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-“
“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.”
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.