A lot of the public attention around coal seam gas exploration and exploitation focuses on the rights of landholders, principally but not exclusively farmers.

But there’s another side to the story, one that we became very aware of on our field trip to the Western Downs last week.

We stayed in Dalby, and also visited Tara, Chinchilla, and Toowoomba.

A report in a business publication designed for investors, MarketWatch, yesterday highlighted the impact of mining, the refining of liquified petroleum gas and the export facilities at Port Curtis and Gladstone.

“The gap between the rich and the poor is only going to get worse,” says one local business owner.

The pressures aren’t quite as intense on the Downs — yet.

In interviewing Western Downs mayor, councillor Ray Brown, Toowoomba North Labor MP Kerry Shine and locals, and from the evidence of our own eyes, we heard a constant tale of rising rents unaccompanied by rising wages or pensions and benefits for long-term residents.

While Dalby isn’t “fly in, fly out” like Gladstone, it’s “drive in, drive out” as many contractors spend only a few nights a week working in the district, returning to Brisbane for the weekends. It’s much harder to get a motel room on Monday than Friday night, and the price you pay for a small room is higher than for a townhouse-style unit in Toowoomba.

We checked out the real estate listings, observing quite modest homes at a comparable price to that paid for renovated Queenslanders in Toowoomba. We were told again and again about people on modest or fixed incomes paying $200 a week for rent, when the same property had been rented for $80 a few years ago.

The social safety net available to metropolitan folk, particularly public and social housing, is much thinner out West.

So there are fewer countervailing pressures to the increases in prices, particularly of housing, than in larger and better resourced communities.

At the same time, the promise of riches to come conjures up something of a febrile boom town mentality — in some quarters.

Existing social divisions, in communities not accustomed to a fast pace of change (and which in fact pride themselves on the opposite), are exacerbated. That was a constant refrain from our interviewees.

Similarly, gendered exploitation is not absent. There is informal s-x work going on in caravans, targeting visiting workers. Meanwhile, publicans wait thirstily for Thursday night when some of the wages earned during the week pours across their bars. But most of it goes back home to Brisbane.

If we were to go to north-west Queensland, we’d find ghost towns, the shadows of intense mining activity a century or so ago.

Peter Fray

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