Bill Shorten visits Cairns West State School earlier this month

In November last year, I visited Cairns for the first time. That I hadn’t been there before was perhaps odd; I’d lived in Queensland almost all my life, but in the far distant capital, Brisbane. I’d spent more time in Thailand than in north Queensland, and indeed, the aromas and light in Cairns reminded me of south-east Asia.

The presence of murris on the street, to whom I stopped and chatted, and the tension around race relations in the tourist city, the flight of mining workers to towns in search of jobs, and the ever-present stoushes about development, though, reminded me I was in my home state — even if to Cairns locals, I was a southerner.

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Bill Shorten, Victorian unionist, stalwart Labor man and Opposition Leader, spent his first four days of this year’s seemingly interminable election campaign on the Bill Bus driving down from Cairns towards Mackay in central Queensland. I don’t know, but I suspect Bill, too, may have felt that he was a stranger in a strange land. It’s a common experience.

Why this focus on the coastal regions of the Sunshine State? Simple. As I argued in my 2015 book Queensland: Everything You Always Wanted To Know But Were Afraid To Ask, Queensland matters in politics, even if it’s rarely on the radar for “Mexicans”, as the denizens of New South Wales and Victoria are known up here.

We enjoyed our moment in the sun when for a brief shining moment, the prime minister, treasurer and governor-general were all born and bred Queenslanders. Indeed, Kevin Rudd and Wayne Swan were both products of Nambour High, and the lush greenery of the Sunshine Coast hinterland starred in the first ads that introduced Kevin ’07 to a nation that he hoped to help.

That seems like an age ago now.

Malcolm Turnbull, suave “Mr Harbourside Mansion” according to Peta Credlin, seems to have had his moment of disorientation in Penrith, on the edges of the western Sydney region that proverbially is the centre of the political universe. “How will this play in Lindsay?” focus group wire-pullers are said to ask.

We have heard, from backgrounding from National Party sources, that the message of agility, innovation and disruption is not well received north of the Tweed, particularly in that long stretch of coast that played host to the Bill Bus. Seats might be held by Liberal National MPs, colourful and Christian like George Christensen or less well known like Michelle Landry, but incomes are low, the boom has bust, and the promise of utopia in the sun looks illusory.

A new Labor government under Annastacia Palaszczuk, which remarkably overturned Campbell Newman’s landslide margin in just one term, prioritises jobs but perceptions in rural and regional areas are that they’re few on the ground. Houses that could be rented for Sydney prices in mining and port boom towns only a few years ago lie empty, shifting sadly on their foundations.

If seats in western Sydney are actually held more often than not by Labor (despite the mythos), Queensland electorates, particularly on the fringes of the metropolis and north of Noosa, swing wildly. Antony Green was reduced to amazement on state election night in 2015 when seats on the northern fringes of Brisbane swung by 20% and more. “I just can’t believe these swings!” he exclaimed breathlessly.

They were all too believable to Queenslanders, whether they were delighted or horrified. Swings and roundabouts moving at dizzying speed is the norm. In years that have been good for Labor — 1990, 1993, 2007 — “safe” conservative seats have been plucked by the ALP like so many bananas from a tree. Now, Labor only holds six of the state’s 30 electorates.

Clive Palmer may be going, going, gone from Fairfax, but the mood that swept him and his erstwhile comrade Glenn Lazarus into federal Parliament less than three years ago persists. Many Queenslanders never took to Julia Gillard and the carbon and mining taxes, but Tony Abbott played quite well to the gallery outside the leafy suburbs of Brisbane.

Up north, where Bill promised (among other things) a new stadium for the NRL’s Cowboys, old dreams of separation from the oppression of the south-east have revived. Two former state Labor MPs, Billy Gordon from Cook, and Rob Pyne from Cairns, now sit as independents, and sometimes ally with the “Katter boys”, Robbie Katter and Shane Knuth. Protectionism, jobs, big projects, the woes of farmers in their struggles with big banks (ring a bell?): these all play out far from the gaze of the national media.

In my book, I argued that Queensland not only had a frontier mentality, but was always poised somewhere on the frontier of modernity and reaction. You only have to mention a few names — Joh Bjelke-Petersen and Pauline Hanson come immediately to mind — to grasp the shorter version of this claim. Some of these tensions cut across and within party allegiances. If Malcolm Turnbull represents a new economy (NBN excluded), then Palaszczuk’s government is also running an active industry policy fostering, among other things, biomedical and agricultural innovation.

In a state where, traditionally, education levels as well as wages were low, Bill Shorten’s emphasis on schools will be welcome. Conversely, fundamentalist Christianity is a stronger political force in much of Queensland, arguably, than anywhere else other than the Calvinist redoubts of Sydney’s low-church Anglicanism.

All this, and more, makes Queensland fascinating to watch, and indeed quite possibly determinative of the answer to Bill Shorten’s opening question in this campaign: “What sort of Australia do we want to live in?” That question may be answered by what sort of Queensland its citizens want to live in.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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