the top, and concerns about services like health and education sitting in the middle.
Labor is regularly successful at state elections because they are fought in the heart of Rudd’s hypothetical triangle. At federal elections, the Coalition focuses on macroeconomic reform and national security at the bottom. LOWER TAXES! STOP THE BOATS! Meanwhile, the Greens only have eyes for humanitarianism and the environment at the top. BRING THEM HOME! STOP ADANI!
“The Greens couldn’t give a flying fuck about people going through radical structural adjustments,” says Rudd. “Whereas we’ve got to be equally concerned about them as we are about the planet.”
Labor must cover the entire political spectrum while fending off attacks from opposite directions, and never fully satisfying its own supporters. During the election, a 24-hour news cycle collided at high speed with cynical eyeballs. Conservatives swooped to petrify voters with black-and-white scare campaigns, confecting emergencies reparable through cruelty and tax cuts.
“The Tories have one rolling masking device to make you feel anxious about threats to your identity,” says Rudd. “Underneath it all, what they really want is very little intervention in the economy, so that people like Rupert can continue to escape most forms of taxation.”
This brings us to Rudd’s second reason for Labor’s localised unpopularity: Rupert Murdoch. News Corp owns more newspapers in Queensland than in the rest of Australia combined, which probably isn’t a geographical accident.
Shortly after a closely fought 2016 election, the company completed a shrewd takeover of APN’s 50-plus regional publications, including historic mastheads such as Rockhampton’s The Morning Bulletin and Mackay’s The Daily Mercury, buttressing its northern fortresses of the Townsville Bulletin and The Cairns Post.
“So you have them polarising the national and local debates around the principle of climate-change denial,” says Rudd, “and anyone who attacks the destruction of the reef is anti-Queensland.”
News Corp’s stranglehold has a more pronounced effect because of the state’s well-known regionalism, which is Rudd’s third factor. Voters have a deep distrust of news and views from “down south”, which includes the state capital. Rudd says there are at least five Queenslands: “Brisvegas”, the Gold Coast, the Sunshine Coast, the region west of the Great Dividing Range, and the one north of Noosa encompassing big country towns such as Bundaberg, Gladstone, Rockhampton, Mackay, Townsville and Cairns.
Parochialism increases the further north you go. Railways developed historically along horizontal rather than vertical parallels, so Rockhampton had more economic and social ties to Barcaldine than Brisbane, and Townsville more to Mount Isa than Mackay. Long ago, regional Queenslanders developed a deep siege mentality against multiple southern enemies, and pinned survival on the protection of their local industries, which were mainly based on agriculture and mining. Any threat to those sectors continues to trigger existential distress.
Rudd’s fourth cause of Labor’s failure in Queensland is not Morrison’s premeditated embrace of rugby league but his genuine belief in Jesus Christ. According to research conducted for The Australian by demographer John Black – a former federal Labor senator – voters heavily influenced by religion comprise about 10 per cent of all voters.
Faith is even more important in the Sunshine State, where 15 of the nation’s 25 most-spiritual seats are located. Even more importantly, many of these lower socioeconomic electorates – such as Forde, Petrie, Dickson, Longman, Flynn, Capricornia and Dawson – have a recent history of swinging towards the Labor Party.
In 2007, Rudd won massive swings in these seven seats, partly driven by his ability to connect with religious voters. Rudd blames their departure on the contempt they detect from progressive media outlets and the secular Labor machine, an inkling he had soothed with frequent public displays of Christianity. He says that the evangelical churches have become the political arm of the Liberal Party.
“Morrison’s not dumb,” says Rudd. “He didn’t wave his hands in the air on the Sunday before the federal election because he was led to do so by the Holy Spirit. He was sending a clarion-clear message that these were his people.”
On the home front, Rudd says that Queenslanders simply didn’t believe that Bill Shorten was “the real thing”. But the real thing doesn’t seem to equal a facsimile of Scott Morrison. Rudd won suburban and regional Queensland seats as a Mandarin-speaking intellectual who wrote essays about Christian socialists for fun.
After a series of digressions, Rudd recaps the history lesson. The first four reasons for Labor’s defeat in Queensland are ideology, Rupert Murdoch, regionalism and religion. But there’s one final thing that he really wants to get off his chest.
“Fifthly,” he says, “whoever invented #QUEXIT.”
Rudd pauses with deep antipathy for southerners who wish to cut loose the true believers born and bred north of the Tweed border. Just like they schemed to trade them for peace with the Japanese. Just like they brought down the first leader from Queensland since 1945.
Queenslanders trusted Rudd with the keys to the Lodge in 2007. He was one of them, not just geographically but emotionally. The son of a dairy farmer was an outsider in his own party. Despite a steep climb to power, he didn’t need to pretend to be an underdog. It can be seen now in his hurt eyes and curled mouth.
The former prime minister pulls out the needle of a political epiphany from the haystack of a complicated state. “One thing that unites all Queenslanders,” Rudd says, “is a general fuck you towards people from the south.”
The citizens of Brisbane – Australia’s capital of aspirationalism – have been waking up to smoke signals on the horizon. There is a widening environmental disaster zone between the Gold Coast, Ipswich and Warwick. The state government is currently trucking water to drought-stricken Stanthorpe, which will run out of drinking supplies if it doesn’t rain by Christmas. The town is surrounded by boundless plains of beige and brown acres. Now some of them are charred. Bushfires have raged since the beginning of spring. Earth, water, fire and wind have converged into catastrophe.
In Warwick, a different Kevin from Queensland sits at a graffiti-covered picnic table between the Cunningham Highway and Condamine River. Kev Carmody was once called Australia’s black Bob Dylan by The Sydney Morning Herald. He co-wrote “From Little Things Big Things Grow” with Paul Kelly, and lives on a lapsed apple orchard near Stanthorpe. He and his wife, Beryl, have been evacuated four times by bushfires.
“It’s pretty bloody dire,” he says. “I mean, Australia’s been a dry continent for millions and millions and millions of years. Drought is normal here. But now we have climate change, which has gone beyond drought. This is the new normal.”
Carmody doesn’t use the word “dire” lightly. He has seen how grim life can get, having been a member of the Stolen Generations. His father was Irish Australian. His mother was a Bundjalung woman from across the border. Her father was a Luma Luma man born in what is now Rinyirru National Park in Cape York.
“I was born in Cairns,” Carmody says. “Dad and Mum went up there, because the racism was a little bit better than it was down here.”
His parents relocated from the Deep North to lease a farm on the Darling Downs, west of Brisbane. Instead of attending school, Carmody learnt to fence, muster, drove and track. He mastered the harsh arts of fighting bushfires without water, while evading white supremacists who eventually placed him in a glorified orphanage at the age of 10.
Later, Carmody attended a Catholic boarding school in Toowoomba called Downlands, where he played for the 1st XV rugby team. Their local rival was Toowoomba Grammar. The opposing coaches were on diverging roads to national fame, a fluke encounter that demonstrates the frequent smallness of a huge state.
“Our coach was a chap called Evan Whitton,” Carmody says. “He ended up winning five Walkleys. And – would you believe – Alan Jones was the coach of Toowoomba Grammar! He was crazy, up and down the sidelines.”
Carmody held no artistic ambitions as a teenager. A semi-illiterate athlete, he became a jack-of-all-trades, working in the bush as a cattle drover, sheep shearer, cane cutter and silo operator, and later as a welder at a factory. He taught himself to play guitar before enrolling at university aged 33 to study history. At the height of Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s crackdown on civil disobedience, when three people together in public constituted an illegal assembly, Carmody moved to Brisbane and became a blue-collar bohemian who wrote protest songs.
“I purposely didn’t have a phone for eight years,” he says, “because everything I had was tapped. Undercover police sat outside your house at two in the morning. The harassment was phenomenal.”
Carmody sees the political residue of the BjelkePetersen era in Pauline Hanson’s racism, and in the anti-intellectualism of climate-change denial. He says that despite the intensifying cycle of drought and disaster, and towns running out of water, none of the nearby farmers he knows accepts the science of global warming. Instead they pray for one more rain to save them.
Despite the veneer of genteel conservatism, the Darling Downs has recently become a battleground of civil disobedience. Before the election, vegan protesters wearing black T-shirts printed with MEAT THE VICTIMS invaded a feedlot at Millmerran. A few weeks later, they chained themselves to equipment at an abattoir near Warwick. Drought-stricken farmers accused vegan extremists of liberating livestock onto highways.
During the autumn outbreak of an ongoing culture war, Shorten stayed under the radar. Morrison had a field day. He branded the vegan protesters “unAustralian” and “green-collar criminals”. Unlike Malcolm Turnbull, whose exhortations on un-Australian activities had sounded like Joan Sutherland singing “Khe Sanh”, Morrison hit the right notes. He looked how he sounded and meant everything he said. Queensland’s suburban voters, closer to the city but more like the country in spirit, were quietly converted.
The prime minister’s repetitive everyman schtick didn’t change between National Press Club speeches and regional shopping centre visits, or when he toured drought-stricken properties in western Queensland wearing a baseball cap. The Mayor of Australia cared more about the opinions of farmers and meatworkers than journalists and left-wing activists, and he understood that the scorn of the latter was a vote-winner with the swingers in the seats that mattered.
Carmody waves in the direction of the abattoir in nearby Yangan while considering the gritty practicalities of achieving change via protest. The man who co-wrote one of the nation’s greatest protest songs says that activists need to understand the attitudes of the people affected, otherwise a choir of environmentalists risks singing itself a lullaby into oblivion.
“Look at the last election,” he says. “I admire what Bob Brown does, but he just didn’t see what was going to happen once you cross the Queensland border.”
As an Aboriginal man, Carmody has long been a spiritual insider and legal outsider with a unique insight into the psyche of Queenslanders. He was a blue-collar worker who went from leading picket lines at farms and factories to pursuing intellectual enlightenment in the city and singing at a prime minister’s funeral.
Australia is gripped by a bloody-minded feud between insiders and outsiders. Carmody knows both sides without fully belonging to either. Understanding is one thing, and providing enduring solutions another entirely. What will it take to bridge the seemingly infinite distance between the dreams and beliefs of the two tribes?
“When people sit down together and actually start listening to each other,” he says, “it makes a massive bloody difference. It’s not that you need to agree with them. It’s that you’ve got to really take their mentality into focus if you’re ever going to achieve anything.”
Where is the heart of Queensland? Clermont might be the best place to start looking. Observers view this obscure town as a spiritual home of Scott Morrison’s mute revolution. The community of 3000 people sits at the western point of a triangle between Rockhampton and Mackay, trapped in the battlefield of beef, coal and reef country. More vitally, it is the closest settlement to the Carmichael coalmine, aka Adani.
John Burnett’s family has been in Clermont for more than a century. They manage roughly 300,000 acres of prime agricultural land. Honest John has a constitutional allergy to bullshit. His face is etched with a stoic frown and sceptical lines around the eyes.
“I genuinely reckon what happened in Clermont made a lot of people rethink how they were going to vote in the election,” he says.
Clermont has a magnificent history of blue-collar mutinies. In 1891, sheep shearers protesting low pay and poor work conditions brought Queensland to the brink of civil war. Their strike started in Clermont and triggered riots across Central and North Queensland. At least 3000 workers marched to the Tree of Knowledge in Barcaldine, leading to the creation of the trade union movement and Australian Labor Party.
The federal electorate here is Capricornia, centred in Rockhampton, where Labor’s elusive “blue-collar base” once reigned supreme. Labor has held the seat roughly 75 per cent of the time since its creation in 1901, including by Frank Forde, one of four prime ministers from the Sunshine State since federation.
At the 2016 election, Michelle Landry retained Capricornia for the Liberal National Party (LNP) by 0.6 per cent, making it a key target for Labor to win back government. Slightly further north is Dawson, centred in Mackay and held by George Christensen, who was also expected to lose given the infamy of frequent trips to Manila.
Contrary to impending perceptions, Central Queensland isn’t a historical hotbed of right-wing ideologues. At state level, the electorates of Rockhampton and Mackay have been held almost exclusively by Labor for a hundred years.
John Burnett is fond of Labor history, but says that the modern ALP is deader to Central Queenslanders than the Tree of Knowledge, which was poisoned in 2006.
“There’s two Labor parties,” he says. “The old blue-collar Labor, which a lot of miners relate to, and a lot of rural people like me can sympathise with. But the bloody solicitor-driven, yuppie, white-collar Labor that’s running the party now doesn’t reflect the views of this part of the world any more than the silver-spoon Liberals do.”
Herein lies the marketing genius of Morrison: the down-to-earth suburbanite managed to simultaneously repudiate both Shorten and Turnbull. Morrison’s glorification of ordinariness isolated Labor as the party of the elites.
Labor chose a candidate for Capricornia with an impeccably macho nickname, Russell “Robbo” Robertson, a third-generation coalminer from Clermont with a noble goatee. If you are to believe a popular version of events, his ambitions were ruined by a political assassin: Robert “Bob” Brown.
Three weeks before the May election, as bookmakers predicted a comfortable victory for Labor in Capricornia, Bob Brown’s “Stop Adani” convoy invaded a combustible rust belt to peacefully notify the natives that their fragile livelihoods needed to be made redundant to save a reef several hours away.
The friendly advice went down like a nuclear balloon with locals. In Clermont, as Brown’s convoy edged closer, a counter protest was organised by a beefy publican named Kel Appleton. “I’m half proud of being called a redneck,” he said.
Locals booed and gave the finger to the climate-change crusaders, spurred on by amplified rants from Pauline Hanson and Clive Palmer.
“What’s happening to this country?” asked Palmer, a couple of months before facing court over a liquidation that made hundreds of nickel miners jobless. “For God’s sake! We’ve got to get going again. Give it a kick!”
Palmer spent $60 million kicking Labor to oblivion. His company Waratah Coal has significant deposits between Clermont and Barcaldine – in the veins of Labor’s broken heartland – and is relying on Adani to open up the Galilee Basin for him.
Despite publicly playing the mug, Palmer is a cunning pragmatist. He once called Rupert Murdoch’s ex-wife a Chinese spy, but has since spent millions filling News Corp’s regional newspapers with vilification of Shorten’s Labor. He was pilloried for not winning a single seat, but that was never the point.
“We decided to polarise the electorate,” he told the ABC later, “and put what advertising we had left … into explaining to Australian people what Shorten’s economic plans were for the country, and how they needed to be worried about them. And of course what happened immediately [was] the LNP vote went up to about 43 per cent.”
Two foes combined to nudge one unpopular political party in front of another with a ceaseless stream of pro-Adani propaganda.
Burnett isn’t a natural ally of Adani or the LNP. He was the leader of “Corridor to Coast”, a grassroots movement of anti-Adani landholders. It opposed a railway delivering coal from the Galilee to the Great Barrier Reef via a flood plain. At the time, Burnett publicly blasted the state LNP government for legislating “a suicide mission”. Now he claims Bob Brown unified Central Queenslanders in favour of Adani.
“The convoy was like a pimple that burst,” he says. “It brought together people with opposing views. Coalminers and cattle farmers had the same message: we don’t like greenies from Victoria and Tasmania telling us how to run the show. Even those who’d been anti Adani. The response was: Well, they can go and get stuffed.”
Brown turned Adani into an underdog, because here an enemy of the Greens is an ally. The anti-Adani convoy was seen as another brigade in the same army that had been invading cattle farms and abattoirs. Greens became conflated with vegan protesters. Labor became conflated with the Greens, because Shorten wouldn’t defend battlers in case it risked votes in Sydney and Melbourne.
“Shorten was wishy-washy,” says Burnett. “He had a position in Victoria, and a position up here that didn’t match.”
The two mining communities most affected by Adani believed the Labor Party had deserted them. The results were almost identical. On a two-party-preferred basis, Capricornia swung 11.72 per cent to the LNP. In Dawson, the swing was 11.24. Under great duress, low-income Labor voters had lodged protest votes with Pauline Hanson. Alleged rednecks gave Morrison a heavy flow of preferences, but didn’t support the Coalition unconditionally. The LNP’s primary vote in the two seats increased by just 0.59 per cent and 0.32 per cent.
Make no mistake. This wasn’t a coronation of Morrison, but a mutiny against Labor. In 2007, Capricornians supported Labor’s progressive policy agenda, with a primary vote of 55.8 per cent. Now Labor had a primary vote of 23.7 per cent. Thousands of the same people who voted for an emissions trading scheme and apology to the Stolen Generations embraced One Nation 12 years later.
Mackay is the southern bastion of Australia’s hypothetical seventh state, North Queensland, an unofficial republic defined by Hawaiian colour schemes and Dostoevskian struggles. Smokestacks float into huge blue skies above acres of green sugarcane, heralding imminent blizzards of grey snowflakes. Motel owners, already tussling with low occupancy rates and guests high on ice, skim ash from swimming pools. Cheap suites are hawked from sandwich boards. Room rates have more than halved since the greedy heights of the busted mining boom.
In Dawson, the federal electorate presided over by Mackay, almost a third of adults have no work or not enough. Locals tell war stories about median strips clogged with laid-off miners and tradies flogging cars and jet skis for a quick quid.
Two hours south-west, near the town of Nebo, Steve works as a diesel fitter at the South Walker Creek coalmine.
“I’m from a small town and poor family,” says Steve. “We had nothing going for us. Mining enabled me to improve a bad situation. The idea of having that taken away scares the shit out of you.”
The anti-Adani convoy offered the promise of an even worse bust than the current one, from a group with the time and financial freedom to drive halfway across Australia for a protest. Labor’s vacillation on Adani was interpreted unambiguously by coalminers.
“We talked a lot about it at work, hey,” says Steve. “Fellas who’d voted Labor their whole lives felt very betrayed. Everyone was like, Mate, if bloody Bill Shorten gets in, we’re all fucked.”
Shorten became the regional symbol of urban elites who grew wealthy from the sweat and tears of country people before making them a scapegoat for Canberra’s failure to transition away from fossil fuels, a transition that Capricornia and Dawson had actually voted for in 2007 – unlike, it bears remembering, the reactionaries of Sydney’s North Shore and Melbourne’s leafy east, who’d been voting with financial self-interest at every election since federation. Maybe regional Queenslanders have become more, rather than less, like them.
Steve belongs to a new generation of bluecollar workers who don’t feel an unshakeable loyalty to the union movement or Labor. The fact that his father and grandfather voted Labor means nothing to him. The election was a referendum on self-sufficiency. He isn’t a union member, and sees their business as being completed in the ’50s and ’60s. Shorten’s history as a unionist was a negative.
“I wouldn’t trust the guy with my pushbike,” he says.
Skilled blue-collar workers had already become a strong Liberal Party constituency, but in 2019 they were joined by low-skilled workers and welfare recipients, who doubted that Labor’s tax-and-spend platform would deliver them from disadvantage. It was irrelevant that opponents to Adani had shown how few jobs would actually be created. Battlers voted for the slim possibility of a winning lottery ticket rather than the promise of some complicated breadcrumbs.
Steve didn’t see the election result as a triumph but as a reprieve from existential insecurity. He justifies moral compromise about the environment as the price of his future children’s privilege.
“I don’t love mining,” he says. “We stare at 20 k’s of scarred earth every day. You know that it’s not good for the environment, but what other alternative is there at the moment? If I had my choice, I’d still be chasing cattle out bush.”
Amid the government’s almost erotic public romance with coal, it becomes easy to forget that most coalminers would love to be doing something other than huffing toxic fumes underground for 12 hours straight. Labor failed to communicate a vision for alternative employment to workers who furtively want one.
Adani wasn’t just a coalmine, but an understanding that the bust was over and the boom could recontinue. That Queenslanders wouldn’t be treated as second-rate. That you didn’t need a university degree to be a member of the middle class. That country people deserved the same right to be heard as those in the big smoke.
“I know people think that we’re all dumb coal-miners,” says Steve. “Bogans and the rest of it. Which is how the media portrayed us when Labor lost. But lots of people I work with hate coalmining. We’re trying to set ourselves up, so when we have kids we can send them to uni in Brisbane. So they don’t have to be a shitty coalminer.”
This is surely one of the weirdest contradictions of the culture war: blue-collar battlers in the country are killing themselves to give their children a level of privilege that they bitterly begrudge in others.
Between Mackay and Airlie Beach stretches a parade of faded Australian flags and vivid acres of shivering sugarcane. The face of former independent senator Fraser Anning frowns lividly from billboards. WE WILL RESTORE YOUR GUN RIGHTS. He competes for windscreen time with Pauline Hanson. I’VE GOT THE GUTS TO SAY WHAT YOU’RE THINKING.
On Townsville’s outskirts, innovative patriots have cyclone-proofed their allegiances by painting Union Jacks and Southern Crosses onto metal signs. Julian Assange’s home town has been corroded by slow economic decay and fast disasters. It is both hard and easy to imagine that one of the 21st century’s most famous political dissidents came from here: what else does someone do but dream about revolution?
“I grew up in a country Queensland town where people spoke their minds bluntly,” Assange wrote. “They distrusted big government as something that could be corrupted if not watched carefully.”
The father of WikiLeaks was raised by an artist mother on Magnetic Island, just off the mainland via ferry. Postcard-perfect beaches and a stretch of the Pacific buffer boomers and bohemians from grim suburbs simmering with an economic crisis. Almost a fifth of Townsville’s youth are jobless. This is the kind of idleness that can trigger a multi-generational cycle of poverty.
I am preparing to sunbake on Magnetic Island when David Malouf’s doppelganger walks past. Blame a mixture of UV rays and wishful hysteria, but I become convinced that it is in fact the author David Malouf, so I begin chasing the shadow of my own enlightenment along the shoreline. The man’s craning neck reveals the startled facial expression of an octogenarian who believes he is about to get cover-tackled by a shirtless bogan with bloodshot eyes and jailhouse stubble.
“David Malouf?” I pant.
His eyes flood with a mixture of relief and bewilderment.
“Hello…” he says.
We shake hands. He loosens up. There’s little time to analyse the frankly insane coincidence that I’ve stumbled upon Queensland’s greatest living writer while on a 7000-kilometre road trip to re-evaluate what makes the state different from the rest of Australia. My euphoria cedes to anxiety. What the hell am I meant to ask him?
“Small world!” I say.
Eventually we discuss Queensland’s inconsistent sympathies for social conservatism and economic collectivism, a political Frankenstein liable for the highest statewide One Nation vote in the country.
“The thing that no one really thinks about Queensland,” says Malouf, “is that, yes, it is often the most conservative part of Australia. But it’s always been the most radical as well. They forget we were the first people to have a socialist government. I guess the rough equivalent in some ways is the southern states of America.”
Our conversation moves from public and political matters to the private and artistic. Malouf rattles off a list of contemporaries whose work gained an intensity from the headwinds of anti-intellectualism and bigotry. I ask him if his novel Johnno was a love letter or a breakup note to Brisbane.
“I was playing a kind of game,” he says, “which was saying: This is the arsehole of the world. Other artists were lucky enough to be born in Paris and St Petersburg, and all I got was Brisbane.”
I smile to hide a predictable flicker of cultural cringe. Getting named after Lech Wałęsa hasn’t saved me from occasionally feeling too small for the infinite wonder of literature. If Brisbane actually is the arsehole of the world, my family and I belong to a skid mark twisting from Ipswich to Toowoomba, with a few stray flecks of shit in places like Oakey, Chinchilla, Wondai, Bundaberg and Rosedale. Did anyone really want or need to read literature about those locations?
Malouf detects my silent enquiry as if via telekinesis, or is just alerted by blushing cheeks. “But really, I was saying that the places Dostoyevsky created in St Petersburg – and, say, Balzac in Paris – were entirely fictional,” he says. “So it can be done anywhere.”
That night, the Mayor of Townsville agrees to meet at the XXXX Derby. It’s 6–6 between the North Queensland Cowboys and Brisbane Broncos, but the game has been a bludger, reflecting the terminal decline of Queensland rugby league since a decade-long dynasty. The King of the North – Johnathan Thurston – retired last season. Elton John is opening Townsville’s shiny new stadium next February, but right now the city can’t take a trick, and the Cows eventually get beaten at the death.
Southerners might envisage Townsville’s mayor as Bob Katter with a bigger hat, but Jenny Hill is a microbiologist with a master’s degree in public health, who was raised in Melbourne by Maltese migrants. Whitlam was a god to her working-class family. Hill relocated to Townsville with her soldier husband in 1982, and joined the Army Reserve, where she learnt to fire a machine gun. She gushes about teaching her son to spearfish and ride a motorbike.
“People think we’re rednecks,” says the mayor. “That’s bullshit! Our kids grow up and their best mates are Indigenous and Islander.”
A Cowboys home game might have the least Anglo crowd in Australian sport. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders make up 7.9 per cent of Townsville, compared to 0.5 per cent of Melbourne. The question of whether North Queenslanders would boo a football player for speaking out against black disadvantage isn’t a hypothetical. In 2018, Johnathan Thurston was shortlisted for Australian of the Year due to his campaigning for constitutional recognition, and will soon be immortalised with a bronze statue outside the new stadium.
“We’re closer to Port Moresby than Brisbane,” says Hill. “It’s a different view about a whole range of things. That’s why we consider Melbourne and Sydney the inner-city elite – they just don’t get it.”
Hill ran unsuccessfully for federal parliament with Labor at the 2001 election. She understands Labor’s vulnerability to populism in regional seats, and has developed a tropical-flavoured approach to policy. In 2016, at a time when Labor’s primary vote in the electorate of Herbert hovered just above 30 per cent, Hill was re-elected as Townsville’s stridently pro-Adani mayor with 59.5 per cent of the vote.
“We supported Adani because we needed the jobs now,” she says. “When you’ve got high unemployment, you’ve gotta deal with it immediately.”
Hill is committed to speaking plainly about political issues. The mayor says that North Queenslanders have a “high bullshit meter”. She holds meetings at pubs and keeps an impressive string of university degrees to herself.
“North Queensland doesn’t depend on having the right tie or going to the right schools,” she says. “You could be at the Bellevue Hotel having a beer with someone, and they turn out to be a multimillionaire who began life as a diesel fitter. It’s still that egalitarian society. I don’t think the left in the party understands that.”
In regional Australia, “egalitarianism” means offering an equal opportunity to be a millionaire, not equality of outcomes, because no one in the country trusts government of any kind to provide adequate public services.
The ALP’s primary vote in Herbert has halved from 50.2 per cent in 1983 to 25.5 per cent in 2019. Hill says that Labor will continue to lose until it removes the tone of elitism from its vocabulary, and demonstrates that the party leadership is no longer beholden to factions and unions.
“I don’t think Morrison won the north,” she says. “I just don’t think Labor understood the north, and people here didn’t get Labor.”
It’s a 2250-kilometre journey from the bubble of Brisbane to the bloodshed of the Mount Isa Mines Rodeo, if you travel via the rust belt unravelling through Gladstone and Townsville. The final 900 kilometres of blacktop is an all-you-can-eat buffet for packs of chickenhawks picking apart mangled kangaroos. Debris from the outback floods in February still flaps on the barbed-wire fences.
Chimneystacks appear from the centre of emptiness. Mount Isa is the spiritual home of Australian mining, and each year it hosts the southern hemisphere’s largest rodeo. Journalists searching for random acts of violence by rednecks will instead generally find country people having a good time.
Tony Lewis is one of the egalitarian-minded moguls referenced by Jenny Hill, who seem far-fetched until you meet them. He was a plumber in Brisbane who drove taxis part-time for my father in the 1980s. “Cash in hand,” he says. The most profitable fares were returning drunks to Ipswich after State of Origin games at Lang Park.
In 1993, he moved to Mount Isa and later started a company with his wife specialising in fire sprinklers for the mining industry. Now Lewie Fire Protection has more than 50 employees, and offices in Mount Isa, Mackay, Townsville, Cairns and Weipa. It is considering upgrading its two-seater plane to a larger model.
“Not too bad for a cabbie from Ipswich,” he says.
Despite being a fire-safety tycoon who relies on mining, Tony still votes for Labor, and is a life member of the plumbers’ union. He says the main lesson my father imparted was that what’s good for the employee is good for the employer. They were both high-school dropouts with blue collars who started small businesses and eventually climbed the class ladder courtesy of an everlasting boom. Their unluckier peers left behind in the suffering economy of Ipswich became One Nation’s base.
The shame for Labor is that more battlers didn’t grow rich from Hawke and Keating’s neoliberal switcheroo. Too many working-class boomers feel betrayal instead of gratitude for economic rationalism.
Now the Lewises are semi-retired. They traverse the most isolated sections of Australia in a Winnebago. During the election, Tony became well acquainted with grey nomads going apeshit about franking credits.
“I reckon the moment [Labor] lost the ballgame,” he says, “was when [Chris] Bowen told retirees if they didn’t like it, they could vote for someone else. So the oldies went, No worries, son!”
At dusk, rodeo spectators calmly watch cowboys and cowgirls narrowly avoiding grievous bodily harm while the Vomitron spins above an ochre-tinted horizon. Bob Katter is rumoured to be in attendance, but searching for his big white hat is like playing Where’s Wally.
Tony uses a rugby league analogy to deconstruct the election. A New South Welshman stole the Coalition campaign strategy from the Queensland State of Origin playbook: always claim underdog status, even if you are the incumbent.
“I couldn’t believe that footage of Shorten with the Terminator,” says Tony, “calling himself Australia’s next prime minister. One thing that Queenslanders hate is a team that expects to win.”
The two major party leaders in Australia today are sporting fanatics who aspire to look and sound the same as knockabout blokes like Tony Lewis, but he isn’t flattered by mimicry. He wants politicians to tackle the big issues, and can’t believe neither party has had a female leader since Julia Gillard, whom he still thinks was treated atrociously.
“It’s ridiculous,” he says. “Women are 50 per cent of the country, but can’t get a run in Canberra … You know who’s a goer? That Tanya Plibersek. She’s smart and a bit more modest than all these other big-noting bastards. I honestly reckon a team of her and Penny Wong would give ScoMo a real headache.”
Cairns stands together with and apart from the rest of North Queensland. The esplanade is infested with sunburnt tourists. They eat ice cream and cool off from the slick humidity before and after evading stingers and jellyfish during snorkelling expeditions. The gravest threat to the local economy here isn’t the closure of coalmines but the unceasing coral bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef.
In the seat of Leichhardt, Labor and the Greens modestly increased their primary votes at the last election. The LNP and One Nation received swings against them. It wasn’t enough to deliver Labor a seat not won since the Ruddslide but bucked the trend of punishment administered further south.
Rob Pyne was the first quadriplegic elected to an Australian parliament. He is wearing a Wallabies jersey despite the heat. The sports fanatic grew up in Cairns, and has never wanted to leave. Brisbane’s too far south for him, which is why he quit state Labor in 2017 to become an independent.
At the 2019 federal election, a quarter of voters gave their first preference to a minor party or an independent. Pyne says that the protest vote has grown because people feel betrayed by the major parties.
“I think the parties are incapable of producing politicians who represent their regions,” he says. “When I was in the Labor Party, they had me voting for sugar companies against the local growers who I was elected to represent.”
After escaping the Labor straitjacket, Pyne addressed state parliament brandishing a piece of bleached coral, transposing Morrison’s theatrical apathy into a call for radical action.
“I am sick to death of hearing the mantra of jobs and growth,” he said. “Unless we stop to question what sort of jobs, what sort of growth, this mantra will destroy the planet we inhabit. The Great Barrier Reef mass bleaching events are symptoms of climate change. Climate change is driven by burning fossil fuels. Supporting new coal at this juncture is tantamount to ecocide.”
An hour north of Cairns, a day tour from Port Douglas confirms that the Great Barrier Reef is changing rapidly. Onboard, snorkellers watch forlorn documentaries about global warming, before engaging in competitive treasure hunts to reach jackpots of unbleached coral. Grief at a manmade disaster has become part of the tourist experience. Soon mourners will arrive to photograph the remains of an environmental massacre.
Pyne has been on the right side of history, but received no electoral dividend from taking a brave position. After becoming an independent, he lost his seat back to Labor at the 2017 state election. The pioneering politician says that history will judge Labor harshly if it remains complicit with the fossil-fuel industry.
“Mate, honestly,” he says, “they would’ve been better off saying we don’t support the Adani coalmine, and having a position, because people don’t like fakes… Unless you have a fight with the climate sceptics, it’s hard to confront the rubbish about the coral bleaching not happening.”
A proud Queenslander, Pyne says that his home town should begin aligning both economically and emotionally with the Pacific Island countries facing the same threat of rising sea levels. He believes Cairns can become a world expert in tropical technologies.
“Cairns is the Pacific. Climate change is here. I always thought that it would be the more educated people who’d get it first. But it’s the people from the Torres Strait. People from the Pacific Islands. They might not have university degrees, but they sense imminent threat.”
At almost precisely the same time that Pyne was urging fellow Cairns residents to see themselves as Pacific Islanders, the deputy prime minister was telling those same islands to go to hell.
“I also get a little bit annoyed,” Michael McCormack told a function in Wagga Wagga, “when we have people in those sorts of countries pointing the finger at Australia and say we should be shutting down all our resources sector so that, you know, they will continue to survive. They’ll continue to survive because many of their workers come here and pick our fruit.”
North Queensland is under environmental siege. From the reef to the outback, and from cane fields to the rainforests, a landscape overflowing with Kodak moments has become a 24/7 phantasmagoria of fast and slow natural disasters. Pyne says that people are starting to wake up and make the connection between climate change and the increasing intensity of extreme weather events. When the penny drops, he says, the ditherers will be punished politically. He realises the reef might be out of time by then. But despite agreeing with the urgency of Bob Brown’s anti-Adani message, Pyne still believes that the resulting convoy was an “ill-advised crusade”.
“I don’t like getting told what to do by people from down south,” he says.
The dreams and griefs of regional people are infinitely more complex than it’s possible to know from a brief interview, or to show in a magazine article. So anyone who presents a unified theory of Queensland is generalising. But Kevin Rudd was right: the single thing that seems to unite Queenslanders with conflicting occupations and ideologies is the belief that corrupt politicians in Melbourne, Canberra, Sydney and Brisbane are motivated by money and power at their expense.
Angela Fredericks grew up on the Gold Coast before studying social work. At university, she fell in love with an engineering student from a cattle farm near Mundubbera, inland from Bundaberg, who remains her partner today. They moved north to the country town of Biloela after he got a job at a local coalmine, and weren’t planning to stay long. But a beach girl was hypnotised by the tightknit intimacy.
Biloela, four and a half hours south-east of Clermont, belongs to the federal electorate of Flynn, an ultramarginal seat that Labor was expected to win for the first time since 2007. It copped a flogging. One Nation received a primary vote of 19.6 per cent, the highest in Queensland for Hanson’s resurgent party.
Fredericks says that she picked up the widespread mood of fury as the anti-Adani convoy travelled through Queensland, particularly as her husband works at a coalmine. She says that the protest sounded more like a lecture than a conversation.
“Everyone wants to be listened to,” says Fredericks. “That’s exactly what we saw in the American election as well. If you’ve got leaders who start acknowledging the people who feel like they get left out, that’s where the votes will go.”
The election happened, and southern elites blamed redneck Queenslanders for the result, but the mute revolution continued in unexpected ways. In August, regional disillusionment was mobilised to protest for the human rights of Sri Lankan asylum seekers, drawing from the same communities who staunchly supported Adani.
Priya and Nades arrived in Australia via boat while fleeing from the Sri Lankan Civil War. Priya witnessed her ex-fiancé and five other Tamil men get burned alive by government troops. Like Fredericks and her husband, Priya and Nades fell in love and relocated to a small country town – Biloela – where they had two baby daughters. The two families met through mutual friends, and Fredericks saw Priya and Nades as integral members of Biloela’s “tribe”.
“Priya will always say Biloela is where her life started,” says Fredericks. “That’s where she just got to be Priya. She wasn’t running for her life or trying to protect people.”
Priya baked for neighbours and made friends through her daughters’ playgroups. Nades worked as a trolley boy at Woolworths and volunteered at St Vincent’s, where he put other men to shame with a refusal to take smokos, before getting a job at Biloela’s meatworks. It’s easy to imagine Kev Carmody writing a song about them. The small-town family had all the hallmarks of Scott Morrison’s Quiet Australians, which is why they’ve become icons of his continuing cruelty towards refugees.
At 5am on an autumn morning, as Priya warmed a bottle of milk for her daughter and Nades got ready for a shift at the abattoir, Border Force officials stormed their Biloela home and ripped the two sleeping toddlers from their beds. The family were flown to a detention centre in Melbourne and held in a cell. Priya’s milk dried up from the stress of incarceration. Her two-year-old daughter later needed surgery to remove rotted teeth due to a lack of vitamin D.
Fredericks is the usually Quiet Australian who started the petition demanding the family’s return to Biloela, which has since received a quarter of a million signatures. Vigils for the family have been held across capital cities and country towns, uniting left-wing activists with unlikely sympathisers like Barnaby Joyce and Alan Jones. Central Queensland became the new national centre of political gravity.
“This family were taken from a military base in Darwin to a detention centre on Christmas Island,” said Jones. “Two little kids. Australians born here … I find all of this unbelievably disgusting and disgraceful.”
Fredericks isn’t particularly interested in politics, which is why her campaign has been successful at attracting support from people who distrust politicians. #HomeToBilo had no strings attached to organised parties or groups. Conservative country people saw #StartAdani and #HomeToBilo as part of the same protest movement against the Canberra bubble that Morrison was suddenly trapped inside.
“I just wanted to tell my friend’s story,” says Fredericks. “It wasn’t about getting into big ideological debates … Lots of other campaigns make it quite political and macro. Ordinary Australians don’t get that stuff, and switch off.”
Fredericks reads all the comments from xenophobic trolls, which churns her guts. She remains committed to understanding their mindset, and approaching unlikely recruits without moral judgement. She says that country-town vigils have included farmers and bluecollar workers who voted for right-wing candidates.
The job of politicians, she says, is to look at the practicalities. “But so often they work on people’s fears, and they just spread hate. Whereas if we could take all that fear and hate out, and bring in some understanding, then we might be able to pave the way for communication and conversations that could stop the extremism.”
The laziest misconception among southern progressives isn’t that all Queenslanders are the same, but that those disgruntled with Labor must be motivated by greed or xenophobia. This is a myth that could precipitate a race to the bottom at the next election. Bitterness isn’t restricted to miners and retirees. Disillusionment is a bipartisan issue. Pigeonholing people with legitimate irritations as bigots will secure Morrison’s re-election, and turn his second preferences into primary votes.
Sarah (a pseudonym) is a counsellor in the state education system. Before moving to Cairns, she worked for years at a school on Cape York. Although she has more in common with the inner-city “elite”, Sarah is frequently offended by the patronising tone of what she calls “the atheist urban left”. She says that Queenslanders with university degrees are often only one or two generations removed from farming or blue-collar industries. The targets of cultural scorn and economic threat are neighbours, friends and family members, not faceless enemies.
“I’ve been vegetarian and a member of conservation groups for many years,” she says. “But I also know that the country is reliant on mining and farming.”
Sarah is a member of a teachers’ union, and a lifelong Labor voter at state and federal level. She has also supported Democrats or Greens in the upper house to encourage the voicing of environmental issues muffled by short-term electoral cycles. She has one investment property, but opts against negatively gearing it, and believes that the Liberal obsession with lower taxes panders to human self-interest.
On paper, Sarah is the Labor Party’s immaculate voter. Yet she couldn’t bring herself to continue supporting a party led by Shorten. Despite agreeing with the policies, she was gripped by a passionate apathy.
“I am not proud to say it,” she says, “but I did a donkey vote.”
Donkey voters didn’t decide the federal election, but this disengagement is a widespread virus. Public trust in government has more than halved, from 86 per cent in 2007 to 41 per cent in 2018. The shift has produced a paradox: voters believe that politicians can hurt but not help them, which is why Labor’s scare campaign on Medicare worked against Turnbull but free cancer treatment and dental care for pensioners fell on deaf ears, and why retirees believed that the franking credit policy was a Trojan Horse for death taxes. Nobody seems to be listening anymore except those who have something to lose.
Unlike overseas, the rage hasn’t been produced by a deep recession. Sarah traces the outbreak of alienation back to constant leadership changes since 2010, and an underlying sense that parties have been hijacked by lobbyists, donors and factions. In short, she deplores the Canberra bubble, a sick ecosystem where polling and power triumphs over personal integrity and public policy.
“Shorten’s role in removing a prime minister really rankled me,” says Sarah, “particularly seeing Rudd was a Queenslander. That Shorten then withdrew support for Gillard made him seem even more scheming.”
During the Rudd–Gillard–Rudd governments, Australians watched how the sausage of their democracy was made. The blood and guts disgusted them, and then Labor gave the leadership to one of the butchers.
Morrison had the chutzpah to pretend he wasn’t blowing the Canberra bubble, and deftly turned the election into a referendum on whether or not Australians hated politicians. A self-loathing prime minister avoided his predecessors and colleagues like the plague.
Shorten spent the campaign surrounded by politicians. Someone believed that it was a brilliant idea to choreograph embraces between old leadership rivals famous for hating each other. The final weeks of the campaign was pornography for Labor historians, filled with namedrops and insider quips, forgetting they hadn’t won government yet. Shorten raved about his teammates and six years of stability. But the country elevates Labor PMs irrespective of the team they lead. Whitlam, Hawke and Rudd were frequently at war with sections of the labour movement, which gave them credibility with swinging voters. Too much unity is suspicious.
Outside the Canberra bubble, Shorten’s fatal flaw wasn’t his slight awkwardness on the nightly news, or that he couldn’t eat a meat pie with the same ravenousness as Morrison, but that he represented everything voters detested about modern politicians. The constant deal-making with unelected powerbrokers. The glib smiles belying acts of political bastardry. The fake outrage at inequality while consorting with rich donors for which many of them end up becoming lobbyists.
The Labor Party has been judged more harshly than the Liberals for selling out, because it is meant to be Australia’s moral conscience.
“The Labor Party is the big end of town now,” says Sarah.
She offers a final theory for why the backlash against Labor, and Shorten in particular, was so vindictive in the combustible Sunshine State.
“Queenslanders have long memories,” she says. “Whether the Brisbane Line [the wartime plan to cede territory north of the capital to the invading Japanese] existed or not, there’s a lingering question about our expendability. First you had Hayden, and then Rudd. Cricketers have been treated the same way. Southern powerbrokers seem to think that we don’t really matter much. That we are second rate and can be done over. The irony is that Queenslanders decided the election.”
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