On Friday morning Queenslanders woke up to yet more apocalyptic tidings. The beaches of Moreton and Bribie Islands and the Southern reaches of the Sunshine Coast were smothered with thick black oil.
It had come from the belly of a ship, the MV Pacific Adventurer. On Wednesday morning, as it sailed into cyclonic conditions and a 9-metre swell, the ship lost some 31 containers from its cargo of ammonium nitrate explosive. One or more of these containers pierced the ship’s hull, causing its fuel to leak into the sea.
A horrendous clean-up job awaits, but there are fears that even if the spill can be contained, the ammonium nitrate, also widely used as a fertiliser, might choke Moreton Bay with a toxic algal bloom, killing yet more fish, birds and turtles. The squall-borne load of explosive fertilising chemicals and sludge called to mind the Prime Minister’s new favourite swear-word, "shitstorm", as a singularly apt description. Some of the world’s most beautiful beaches will be, for some time yet, places of deep sadness.
The latest catastrophe comes in a year that has brought floods in the north and a cyclone to southern parts of the state that wouldn’t normally expect one. Late last year, a freak, tornado-like event ripped up The Gap and Ferny Hills, fate singling out two of the capital’s leafiest, comfiest suburbs. Here in the New Farm cafe where I’m writing, people have been discussing this confluence of events in hushed tones. Doom stalks the Sunshine State.
Not helping are the first clear indications that Queensland will suffer profoundly from the global downturn. Its AAA credit rating, budget surplus, and near-full employment are all memories. As a resource economy with a side of tourism, the state has always been struck hard by recessions. Less trade, less manufacturing elsewhere, and less money in the pockets of potential visitors have tended to leave Queensland with nowhere to go. Rhetorically, the Beattie years brought promises that this dependence on trading in nature’s bounty would lessen — the "Smart State" was an idea that even became Queensland’s number plate slogan.
But if some things did change during the nine years of Beattie’s reign, they needed to change much more. There may have been some investment in big-ticket educational and research infrastructure, and there were attempts to encourage new industries to take root, but while Beattie talked a good game (a superb one, actually) he didn’t deliver enough. As with the rest of the country, too much of the proceeds of the boom went into consumption and housing stock, not enough into infrastructure, or essential services like health and education. The entire state is under-serviced; the south-east corner is now crowded to boot. A whole segment of baby boomers who are seeing their retirement savings eroded are now looking at an enfeebled public health system with naked fear. If Anna Bligh inherited this, she hasn’t shown the voters convincingly enough that she has the wherewithal to fix it.
Under the circumstances, Queenslanders’ apparent lack of interest in this strange, irrelevant, funereal state election campaign is understandable. Despite the opportunity to elect a woman for the first time, or endorse the new conservative party, people are struggling even to feign enthusiasm. The evenly poised polls could be read as a surge of support for the Liberal National Party, but Online Opinion‘s Graham Young and others have suggested that really they’re a sign of collective ambivalence and resignation. A statewide shrug. This has been described as apathy by some, but I think it could equally be a quite sensible recognition that neither side of politics in the state has any credible plans, any vision for the state, much political talent or any solutions to the looming catastrophe. Further, recent experience will have shown them that state governments won’t, or can’t, deliver what they are repeatedly told that people want.
In the regions, where half of Queensland lives, there will be keen memories of the 1990s recession, which brought terrible social tragedies like 25 per cent youth unemployment in some areas. Recent prosperity has come apart very quickly in the state’s north. An explosion in real estate values as a result of the mining boom in places like Cairns and Townsville has turned around savagely, and recently we’ve seen the collapse of symbols of regional wealth like Storm Financial. As a result of this disaster alone, many people in their 50s and 60s in North Queensland have lost hard-won savings, are leveraged up to the eyeballs, and are increasingly unable to service their debts.
As people try to unload houses in a collapsing real estate market, they are also forced to use hospitals in crisis, and live in communities where racial and social divides are suddenly accentuated by hard times. If the state can’t even organise accommodation for nurses, what will they be able to do about problems of this magnitude?
There is a larger issue here that goes to the heart of our federation — people are rightly confused about what state governments are for, and what they represent, at a time when the central government is seizing the initiative in more and more areas but is itself confronted with enormous difficulties in steering the country through its current economic problems. The original federation was created to recognise not only different jurisdictions and different responsibilites, but different histories and identities. So what does it mean to be a Queenslander now? Neither of Queensland’s major parties seem to offer much of a clue on this score either.
If Queenslanders saw evidence of leadership, capability and bona fides among the candidates, their attention might be focused a little bit more on this contest. As it is, faced with disaster on several fronts, and no solutions, they might be forgiven for devoting their energies elsewhere. When ships are spewing filth over Queensland’s pride — its beaches — why waste time rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic?
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