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The mysteries of Bowen

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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.

“WHO-A GOYESSSSSSSS THERE!” he yelled.

The bemedaled commander, sword drawn: “THEYA THIRRRRRRRD BRIGGDE SEEK PERMISSION TO MARCH THROUGH THE TOYOWN WITHA SWOYORDS DRAYAN AND BAYAND PLAYAING, SUH!”

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."

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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."

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“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."

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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."

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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.”

“Local?”

“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

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