October 2005

The Nation Reviewed

The people vs Woolworths

By Andrew Stafford
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

For a state that has supposedly come a long way since Joh Bjelke-Petersen ruled via a rustic combination of batons and brown paper bags, Queensland remains uncannily capable of producing moments cut from the cloth of its past. In April 2004 the Deen Brothers, local demolition legends, were contracted to clear some old saleyards beside Obi Obi Creek, in the town of Maleny, in readiness for a new Woolworths. Not everyone was happy. As the legal wrangling dragged on, a group of protesters set up camp on the banks of Obi Obi. Camouflaged cameras were erected to spy on them. The police took to following and booking motorists who tooted their horns in support of the protesters. The tooters received $45 fines. On the morning of July 12, 2005, 130 police officers descended on Maleny and ejected the protesters. Nine days later, 11 protesters were threatened with writs suing for damages to the tune of $372,331 each.

So far, so Queensland. Except that Maleny has become a poster town for small communities fighting to exclude huge corporations. Opposition to Woolworths has focused on the likelihood of increased traffic congestion and the presence of active platypus burrows in Obi Obi Creek. These concerns are underpinned by deeper anxieties about what Woolworths might do to the town’s character.

Perched on the lip of the Blackall Range in Queensland’s Sunshine Coast hinterland, Maleny has long been the hub of the local dairy industry. Since the 1970s its rolling hills and verdant pastures have also been a magnet for alternative lifestylers and middle-aged city dwellers, who went searching for a sea change long before a TV show gave them the idea. Bookshops and cafes now nestle alongside the bakery and butcher on Maple Street, the main drag, and the population has swelled to around 4,500. Michael Berry, a freelance journalist, moved to Maleny from Sydney 12 years ago, his reduced income compensated for by the melodious tinkling of his backyard waterfall. These days he writes a column for Maleny’s Range News, which commissioned an independent survey in July showing that nearly 80% of townsfolk are against Woolworths. “I think we’ve touched a chord with many other towns,” says Berry. “We should be able to decide our destiny. Why can’t we? And we’ve got to find out why, especially for those communities that do want to fight for their uniqueness.”

The battle for Maleny is echoed in another survey published in June by the New Economics Foundation, an English think tank. Entitled Clone Town Britain, it forecasts a future where cities are bled of all individuality, their main streets an identikit blancmange of global and national chains. Eric Schlosser’s bestseller Fast Food Nation describes a similar experience in the US, where “driving along a retail strip became a shopping experience much like strolling down the aisle of a supermarket” – except that instead of taking an item from the shelf, you pulled into a driveway.

Pulling into the driveway of Maleny’s proposed Woolworths is part of the trouble. Bunya Street, the twisting narrow road that runs into Maleny, slopes steeply down to the bridge over Obi Obi Creek, after which Maple Street climbs back up the hill. The Woolworths site lies on the Bunya Street side. There is no room for trucks to turn in or out without blocking the road, which every morning and afternoon is choked with traffic as children are dropped off and picked up from school.

Then there’s the platypus problem. Protesters thought they’d won when Queensland Museum biologists presented evidence that the soil of the creek bank was a veritable honeycomb of active breeding burrows. But the state environment minister, Desley Boyle, declined to intervene. The platypus is a protected species, Boyle assured Queenslanders, but not an endangered one.

At the heart of the battle is the suspected economic damage a Woolworths might inflict on a town that prides itself on self-sufficiency. Twenty-five years ago a group of lentil-loving hippies, frustrated with the poor range of goods at the local supermarket, opened their own fresh food co-op. It bridged the divide between old and new residents and gave farmers a local outlet for their produce. A few years later a local credit union was established, providing start-up loans for new homes, businesses and more than 30 additional co-ops in Maleny. Today the Maple Street Co-op co-exists happily across the road from a well-stocked IGA supermarket, which diverts a share of its profits – one cent for every item sold – back into the community.

Woolworths’ property manager Peter Thomas says the new development will create up to 130 jobs. Apart from that, he says, it’s “just a supermarket – there’s no specialty shops attached. It’s a 2,000-metre store and that’s right at the bottom end of our range. The small retailers in Maleny are specialist traders, and specialist traders thrive off the traffic that larger stores like ours generate.”

Retired pharmacist Marek Malter disagrees. “They will eventually take a bit from every single business,” he says. “The argument in favour of them is they will provide jobs. But the jobs you gain are low-paid casual jobs, usually for young people, and the jobs you lose are full-time jobs for older people.” Malter is investigating the feasibility of a “Maleny Card” that would encourage locals to keep their money circulating within the community.

“My argument against Woolworths,” says Rosetta’s Bookshop owner Steven Lang, “is that the town is bearing the costs of them coming here. And there are a whole lot of hidden costs. For instance, Woolworths are not responsible for any roadwork remediation, or for the loss of business that’s going to accrue from that, or for the amenity for our children to walk to school without being run over.”

Gary Claridge is one of the Obi Obi 11 being sued by Uniton Pty Ltd, the landowners. “I received mine by email!” laughs Claridge. “They asked me to provide my address so they could serve this writ on me. I’ve never even set foot on the site.” Greg Quinn, Uniton’s managing director, insists the company is not bluffing. “The people that were served [with writs] were seriously impeding the construction process, which costs money. We believe that people who are prepared to take such actions should be held accountable for them.”

It is unlikely that Uniton will run into further trouble from protesters. With Woolworths scheduled to open in early 2006, most opponents accept the battle has been lost. Talk has already turned to a boycott. Placards and stickers declaring “I Won’t Shop There” festoon front lawns and bumper bars. Full-page ads have run in newspapers. There are mutterings about a War on Trolleys campaign, whereby carts are filled with goods and left abandoned in the aisles with pages of anti-Woolworths propaganda.

Maleny has seen off challengers from the big end of town before. Red Rooster lasted barely a year, unable to turn a profit from the few tourists who pass through. Even the internationally renowned Maleny Folk Festival, which injected millions of dollars into the local economy every New Year, moved to nearby Woodford a decade ago – a source of both bitterness and relief among locals, depending on who you talk to.

Woolworths knows all this and remains unfazed. It already operates more than 80 supermarkets between Gympie and the Gold Coast, and the Sunshine Coast hinterland is one of Australia’s fastest-growing regions. It’s unlikely that Maleny will be the last domino to fall in clone town Queensland.

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