|Road to Nambour.
When you’re growing up in a small town
You say, no one famous ever came from here
– ‘Small Town’ by Lou Reed and John Cale
According to some reports, when Kevin Rudd was asked why he had chosen to study Asian Studies at the Australian National University in Canberra, he replied ‘To escape.’
I empathise deeply. Like Kevin, I went to high school in Nambour (although not at the same school, a second high school having opened by the time I went through, over a decade after Kevin’s departure). I know what it is to need to escape from Nambour, having spent many years dreaming of it.
My first escape plan a bark canoe in which I planned to island-hop to mainland South East Asia went awry when the damn thing wouldn’t even float, so I spent the rest of my childhood hand-sewing a hot-air balloon. (You can’t be so sure it wouldn’t have worked. I just needed a gas-burner, ok?) But in the end I took the same exit route as Kevin, finished school, and came down to Canberra to study Asian Studies at ANU.
I’ve since taught several first year intakes of ANU Asian Studies students, and I have to say I think they include a disproportionate number of students from towns like Nambour. Or Taree. Or Dubbo.
You finish high school and you decide to go to uni in Canberra even though everyone says it’s boring, because it’s a long way from Nambour and nothing not even Canberra could be as boring as Nambour. (Tragically, this assumption proves to be correct.) Then when you arrive in Canberra, you wonder how you can get still further away from Nambour, or Taree, or wherever, and you think, ‘I know, I’ll enroll in Vietnamese.’ Or Hindi/Urdu (my own language major), or like Kevin Chinese. Kevin might have been looking to the future rise of China in the global economy, but he was also looking to get the hell away from Nambour.
I doubt that much changed around Nambour between Rudd’s childhood and mine, not in those long, long years of National Party-induced suspended animation. My grandmother, mother and I can all reminisce about the same school readers (dominated by stories about children who knew their place and narrow escapes from wolves), the same God-awful recipes in Home Science (pineapple upside-down cake, porcupines a kind of meatball studded with rice, in case you were wondering) and the Good Manners Chart, which the Queensland Education Department stopped issuing in the 1960s but which naughty children at my primary school were still forced to copy out until well into the 1970s. (‘Salute your Ministers, Teachers, and Acquaintances when you meet them; they will Salute you in return.’ ‘Be Respectful to your Teachers and help them whenever you can; their work is very difficult and trying.’)
In the few years between me and my youngest brother, everything changed. His cohort got to have sex education and a schooling entirely innocent of Creation Science, although I think the pineapple upside-down cake still featured.
The hours I devoted to hot-air balloon construction can basically be attributed to the fact that Bjelke-Peterson era Queensland country towns were simply not the natural habitat for scrawny little half-Pakistani social misfits. Kevin’s angst, as described in numerous media profiles, derives from a more specific trauma. Although it seems unlikely that Kevin was ever destined to follow either of the career choices suggested by his father (‘Beef or dairy?’), his life changed forever after his father’s death in a car accident and the family’s departure from the property that Rudd senior had worked as a share-farmer.
The circumstances of this departure have been contested, with both relatives of the landowner concerned, as well as some members of Rudd’s own extended family disputing that the Rudds were evicted. However, it should be noted that all of those who have commented on Rudd’s account have obvious personal and/or political motives. I never knew any of the personalities involved, and it is unlikely that the exact history can ever be proved one way or the other.
But it is possible to say that in that time and place, a landowner would have been unlikely to consider such an eviction as unjust. South-East Queensland does not have the aura of rugged, sun-hardened outback toughness of a Northern Territory cattle station, but farmers were tenacious in the exercise of their property rights perhaps in part because such rights had been fairly recently imposed. The landscape of townships and farms had been carved out within living memory even in my childhood, and still more so in Rudd’s. The clearing of the timber to make way for the sugar cane, pineapple and dairy farms, the use of ‘blackbirded’ Pacific Island labour on the cane farms, and the removal of the original inhabitants to the ‘dumping ground‘ of Cherbourg these processes had happened within quite recent memory.
The events surrounding his father’s death apparently estranged Rudd from the prevailing National Party culture of the local area. It might be hard to believe when you see the adult Rudd reassuring the electorate that he’s a fiscal conservative who poses no threat to the gold-plated cutlery at Newington, but supporting the Labor Party in Nambour during the Bjelke-Peterson era would have made him practically Che Guevara. Small town petty tyrants had a lot of power in Joh’s Queensland, particularly in schools. A word to the Education Department from the local National Party worthies, and a teacher who had offended the wrong people could find himself spending the next several years in outback exile. And God help him if he was gay.
These days, small country towns on the eastern seaboard have been transformed from places that young people escape from to places where dreary tree-changing old people set up pottery galleries and crystal healing clinics. (Yes, baby boomers, I’m looking at you.) I have to say, I don’t think it’s an improvement. All those retirees from Down South, straining the water resources and moving into new housing estates that lay waste to acres and acres of perfectly good farming land. Even I think the place deserves better than that.
You still wouldn’t catch me living in Nambour. But Kevin Rudd returned there this week, just for a visit, to a hero’s welcome at his old school. It’s Wayne Swan’s old school, too it is said to have had a very strong academic record in those days.
These days, someone famous does come from Nambour. But I bet the kids are still planning their escape.
When you’re growing up in a small town
You know you’ll grow down in a small town
There is only one good use for a small town
You hate it and you know you have to leave.
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