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Whatever happened to the Red north?

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“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.

“Ha, we thought you’d given up already.”

“I used to work this pub,” the Carmen Miranda lookalike says. “He was never out of here!”

“Hahahaha,” Mike laughs through clenched teeth, nursing his diet Coke, “that’s not true.”

“No, it’s not true,” Carmen Miranda says. Mike laughs harder. His jowls wobble. He is perhaps lucky that Paul Blart Mall Cop never really gained lasting cultural traction.

“She did used to work this pub,” Mike said when they were gone. “One night, when there was a boring leagues final on the TV, she stripped off in the kitchen came out in glad wrap and danced on the tables.”

Wild nights at the Grandview. Somewhere, on a board above Clem Ford’s desk, in a bank of lights, a light labelled “Bowen” is flashing red.

Brunker, former mayor of Whitsunday, the region stretching south, is in the running to knock off Burdekin LNP member Dale Last (his how-to-vote cards unaccountably do not say “Put Last First”). But the seat is now a three-way, with One Nation’s Sam Cox in the running.

“They won’t get there. People here understand that a vote for the One Nation is a vote for the LNP.”

Just in case they don’t, posters have gone up round town, in black and white true-crime style, pointing this out. A bloke in a Landrover runs around putting em up as they’re torn down.

“You think there’s still a solid Labor place?”

“Well I came out of Colinsville-“

“Little Moscow?”

“Yeah,” he says a little sheepishly, “they used to call me Moscow Mike.”

“Oh your Moscow Mike! I wondered who the hell people were talking about … were you … ?”

“Never in the party, no. But I went to an international youth conference in the USSR in 1986. Union delegate. Middle of glasnost. It was a pretty interesting time, people with new hope, people there from all round the world.”

“You think that experience set you on a political path?”

“It might have.”

“What’re your chances?”

“Wellllll … as far as we can tell, I’m running about 1.4% per cent ahead.”

“I guess the problem for Labor is, you have to run two completely different campaigns, green down south, brown up here.”

Moscow Mike scowls a little.

“I don’t think that’s true.”

“Mike, you said you didn’t know what seat Jackie Trad [the South Brisbane MP, gone green, to fight off a Green challenge] even held.”

“Well I don’t.”

“Mike she’s the deputy leader of your party! Surely at some point this doesn’t work — I mean doesn’t Labor have to have a whole-of-state policy approach.”

“Well …”

We go back and forth about this for a while. One Nation are not encumbered by rationality. Brunker does not have that luxury. He’s a man fighting waves of news as devastating to the region as Cyclone Debbie. Yesterday, the announcement that Adani’s profits have halved. Today, that India and China are getting out of coal.

“Look, of course the world has to get out of coal. But that has to be a decades-long shift over the century.”

“But look at Collinsville — they’re shifted from coal to solar. They’re talking about eight million panels, there-“

“Well Collinsville is where the substations and junctions are-“

“It’s not just that, though is it. People have led these changes out. Wasn’t that a collective process?”

“Collinsville,” Mike looked wistful for a moment. “Collinsville was an amazing place. If someone had to take their kid to hospital in Brisbane, people would mow their lawns, feed their pets, cook dinners when they came back … no one had to ask, people just did it.”

“I’ve come to the conclusion,” I say, in my usual bullshit oracular style, “that FIFO has been a social disaster for regional Australia, and we’ve barely scratched the surface of it.”

“Well, it came before FIFO,” Mike says, animated, “it was seven day rosters. The companies wanted round the clock production, then they wanted twelve hour shifts. No weekends, no one could organise a footy team or a BBQ, hollows the places out. Then FIFO comes in …”

“Anna Bligh introduced 100% FIFO …”

“She was wrong, absolutely …”

Someone else comes across the room to give Mike some more gentle shit — “ah why are you even bothering hahaha!” — and we break off, to his evident relief.

Later that afternoon, the report suggesting that Adani would do nothing other than cannibalise the demand of existing Bowen Basin mines. A fresh blow against a mine promising human extinction, but I actually felt sorry for Mike.

***

"Brunker, former mayor of Whitsunday, the region stretching south, is in the running to knock off Burdekin LNP member Dale Last (his how-to-vote cards unaccountably do not say 'Put Last First'). But the seat is now a three-way, with One Nation’s Sam Cox in the running."

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In the main street, a team of volunteers is repainting one of the murals, something it’s been doing all week. Lines painstakingly restored, old hoop dresses and pinnies.

“Who chooses the subjects for the murals?”

“Oh there’s a murals committee,” Frances, team-leader, and artist of half-a-dozen of them, says.

“There’s um not many about black people are there?”

“No! And there should be!”

“There was one, over on Gregory St.”

“Was?”

“They’re going to redo it. The building got demolished, to extend the Target.”

“That’s a shame.”

“Nice to have the Target though,” said a volunteer, on a camp stool, not breaking his slow brush stroke, filling in a faded walrus moustache with mission brown.

***

"'Fred Paterson,' I said, drawing myself up, clutching at the edges of an imaginary open-waistcoat, getting instead my 'Yeaaaaaaah Airlie Beach' tie-dye T-shirt, 'was the only Communist elected to an Australian parliament. He was the member for Bowen through the 1940s.'"

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In the Bowen Public Library, the main table is occupied by an enormous bearded man in a Citizens Electoral Council T-shirt, comparing the electoral roll, with the last edition of the Bowen white pages (the LaRouchites live!). The library has a shelf of local history, largely typescript family histories — A Clearing in the Brush: The Andersons in North Queensland — and a huge Indigenous collection

The young girl at the desk, in a civic uniform of blue shorts and branded shirt; everyone seems to have a uniform here, in bars, in cafes, it’s like North Korea, is helpfulness and kindliness itself.

“Fred who did you say?”

“Paterson.”

“Nothing by him.”

“No it’s the title. The author’s Ross Fitzgerald.”

“We’ve got his book on Austen Tayshus.”

“Fred Paterson,” I said, drawing myself up, clutching at the edges of an imaginary open-waistcoat, getting instead my “Yeaaaaaaah Airlie Beach” tie-dye T-shirt, “was the only Communist elected to an Australian parliament. He was the member for Bowen through the 1940s.”

“Oh … I did hear something …” She sounded interested.

“The whole area was a running battle between companies and workers through the 1930s and ’40s. Mining was lethal, cane-cutters got Weil’s disease, destroyed their organs. The official unions were corrupt, the Labor government declared martial law.”

“Gosh …” She sounded less interested.

“Yeah but the workers won. Not only that, it lit a spark in the whole union movement, a new militancy …”

“I’ll just go and write the title of that book down,” she said, disappearing into a small breeze-block office. They really love their breeze block.

***

"In the main street, a team of volunteers is repainting one of the murals, something it's been doing all week. Lines painstakingly restored, old hoop dresses and pinnies."

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Early polling has begun, the station set up in a vacant shop between Lips Chinese takeaway, and the combined home brewing supplies/natural healing store, run by a husband-and-wife couple (guess who, which). The major party birders all have their tables pushed together. The One Nation guy is off to one side, with his card table and his thermos. A little forlorn, but he’s ebullient:

“The name’s Tony.” Brit voice. “‘Look do you want to know why I support Pauline … my wife’s Chinese right …”

Oh Christ, here we go.

“And we thought ‘that woman is totally misrepresented, totally lied about’ and so we both started to work for her.”

“And if One Nation gets the balance of power what do you want them to demand?”

“Ooooooh I don’t know; I’m not political.”

“Is that your Moke?”

He looks at the tiny car with pride.

“It is! It’s the perfect car for the tropics!” He sprawls on the snub-nosed hood. “The Asian kids all laugh at it,” he said, without rancour. He’d come to Oz in ’63, ten-pound pom. We took some photos of him on the vehicle, and then we took some more. About eight people went in without getting a how-to-vote.

Cruising to power in the mighty Moke.

***

"Early polling has begun, the station set up in a vacant shop between Lips Chinese takeaway, and the combined home brewing supplies/natural healing store, run by a husband-and-wife couple. The major party birders all have their tables pushed together. The One Nation guy is off to one side, with his card table and his thermos. A little forlorn, but he’s ebullient."

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In the evening, some good news for Labor. Fraser Anning, new One Nation senator, is now no One Nation senator, having fallen out with Hanson and the omnishambles James Ashby, the morning of his appointment. Pauline has already suffered one of the funniest pressers of all time, in Townsville, when hapless One Nation candidate Mark Thornton was asked to explain his part share in an adult store.

“Cupid’s Cabin,” and the sketchy comments on its Facebook page:

“‘Good sex is between a tickle fight and domestic violence’?”

“Well,” said Mark Thornton nervously “that stuff’s out there.”

“I haven’t seen this website,” Pauline barges in “and I won’t be making a decision about this candidate right now,” she says, as Mark Thornton’s face falls, on camera. One Nation is either going to get the vote forecast, no matter what they do, or are heading for another WA-style disaster.

I spread the local papers out on the bar, enjoying the luxury of half-a-dozen titles to read. In The Burdekin Advocate, this:

Backpacker only new to North region

The Belgian backpacker who died on a farm near Home Hill last week had only just arrived in North Queensland.

Olivier Max Caramin, aged 27, died on Wednesday while working on a farm …

An autopsy is due to take place into the cause of his death but authorities believe it to be heat stroke…

It’s thought Mr Caramin arrived to [sic] Ayr three days before he died …

How does someone in 2017 die of heat stroke on a farm? After three days? Mike Brunker, when I tackled him on stories of fruit-picker exploitation, channelled the less satisfactory side of the Labor tradition: “Ohhhhhh look I think conditions are pretty well policed, it’s pretty transparent.” Ah, glasnost. “Maybe these people fainting and so on, maybe it’s language problems …”

Maybe. Or maybe he wasn’t getting shade breaks, water breaks, rest breaks, all the things kind of necessary to working in the tropics. I ask the Love Island backpacker Brits, still hanging round at the end of the bar:

“Done picking?”

“Yup.”

“Wanna talk about conditions?”

“Hah, not a chance.”

In the restaurant, four Japanese executives are eating dinner. Grey slacks, white shirts, laptops in black bags. Paunchy, dirty T-shirt, out-of-control beard, I can pass for a local, and broaden the accent.

“Hi … you fellers aren’t from round here, are ya? Just curious why you’re in town?”

Some consultation.

“We’re tourists.”

“Ah. Enjoy your stay. It’s a beaut place.”

The mysteries of Bowen, the battles and secrets, none of which will get their mural.

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