Trouble In Paradise

Nov 22, 2017

Iron snake dreaming: racing to myth

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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?”

“Head office; HR; down from Townsy.”

“Nah, you don’t work for Adani.”

“I like your poofter shirt.” I was hoping he’d hit me; people were selfy-ing everywhere, would count as evidence

“Out you go.”

Reader, they hustled me out. I let them. It had been a long day, long week.

***

"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."

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Bowen Magistrates’ Court, an old Victorian gaff on the main street, gussied up in bright cream colours. Bright morning, a small crowd in the foyer. Islander ladies in big church hats, clutching daily law lists. A few mildly shell-shocked youngish people, here for mention appearances. Court Sunday best appears to be a pressed T-shirt.

Inevitably, Lionel is here, in board shorts and a tweed jacket, with a poppy in the lapel for Remembrance Day. He’s talking to the security guard/duty justice of the peace, seated at a small wooden table. Lionel’s arch file is groaning. His copy of the daily law list is heavily annotated.

“These cases aren’t exactly South-Central LA,” I say. “DUI, DUI banned substance in saliva, possession of a utensil times four …”

“Ohhhhhh yes, it’s all small stuff-“

“The main crime here seems being too dumb to hide your crack pipe …”

“Aye, it’s the cops making their bones — get your quota, make sergeant-“

“Yeah I can see that-“

“This is all part of a crackdown on youth, mainly black. It plays to the crowd.”

“I can see that-“

“The real war is between the cops. The AFP murdered this state cop a few years-“

“I have a meeting.”

He turns to resume conversation with the guard/JP. The man shifts the angle of his body in the hard chair, the way one does at the beginning of a long bus trip.

***

"I wander into the beer garden, saw the chandelier, and drifted into the Adani party. Big logo sign, "Doooon't Let the sound of youuur own wheels…", workers dressed to the nines, and in the corner, a fantasy photo booth. Beside it there’s an array of masks and disguises to accentuate your Adani photo experience."

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Image: masks and accoutrements for use in the photo booth at the Adani party​. Credit: Guy Rundle.

Today’s kick in the guts came courtesy of Sky News, and was playing in the pub, during breakfast (hey). A voter forum in Brisbane, 100 undecideds, asked whether they supported Adani and the Carmichael mine. Some hands.

“What about a loan for Adani to build a rail line to the coast?” David Speers asked. No hands. Not one. South v north Queensland, a divide more brutal, for the north, than with the actual south, impossible thousands of kilometres away.

***

On Flagstaff Hill, you can see the whole bay, the shining lighthouse on Stone Island, the solitary shack on North Head. The cafe on the hill, run by an Aboriginal co-op, closed, since taking a hit from cyclone Debbie. The cab ride up had been terse: “think the mine will go ahead?”, “if the greenies don’t find a frill-necked gecko somewhere”, “well, or this bloated bankrupt company doesn’t take a billion in gumment cash and then fall over sideways”, and the ride continued in silence.

Ten minutes after I arrived, a small SUV barrelled up, and Kenny Dodd jumped out. Tall, wiry, in a shirt bearing a Three Rivers motif. He looks around.

“Damn I thought this place’d be open.”

There is a touch of … irritation — anger? — in his voice.

“Thought they would have re-opened it by now. Sorry, mate. Let’s go to the cake shop.”

Half-an-hour later, at Jochheims’s, Kenny lays out his view of the state of play. “I’m Birri, from the Birriah. We’re freshwater people, of the rivers. The Juru are saltwater people. We’re fighting Adani, Carmichael, the rail line, the Urannah dam, everything they want to poison the land with.”

“What’s the official resistance like?”

“Terrible. The rail line runs through the land of five peoples. Adani makes deals with whoever they can get. The official ‘traditional owners'” — he makes the phrase drip with contempt — “live in Townsville, Mackay, Brisbane, anywhere but here. We’re the real traditional owners, we live in the bend of the rivers.” Dodd runs a theatre/performance group, does consults, and the half-dozen protest campaigns on at the moment.

“What about the jobs promised?”

“Less than 1% of mining jobs have gone to Indigenous people, and these deals have been going for two decades. It’s an illusion.”

I have no way of knowing whether his acid description of Indigenous officialdom is true. The Carmichael mine has provided Native Title law with a precedent, after a series of deals with Adani were challenged by dissident groupings from those groups whose officials had signed up. To my great relief, over at New Matilda, they’re doing a useful series on the deep politics of it all. Coming up for a week’s visit, I took one look at the Indigenous politics and decided it would be like trying to cram John Julius Norwich’s thousand-page History of Venice for an exam, and gave it a miss.

“The main thing is,” Kenny says, eyeing my lamington with mild horror, “is the Adani mine doesn’t even make sense. People should be working with us, on tourism, on land care, new agriculture, that’s the future of this place.”

Gather your lefty cliches where ye may; like it or not, that is the only statement of policy all week that has made any sense.

***

"'The main thing is,' Kenny says, eyeing my lamington with mild horror, 'is the Adani mine doesn’t even make sense. People should be working with us, on tourism, on land care, new agriculture, that’s the future of this place.'"

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Image: Kenny Dodd. Credit: Guy Rundle.

In the cafe at the shopping mall later, a place little more than a corridor of small tables beside a bain-marie, I bond with Geoff, a man who is more removed melanomas than actual skin, over the fact we’re both drinking Bundaberg double-sarsparilla: “It’s a great drink!” Ah, the double-sars, the deep black. Liquid licorice, there’s a tipple (double sars is to root beer, as port is to wine). Geoff’s 80. His silent, attentive Asian bride mops his forehead occasionally, examining fresh cancers, and will not be drawn, even on her name.

“What did you do?”

“Cane-cutter. Then I ran cattle. Drove dozers and JCBs when I needed money. Bloody great times.”

“People say this place fell over in the late ’90s.”

“Yeah the meatworks went; the mines went.” Pause. “Sugar mills, the salt works.” Pause. “The train. They pulled all the tracks up.”

I’d seen the remains of the rail yards down near the shore, metres of track going nowhere, abandoned shunting equipment, a decaying shed or two.

“Why’d they need to pull the bloody track up?” he said in pain. And truly, how surreal it must be, to struggle through all that — however we might now see this mad effort to reshape the resistant tropics — and end up in a mall cafe, opposite the Woolies and Sports Depot, the PA tinkling out a muzak version of Let It Snow.

“Must have been hard work.”

“It was bloody marvellous.”

“Backpackers seem to get the brunt of it. They say picking conditions are hard.”

He drains the double-sars.

“Mate, it’s picking. It’s meant to be bloody hard”

***

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Image: mural artist Frances Wregg-Rowland, and her mural ghost. Credit: Guy Rundle.

“You know this guy Lionel?” I’d asked Kenny, thinking we’ll have a chat about this interesting eccentric. Kenny explodes.

“Lionel? Lionel [redacted]? He-” and then he told me a story and a whole series of things from the past week clicked into place: Lionel alone at the military parade, people more or less running from Sails cafe as he tried to acknowledge them, and his swirling, eddying storm of conspiracies. All the things I’d been looking for, in vain, the bikie convoys, the packets of drugs in moonlit briar patches — it had all been through Lionel’s eyes, a hallucinatory overlay on a quiet town. I’d spent a week trying to get to know the place, and I’d spent most of it being seen around with the town pariah. It was hilarious.

***

At the Grandview, the Brit backpackers have had enough of me. Copping off with each other, bastards. Youth, the island in the bay, with its lighthouse, seen from the distant hill. I wander into the beer garden, saw the chandelier, and drifted into the Adani party. Big logo sign, “Doooon’t Let the sound of youuur own wheels …”, workers dressed to the nines, and in the corner, a fantasy photo booth. Beside it there’s an array of masks and disguises to accentuate your Adani photo experience.

Oh, come on.

I lodged at the bar, take a couple of free beers, talk to people as they drift up.

“Nice handlebar.”

“It’s for Movember. Trevor,” he said sticking out his hand.

“Secheverell … you from Bowen, Trevor?”

“Me? Naaaaaah. Darwin. I don’t see many from round here.”

Then the impromptu security committee was there.

“What do I do. Oh I’m a coal-shoveller mate, we’re all coal-shovellers,” mandarin shirt said.

They had kinda sussed me. Not-so-smart prick after all.

As he strong-armed me out, doing that little shoulder push, “Enjoying the last Adani party?” I did not say, not of any decency, just didn’t think of it. I just whimpered a little. Only later did it occur to me that the Xmas party was so early, because everyone would be going home. No one was from here.

NEXT: Fees, FIFO, scum? How we got regional Australia wrong.

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