Supporters of Labor candidate for Maryborough Bruce Saunders (Source).
It’s a languorous time in Queensland. The mid-summer humidity is peeling the walls and liquidising the salt in table shakers. The tennis is still on, the cricket, the Asian Cup. Holidays are ending, and the enervating dribble back to work is on.
Kent Street, Maryborough, blisters in the mid-morning light. Considered a swing seat, its has a past of volatile politics, at least at state level, with a variety of shades representing the electorate over the decades. Politics looks a hard sell in this riverside town, about three hours north of Brisbane.
The cool, lit-up shopping centre is now the buzzing hub of town. But it’s Kent Street that tells the story. It’s a broad old street, built for horse carriages, with once-fashionable facades and generous Queensland heritage awnings casting the pavements into a semi-pleasant shade. But, there’s no one here. Many shops are boarded. Interiors are dim. There are tobacco merchants, pawn brokers, discount this and low-cost that, and the ubiquitous empty and scary-looking Chinese restaurant that looks like the last customer checked out (maybe in both senses of the phrase) in 1975.
Outside the gorgeous City Hall, there’s a growling shipping container with a large reptile eye painted on the side and the words “Explore-A-Saurus” painted on a banner. But this is no predictably off-rails election teaser from Clive Palmer. It looks like an attempt by the local council to give the kiddies some entertainment over the holidays. It looks lame and empty. Litter fluttering like wounded birds only emphasises the desolation.
The kiddies do indeed need some help. Youth unemployment is so high here that, for many kids, going on the dole is a career option.
There’s a Miss Havisham feel to the streets; an aged beauty jilted by modernity. Left behind. It wasn’t meant to be this way, and everyone seems a bit dazed now that it is. Good, salty, solid people seem broken by the system and have good reason to be pissed by how Brisbane and the world has left them at the altar.
A new-looking picture board in Kent Street displays earlier glory. A boom town on the skids is always a sorry sight, and it seems perhaps counter-intuitive to show contemporary Marybouroughans the fun times they were born too late for. Maryborough boasts the oldest still-running post office in the state as well as the first cases of black plague. Seems like you take your firsts where you can get them in these parts.
Labor candidate Bruce Saunders’ office is just off Kent Street. He likes to say he’s from Longreach, believing perhaps that gives an exotic toughness to his profile. He seems a nice enough bloke, runs a gelati store, and he is genuinely affected by the stories he’s been told of families living in cars on the mangrovey banks of the Mary River, of people leaving town, of people who’ve given up.
He tells me his pre-poll results show him running very well. ”We’ve had more volunteers than ever,” he says. Jobs is the line. Bruce wants a special economic zone here, increased tourism — “get the economy right”. No one’s too bothered with asset sales here, says the candidate; there’s none here to sell.
“We’ll finish up like Detroit City,” he argues, if the Newman government is returned. It’s a nice grab, and looking along Kent Street it’s easy to believe Maryborough is on its way there.
Around the corner is the pre-poll station. Just days out from Saturday’s state poll it is largely empty inside, but outside, in the summer furnace, candidates and their staff jockey for position and proffer curious Queensland-style how-to-vote cards (that is, often just with one number) to anything that moves, which isn’t much, and try to look electable while getting sunburnt and looking eagerly down the ghost-town street. The arrival of a real life person, a journo at that, sends a little frisson; “Hope you’ll be fair,” says one wag, “Probably not,” I reply, getting the kind of overreaction that could only come from really bored people trying to look engaged.
The LNP’s sitting member, Anne Maddern, is propped up here on a stool, looking a little like a karaoke singer, one leg hitched Sinatra-style on the footrest. A former real estate valuer, she nominates jobs, the economy and services as the three top issues. I ask about her numbers and she plays coy: “Can’t say,” she smiled, revelling in an opportunity to deflect the fifth estate. I suggest the seat is seen as a swinger and she says: “All seats are important.” She couldn’t be following the LNP script better if she were in fact reading from a karaoke roll. She will no doubt go far.
The latest polls have Maryborough falling safely to the LNP, although it was seen as marginal in earlier analysis. But two separate recent polls this month that have the seat dropping easily for the LNP, have the overall state going to the ALP and the LNP respectively. Which says to me the polls, as usual, tell numerous tales.
Truth is, anything could happen here in Maryborough, as elsewhere.
Before leaving town, I get a call from Russell Wattie. He is a long-bearded, fierce-eyed independent nominee connected to the United Motorcycle Council. He has a budget, he says, of just over $600, so he has no office in town and he has to truck down to Brisbane tomorrow to help a mate move some stuff. He sounds a rock, does Russell. The kind of bloke who makes sense yet never gets elected.
Not surprisingly, he lays into the police and the justice system and specifically the hated Vicious Lawless Association Disestablishment laws designed to tackle troublesome bikie gangs in the state. He says the government has been crowing about shutting down the dreaded Outcasts gang. Russell tells me that actually happened 12 months before the laws came in. “Have to be a pretty good law,” opines Russell, and I can tell already that he has the kind of deadpan, barstool wit that would take in these parts. When he tells me the government’s crime stats are “a fucking lie” I feel like here is Maryborough speaking to me.
Maryborough might go ALP or LNP. It might go to the former National partyman, independent and ex-incumbent Chris Foley. But it won’t be won by Russell Wattie. For all those toiling in these listless streets, that’s probably a shame. Whether his policies are misguided or his views are skewed, he speaks the heart of the place, and if anyone is going to argue for those who truly need help it may as well be someone who speaks their language, even if he is ignored.
Seems to me like Maryborough has been let down. Whomever you may blame for that, decisions made have failed this place. I don’t think Maryborough is unique. Heading home and over the bridge across the Mary, just a minute or two from the dead streets, all seems bucolic and sweet. I can’t help thinking it also looks like good place to run a politician out of town.