Scroll to top

Part One

Nov 16, 2017

The mysteries of Bowen

Introducing a new multi-part series from Crikey‘s writer-at-large Guy Rundle, reporting on the ground from north Queensland — One Nation country — venturing deep into the heart of a forgotten Australia, ahead of the Queensland election.

Down Santa Barbra Parade, beside the sea, past the old flying boat harbour, came the army. Ranks and ranks of them, full band in tow, pumping out some martial dirge. The sun gleamed on the harbour, the lighthouse shone in the distance, as the third brigade passed solemnly beneath the Big Mango, a red-yellow-green concrete shell

Then, two police cars pulled up in front of them and blocked their way, lights flashing.

Jesus, what was this?

I’d come out of my motel, on the beach, at the sound of the music. I thought the next room had the TV up loud. Now it appeared as if I had stumbled on an invasion.

The crowd, Bowen’s great and good, sweating in suits, and blue-and-white dresses, seated in rows under army tents. The rest were perched near the ice-cream stand in their shorts and sunnies.

At the end was — I better call him Lionel — a leonine man, local mover and shaker, who had become my contact in the town. Mover and shaker, knew everyone or so he said. He had a lever file of government plans and projects under his arm.

“What is this, a coup?”

“It’s the freedom of entry. It’s the town thanking the Third Brigade, Townsville, for the work they did after the Cyclone.”

“Debbie” had hit Bowen in March, shredding the place. “It’s like the freedom of the city, a full act.”

The police chief appeared before the ranks, marching in place.



And with that the police cars parted, the army marched through, the music faded into the distance, and everyone queued up for sausages.

Just another day in North Queensland, two armed forces of the state mock-battling it out for supremacy.

“Is that the mayor?” I said to Lionel, none of whose boasted-about “connections”, appeared to be approaching him. “Can you introduce me?”

“Oh, uh, he’s very approachable,” Lionel said evasively. I didn’t insist, and it turned out to be a lucky break. Over several meetings, he had filled me in on the “real” state of Bowen and the region, a place he made sound somewhere between Belarus and Mogadishu.

“The drugs are everywhere, they make em on the stations, cart em into town,” he’d say, rummaging through his ring binder. “Ice makes everyone crazy, they kill their best friends.”

Later: “Backpackers are being worked to death on the farms. Go down to the brush near the Ocean park, they drop off and pick up deals each night.”

For days I followed his lead, believing I had the town nailed, only to find that I had got it wrong. Really, really wrong. Bowen, a once-proud city, slowly curling up in the sun, runs with secrets and conspiracies, searching for reasons why it all went wrong, and how they might get it back.


"There’s a surprising degree of scepticism, even cynicism, a weariness."

The town hasn’t had a show like the military parade for quite a while, nor much to divert it either. The North Queensland port at the top of the Whitsundays has been on a slow decline for years, decades really, as has the region around it. Coal country, with mines closing, cattle country with no meatworks, farm country thirsty for water.

Founded in 1861, laid out on a grid off-tilt to its large harbour, its broad streets are little changed since the 1930. No high buildings, not that many modern ones, save for a new bank branch or two. George Street, the main drag, ends at the sea, with two vast Queenslander pubs on either side of the road, verandahs and viewing towers in curlicued wood. One’s closed, the other, the Grandview, is where everyone meets.

Up the road, Victorian and deco roof-lines and fronts, names of ancient families blazoned in — Hickmott, MacLean — three closed pubs rusting away, peeling paint and faded decades-old ads for XXXX beer. The local whites are tanned and weathered, Russell Drysdale visages in striped Target tops coming up the road. The Islanders, smoother, ageless, archipelagos of freckles round their eyes. Everyone moves slow in the soft heat.

A week into the election, and Bowen could play a swing role. It’s the south end of the electorate of Burdekin, a possible pick-up for One Nation, and the seat that could give them the balance of power. Local candidate Sam Cox has a lot to say about drugs, cops, Muslims, terror, Safe Schools, a lot of it pitched to the outer burbs of Townsville at the other end of Burdekin. For Bowen, however, there is only one real issue: Adani, Carmichael, Abbot Point.

The getting of a coal mine, a coal-fired power station if they can have that too, and the rail line that will yank the coal to Abbot Point, and make the place bloom with jobs again. And the day I arrived, Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk – she goes by one name, like a distant Empress — had announced that, if re-elected, she wouldn’t be backing a $1 billion government infrastructure loan for the rail line. And the whole thing suddenly looked in doubt.


"Up the road, Victorian and deco roof-lines and fronts, names of ancient families blazoned in -- Hickmott, MacLean -- three closed pubs rusting away, peeling paint and faded decades-old ads for XXXX beer."

“Yes, we bought the place to round out our retirement funds,” said Delia at the motel, checking me in, the ritual mini-carton of milk and breakfast slip exchanged. “About five years ago. Then things turned bad.” She is cheery-too-cheery, the lilt of someone labouring under enormous debt. “And now we’re waiting for Adani.”

“If it happens.”

“Oh, it will happen.”

“But without the rail line, and –”

She was off.

“Oh the rail line will happen that’s just Annastacia playing politics, and even if the loan doesn’t go through they’re not going to just walk away from it are they!”

All said too fast, in one hit. It’s the usual mantra of mining towns these days, from Bunbury to Gunnedah, manic positivity about this or that new proposal, which will revive the whole place, bring the good times back. It always has the same form, rattled out like a machine all of a piece, so that no intruding thought might contradict.

“What’s been the problems?”

“Trade unions. Greenies. Communists.”

“Ah …”


"It’s the usual mantra of mining towns these days, from Bunbury to Gunnedah, manic positivity about this or that new proposal, which will revive the whole place, bring the good times back."

Out on the street though, there is less of that. Indeed, there’s a surprising degree of scepticism, even cynicism, a weariness. Beyond the main street, old shops and workyards are rusting in the sun, walls pulled off them by Debbie, not replaced, the talk has the same air:

“Yeah I think we need Adani to get this place back on track. I don’t think anything else will?”

“So do you think the Carmichael mine will happen?”

“Oh, nuh, I just don’t reckon,” says a young guy in high-vis — “lawnmowing” — outside Joachchem’s Pies (since 1963!), a place of uniformed, hair-coiffed waitresses, and glass trays of cream-stuffed lamingtons sweating in the sun.

“Ohhh why do you say that, Brian?” says a middle-aged woman, passing.

“Oh come on, it just won’t.”

The same split attitude attends discussion of a coal-fired power station, which One Nation has made its key policy. But talk of it doesn’t get far. “What we really need is a new coal-fired power station, right on Abbot Point.”

“But no one wants to build it. The government would have to.”

“Well, tch-“

“Do you really have much confidence in government to do anything?”

“Well, tch-“


"Just another day in North Queensland, two armed forces of the state mock-battling it out for supremacy."

That night, at the bar of the Grandview, I positioned with a view out the window looking onto the ocean park. The last three backpackers in town were working the bar, an English gal — “we’re up for it, we’re largin’ it, we’re ‘avvin a larf aren’t we” — and two Irish guys, technically her bosses. “You got your period, hon?” she said to one. “Too much head,” a punter said, as she poured a XXXX. “No such thing!” she yelled. The bar laughed. I’m guessing no one was a Daily Life reader. Her tips jar rattled like a machine gun. Lionel had not shown his face. No one came and went from the magic ice patch beside the Ocean Park.

In the stairwell, men in whites, and women in the fashions of 1985 came and went, vanishing upstairs. It was the Brigade Dinner. A couple, he in civvies, blue velvet bow tie and cummerbund, stopped off en route to pre-load a couple of G&Ts. He threw the first one down fast.

“You don’t look like your looking forward to this …”

“Ahhhhhhhh, all bullshit.”


“Born and bred.”

“What do you do?”

“Adani,” he grunted

“So, uh, what’s the issues stopping this place-“

“Trade unionists. Greenies. Communists.”

“Communists, really? I mean I know the place had been-” It was true. Bowen and surrounds were Communist-dominated from the mid-30s to the late 1940s, electing Australia’s only Communist MP, Fred Paterson, to the Queensland Parliament in 1944 and 1947. But now?

“They don’t go away-“

“Moscow Mike!” his wife piped up.

“Tell me, if you’re local … Bowen and drugs. Is this the ice capital of Queensland, or is it all a beat-up?”

He goggled at me for a second. “I WOULDN’T KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT THAT” he yelled, grabbed his wife’s hand.

They disappeared upstairs. Freedom of the City. It wasn’t the first time the army had been given it here. Or taken it. With the Communists came strikes, against the brutal conditions in the coal mines and sugar industry, a near-slavery which the owners — having run out of kanakas — were imposing on white migrants and southern workers on the wallaby. Blood ran in Bowen, but the place fought for its rights.

Now, we were waiting for Adani, its representatives dining off military silver in verandaed dining rooms, with an ocean view, as the rabble drank below. Later, as I sat on a wooden bench, one last lookout for the Bowen Connection, I watched the bemedalled, white-clad gentlemen stagger from the bar. Camouflage-clad drivers helped them into the back of black town cars, as if this was all normal, as if it happened every day in the land of the Big Mango.

Still to come: Moscow Mike, Pauline makes an appearance, crack-pipe court, and a very Adani Christmas

Part Two

Nov 17, 2017

Mullets, mining and murals

“The story of Queensland is that of the triumph of the white race over the tropical North …”

— Raphael Cilento, in an official centenary history of Queensland, the only single volume state history in the Bowen Public Library

Want the full story? Log in or sign up for a FREE trial.

Part Three

Nov 20, 2017

Whatever happened to the Red north?

“Ha! You’re still here! What are you doing here!”

In the main bar of the Grandview, Mike Brunker, heavyset, bald, tiny moustache, is being mobbed by “friends”. The Labor candidate for Burdekin, wandered in for our meet about five minutes ago, but I haven’t been able to make contact with him yet, because the loving locals want to gently rip the shit our of him. The moment he came in, a couple made a beeline for him, from absolutely nowhere. Man in suit, woman in winged shades, and a coral-patterned headscarf. Had they emerged in a time rip from the 1950s? They were giving poor old Mike hell.

Want the full story? Log in or sign up for a FREE trial.

Part Four

Nov 22, 2017

Iron snake dreaming: racing to myth

Halfway into the Adani end-of-year party, they got me. In the beer garden of the Grandview, a rigged-up chandelier twinkling off the disco lights, an acoustic duo rocking out Take It Easy, girls in pearls and red shoes. I was talking to Trevor, a load driver — “I’m from head office, HR; tell me about back-to-back shifts” — when three strapping lads were suddenly around me, the leader in a festive, puffy-ish mandarin-coloured chemise.

“You don’t work for Adani do you, mate?”

Want the full story? Log in or sign up for a FREE trial.



Leave a comment

74 thoughts on “Trouble In Paradise

  1. Well, Guy, I think that most people living North of Mackay, having read this, will ensure votes go to Pauline Hanson, even the communists, thanks very much, If you take notice and ask more questions, you’ll find a lot of locals just shup up because a lot of anti-union anti-green anti-communist, working class, come up from NSW and Victoria getting jobs in Coal mines, some years ago, and on high wages they were all, oh so very conservative, give any one of them a position as leading hand, and they owned the fucken mine. A lot of local working class were pushed out. So your story is up to shit really. A light-hearted whimsical article totally different to how things really are.

    1. Dennis, you’re obviously the only other commenter who’s actually spent time in Bowen, going by the predictably condescending comments on this article. Very disappointing, as Crikey readers are generally a few rungs above both the average bogan idiot and the Guardian-reading Vanguard of the New Consensus.

  2. Rundle never fails to paint a vivid local picture….& this time there are actual pictures. As for those Communists, how does Bowen manage to sleep easy at night?

    Can’t wait for the upcoming brush with Hanson/Ashby.

  3. nth queensland, dumb as a half wit texan one day, dumber the next, poleen, poleen, the femal george dubbya bush.

  4. Great work, Rundle, thank you.

    Your best stuff is built upon the colour of the hustings, and that’s true even in North Queensland. You never mock the poverty or the sad, unavoidable local situation. Your essay describes the sadness, the hopelessness, and lost opportunities. I don’t blame them for grasping at Pauline Hansen’s hem as she briefly passes by onto better places. What else have they got to hope for? In two weeks time Brisbane can get back to forgetting they even exist.

    But of course, they are just dumb Queensland hicks, as we keep hearing from those who are so, so superior.

  5. If coal is the answer then the question is wrong…just like Terry McCrann is wrong – every day.

  6. I went to N Qld in the early 60s, looking for Vance Palmer’s ‘Passage’ which is radical teacher had thrust unto my hand.
    Already too late.

  7. Sounds like the locals are looking to Adani to “Make Australia Great Again”!

  8. Thank you for this, Guy. My home address is Innisfail, 5 hours drive or so up the road. I’ve lived there 30 years. Blue collar working class, born in Newcastle, stayed blue collar working class up north.

    The people up north aren’t stupid. They aren’t rednecks. They’re forgotten. They’re living in some of the poorest electorates in the country and they’re hurting. But it’s much easier for the rest of the country to sneer at them than recognise austerity when they see it.

    In the 2011 census, the Innisfail unemployment rate was 12%. It was 5.2%, nationally. I shudder to think what the underemployment or youth unemployment rate was or is. The median household income was a whopping $682.00 per week. The weekly median household income for the nation was $1234.00. 57.4% of the homes in Innisfail were rented ( and there are a LOT of absentee landlords), only 22.3% were owned outright with a further 13.1% mortgaged. The national percentage of home ownership, with or without a mortgage, was 68.1%, while renters made up 29%, nationally.

    So, Innisfail’s unemployment rate’s more than double, the number of renters is very close to double and the income level’s close to half. This is not a wealthy town.

    I’ve often been told up north the problems in the country are caused by trade unions, greenies and socialists. It sounds bizarre until you realise all three are mass movements and you’re in an area of few people with sweet FA resources. More power to the mass movements means even more resources to the areas with the most people, and the people up north already have so little and miss out on so much. They even miss out on the company of their young adult children- the best and brightest get the hell out and go somewhere that offers a shot at a real job, not some BS hospitality gig in Cairns.

    But go ahead and sneer, guys. Call them stupid. Mock them for voting for Hanson while ignoring the nation votes for her mates, the Coalition, more often than not. Point the finger of scorn. A lot of Americans, Brits and Europeans sneered at their poor electorates, too, until austerity came to their town.[email protected]/lookup/6202.0Media%20Release1Dec%202011[email protected]/Previousproducts/4130.0Main%20Features22011-12?opendocument&tabname=Summary&prodno=4130.0&issue=2011-12&num=&view=

    1. HRC was too late to acknowledge that there are people hurting who are not black or female or refugee or lgbtqi. Trump rode that train into the station. Our politicians should be able to chew gum & walk at the same time, so advancing the life of the traditionally disadvantaged need not mean they ignore others.

    2. Good points and a pity that the self-identifying intellectuals from the south-eastern inner cities haven’t been able to come to the same conclusions.

      A pity too, though, that people are turning to the Redhead from southern Queensland, rather than returning to the days of the Red North, when the far north was the most radical place in Australia. Of course, nothing to do with the fact that the union leadership and apparatchiks couldn’t think of anything worse than living away from the south-eastern cities.

    3. Good response Charlie. Love to hear from Rundle.

      1. Pretty sure Rundle sees it, John. It’s in his words – the empty pubs; the Debbie damage, still not repaired; the lack of jobs; the disappeared farm work and meat works and mines- as he goes further north, he’ll add disappeared mills to the list, I’m sure; the desperate hope and the despair.

        Rundle isn’t sneering at us, but we’ve been sneered at so hard for so long, we expect him to.

        1. No, it is a classic economy dependent on mining and ag. Boom and bust, except even the booms are really that anymore, especially with the idiocy of FIFO. No accident that WA is in similar trouble.

          The problem is that any attempt to change this is met with dull resentment and a One-Nation reactionary snub. Rip money out of Brisbane infrastructure to build a coal-fired power station in FNQ! I don’t know what the solution is except it is clear what it is not. Adani or another coal-fired generator (and destroy one of the few things that can break this cycle: tourism of one of the world’s wonders). Like those sugar farmers who got $400m aid from Howard and sold up all refinery co-ops to Singapore’s Wilmar, then whinge when the owner tries to make them profitable. And who owns all the mines and the ports etc? And who makes the real profits? Always the entity that owns the asset. By comparison look at Norway which has about the same population as Qld …

          1. Actual development is the answer. Regional QLD has been left to rot.

    4. Like many other commenters, you seem to have completely missed the points repeatedly made by Guy about the irreversible changes happening to the NATURE of work.

      It doesn’t matter if you are “doing it tough”. The work you relied on for a few decades of middle-class “aspirational” lifestyle is gone. Kaput. Over.

      Of course politicians cannot broach this subject without being howled down by people stubbornly unwilling to consider that their opportunity to enjoy a middle-class lifestyle has been a mere anomaly on the economic timeline, a blip in history.

      The most ironic thing is that the regions love to keep telling inner-city pinkos how “self-reliant” they are.

      Well, here’s your chance. Be self-reliant.

      1. Pretty much right, aside from the fact that successive governments have also had a hand in stripping regions of their autonomy (eg. electorate boundary distribution in 2008).

        Having grown up in Bowen, I feel that the prevailing attitude that “we are hard done by” is long-standing.

        When I was younger I heard the stories about Bowen being the intended “capital of North Queensland” and that plan being undone by the US choosing to station its military in Townsville during WW2, leading to Townsville becoming an economic hub. I have no idea about the veracity of such stories since I was a child when I heard them, but the idea that Bowen was supposed to be more important than it is is a long-standing one. It goes further back even than WW2, with various interests being declared in the town over the years, and said interests never materialising into something tangible. The common thread is that these potential opportunities have always come from without, not from within.

        I feel that this attitude underpins a lot of what has happened in the town. Outside interests that had any longevity pulled up stumps and went home some time ago, and Bowen is left to contemplate its misery rather than stand up on its own two feet and make something of itself.

        It’s almost a community-wide malaise – staring at their shoes rather than looking to the stars. There is a lot of opportunity to do something great with Bowen, with its unspoiled beaches and proximity to beautiful oceans and reefs, but the sense of martyrdom and insular, xenophobic attitude needs to change.

  9. Christ on a bike, Rundle, we’re not going to have to put up with this exoticism for this whole series are we?

    For those of us who live in the supposedly “forgotten” Australia, south-eastern this inner-urban urge to see us through the eyes of some third-rate magical realist (the worst example being John Safran’s pieces on Katherine) comes across as condescending and plain mistaken.

    Although if you do want some magical realism, look up Bob Smart who used to run the internet cafe for a very different take on Bowen. You won’t find much support for Adani with him.

    But, whatever you do, lift your game, your thinking and writing can be so much better than this.

    1. I know what you mean Bob. His writing can seem too style-over-substance and kind of patronising. But he writes the same way about his own place and people, and despite exoticisms as you call it, mood and atmosphere is evoked bringing insight beyond what we get in the MSM. there is no more or less respect here any other people, anywhere. The decline of minor to mid size regional centres everywhere is the same. Primary production and processing/manufacturing have, perversely, declined as local economic drivers, as materialism continues apace. Off-shoring and technological change driven by neoliberal ideals mean jobs and local businesses won’t be coming back without a radical replumbing of our economy.

      1. All very well, but I’ve spent time there, including working on the harvest, and it just doesn’t ring true.
        Though what his dodgy contact there says about fruit-picking does ring true – backpackers are treated like shit there and all round the country. Working conditions in the field and the packing shed I worked in were appalling.

        1. what doesn’t ring true to you, BB?

          1. It’s not as desperate and miserable as you portray. Sure, big hard drug problem and underlying misery, but that’s not most people and no-one’s begging on the streets.
            It suffers the same problems that the post-industrial atomised west does, but better to be warm, with great fishing, plentiful mangoes and a laid-back lifestyle than surrounded by unaffordable hipster cafes and unbearable yuppie restaurants that wouldn’t let you through the door. And cold and a long way from anything free.

    2. what’s the magic realism? Some places are simply more visually interesting than others, and towns like Bowen – where past and present are layered – is one of them. If I was in Newtown, or Melton, i’d try and do the same – make it visible.
      I suspect some would be more exotic than others. Some places actually are exotic yknow…..

      1. Exotic is a measure of difference.
        And a measure of your difference from the standards set far away.

        For someone from Bowen, Bowen is normal, Melbourne is exotic.

        Except (excepting from inner-urban snobs) no-one in the south-eastern suburbs has to put up with invisibility all through their life, featured only as mad yokels, true-blue archetypes, objects of pity and all the rest. (apart from most people, but that’s another story)
        Of course, some don’t let the “mainstream” media define who they are, but most do, both in the SE corner (Sydney – Adelaide and below) and elsewhere.

        In short, exoticism is “othering”, that awful word of 90s leftie student activism, but worth trotting out in this case.

        You need to write about what is there, in its own terms, not how it looks from a south-eastern urban perspective, heavily influenced by North American urban culture and a few other bits and bobs thrown in. It has its own dignity and deserves it to be described.
        And its indignity deserves a decent description too.

  10. Bowen is a great town full of people who know how to ride the rough times and are waiting patiently once more for the good ones and there is no doubt that the 5 million offered to beautify the township entry dangling like a carrot in front of us would be a great start but the connotations behind getting the grant are the worrying ones, Firstly it will only eventuate if we vote for Big Bad Brunker or “Moscow Mike” as he is better known. yes we will get a beautiful entry into the town but you may have to join a Union to alight from your car to enjoy the scenery. If the plight of Bowen is as known to the Palaszczuk Government as they are making out, then why don’t they give the grant up front as a token of good will without forcing the issue to put up with someone who declined an invitation to meet and speak with the voters because he was not happy with the venue, why, was it because he did not control it !!! an advance sign of what is to come if he is elected. Beware Bowen remember unions are necessary but not to tell you how and where to eat but more so what you have to endure to get it.

Leave a comment

Share this article with a friend

Just fill out the fields below and we'll send your friend a link to this article along with a message from you.

Your details

Your friend's details