The Rise of Queensland

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Together with the Prime Minister and the Treasurer, our new Governor General, Quentin Bryce, makes up a trifecta of Queenslanders now in the country’s top jobs. As Bryce was sworn in on Friday, she was welcomed by, among others, John Hogg, Senator for Queensland and President of the Senate.

How has backward, authoritarian Queensland managed to produce such a crop of political talent? Is there something about the State that outsiders have underestimated, or simply missed?

The latest edition of Griffith Review, entitled Hidden Queensland, attempts to answer this very question. According to its editor, Julianne Schultz, some southerners are bemused by this sudden arrival of national figures from the Sunshine State.

The idea of a "hidden Queensland" is a seductive conceit. From the outside, Queensland must often seem opaque, in need of explanation. From the inside, "Queenslander" feels like an identity that is regularly misread. We Queenslanders always want to say: there is more here than meets the eye; we are more than you think.

Of course, it’s impossible that something as big as Queensland could successfully hide. In my student days, the train trip from Brisbane back to Townsville for tropical Christmases took a full 24 hours – and that was only halfway up the coast. Actually, part of what makes it difficult to peg Queensland is that this vastness isn’t easily summarised. There are Queenslands, and for the most part Hidden Queensland does well in pointing this out.

However, many of the essays that directly address Queensland’s political landscape rehearse an increasingly familiar version of events that I think needs to be challenged: that the darkness of the Bjelke-Petersen era provided a unique breeding ground for political brilliance.

Schultz especially offers the story of a buried tradition of oppositional political activism and intellectual practice, which she argues led to the political ascendancy of Rudd and co. Her take is that while the State suffered under the "Hillbilly dictator", countercultural boomers and older gen X-ers maintained a tradition of protest and dissent that nurtured future leaders.

For Schultz, figures like Wayne Goss, Peter Beattie, Kevin Rudd, Anna Bligh and (current Melbourne Uni VC and Prime-Ministerial confidant) Glyn Davis "drew on" the social unrest brought about by the protest movement that opposed Joh. From this perspective, it’s easy to view the Joh era with a kind of nostalgia. In the "Pig City" school of popular history, the period is often cherished for the excitement of an oppositional movement that encompassed culture and politics.

Chris Masters’s "Moonlight Reflections" and the short pieces on "the olden days" by John Birmingham and Stuart Glover all look back on the era with something approaching fondness. Like Schultz, these authors write their histories and recollections crackingly well. But like many younger Queenslanders, I’m impatient with this narrative, and think the idea of a formative, Joh-era "radical tradition" needs to be more closely examined.

In one election campaign, a famous National Party poster wholly identified Joh with Queensland. (A parodied version of this poster is included in Hidden Queensland). I think his erstwhile enemies, too, often pay him the compliment of doing the same. There’s a comfort in thinking that with Joh’s passing, the battle was won, the "old Queensland" disappeared, and although a new one was born, the radical ferment of those times left their mark in shaping a more modern State.

However, this story relies on the Joh era being an "exception", or at least on the theory that we could never go back to that brand of authoritarianism. But Queensland had iron-fisted premiers on both sides of politics before Bjelke-Petersen, and both Beattie and Goss occasionally succumbed to the temptations that Queensland’s relatively unchecked executive power extends to its premiers. These facts point to unresolved structural weaknesses in Queensland’s polity – which Joh exploited rather than created.

Also, part of Joh’s success lay in the fact that he was – under the watch of key advisers such as Allan Callaghan – probably the most modern politician Queensland had seen up to that point, especially in areas like media management. The problem was that for much of his reign, everybody else was catching up.

Self-congratulatory assessments of boomer radicalism miss the fact that the immediate effect of most protests was to bolster Joh’s leadership. Indeed, his hold on the premiership was tenuous until his brutal, but electorally well-received response to the Springbok tour protests in 1971. If the protest movement was really maintaining an intellectual tradition and incubating political leaders, how did a Kingaroy primary-school graduate out-manouevre them for so long? How did they not see that every conflict in the streets strengthened his hand? Why did they take so long to formulate strategies to dislodge him?

Hidden Queensland does nothing to allay the feeling that the broad left was as weak, divided, misdirected and as disconnected from Queenslanders at large as the Labor party was for most of Joh’s reign. In fact, Beattie’s or Goss’s or Swan’s contributions lie largely in recognising that much of the broad left was heading down a cul-de-sac, and in making the only part of the opposition with a chance of success – the Labor Party – viable.

Similarly – leaving aside that fact that Rudd left Queensland early, and is hardly even of the Labor movement, let alone the protest movement – when he returned as a Goss adviser, he obstinately set about fixing a broken system by working on proper process. If we really want to understand him, we should look to this obsessive quest to restore good governance from 1989, or perhaps to his struggle to make himself safe as Member for Griffith from 1998. Intellectual? Yes. Radical? No.

Protest didn’t topple Joh – that was left to a confluence of his own hubris, a rebellious National Party, mind-bending corruption scandal, and the belated stirrings of democratic institutions. We’re just fortunate that some key figures did the dirty work of making sure that Labor was electable when its time came.

The lack of significant formative influence from Brisbane’s radicals can be seen in what has happened since then – Labor has led a fairly traditionally pro-development Queensland Government in most of the intervening period (albeit with better processes in place). Beattie was successful because, like Joh, he crafted his messages to appeal to non-metropolitan audiences, and didn’t run too far ahead of a conservative electorate. The legacy, or lesson, of the era might be about the need to pragmatically target mainstream opinion, and that political success in Queensland is about tricky negotiations with multiple constituencies, not vanguardism or confrontation. If there has been significant political change, it has involved repairing process. That may sound familiar.

Historically, much of Queensland’s story has been written from Brisbane, even though an unusually large proportion of the population lives outside the capital, and many of the Queenslanders who have made a difference have come from the regions and the country. Joh and previous Labor governments prospered in part because of their engineering of the electoral system to give greater weight to country voters, and in part because Joh laser-targeted his messages at them.

My great Aunt in Bowen – generous, funny and a pillar of her community – still defends him, because Joh convinced her and thousands of other Queenslanders that he was representing them "down south", and fighting against the kind of change that the protest movement obligingly volunteered to embody. On the other hand, Joh-era Brisbane, with its failing institutions and entrenched corruption, was a problem that the rest of the State had to solve – Swan and Rudd came from Nambour, Beattie from Atherton, Goss from Mundubbera via Inala.

It’s pleasing, then, to see so many pieces in Hidden Queensland devoted to the State’s far-flung regions and provincial cities. There’s exemplary history in Anna Haebich’s look at the founding of Bowen, and Michael Wesley’s account of the PM’s old haunt of Nambour. There are more personal pieces on bits of Queensland that are often forgotten, misrepresented or dismissed. I very much enjoyed Adam Narnst’s short essay on Mackay, which is framed as a response to Ross Gibson’s Seven Versions of an Australian Badland. It’s a miniature version of the collection as a whole, showing that even badlands have other stories to be told about them, and shared understandings to be voiced. Altogether, I don’t believe that I’ve seen a better collection of pieces about regional Queensland.

There’s one exception, however. Luke Slattery’s "Falling to Earth" is an account of his childhood in Townsville, and this reader found it a little too self-serving and self-satisfied. He writes at one point that Townsville is impossible to romanticise, but doesn’t show the same restraint with his own autobiography, treating the city as a backdrop to the development of his own, transcendent excellence. The trope of Queensland as a place to be left behind by the gifted native on the way to greatness is tired, and here, it’s charmlessly employed.

Despite quibbles, Hidden Queensland does manage to nuance the reader’s idea of the State. It’s timely, because not only are our favourite sons and daughters taking the reins of the country, but demographic changes are making the State more prominent in the nation’s life.

Hidden Queensland doesn’t definitively unveil the concealed face of the Sunshine State – there isn’t one to unveil, or at least not just one. But it may encourage other writers to try to register Queensland’s complexity. For this reason alone, it’s recommended reading.

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