How Will Birdsville Vote?


It’s a Friday night in Birdsville, outback Queensland. Many of the town’s 80 or so residents are at the pub, the only place to get a cooked meal and a drink in summer. In the corner, the local nurse is playing Crowded House covers on her guitar. She’s busking — trying to raise $3000 to replace the Birdsville Clinic’s electrocardiogram (ECG) machine, which broke down a few months ago.

Until she raises the money, the closest ECG machine will be 700 kilometres away. The most common, usually inexpensive cardiac monitoring test, will cost Birdsville patients hundreds of dollars. They’ll have to drive or fly the 700 kilometres, coughing up for airfares or fuel, as well as paying for accommodation while they wait for the 10-minute test. That is, until the nurse plays enough covers to pay for what should be a government-funded piece of equipment.

This is life in remote Queensland.

The tourist season begins in April, when the temperatures have dropped enough to entice travellers into the back of beyond, to experience what many consider to be the essential Australia. It’s the Australia of bushies, battlers, cattle, R. M. Williams boots and Akubras. It’s also the Australia that politicians often forget about.

With the Queensland state election only days away, some Birdsville residents are worried that they’re running out of time to pick a side. Will it be Labor, the 20-year-old government that privatised transport resulting in a huge increase in the cost of travel to remote Queensland?

Will it be the LNP party, with Campbell Newman at the helm, who is planning to repeal the Wild Rivers statutory protection of rivers, including Birdsville’s Diamantina River, by opening such reserves to mining?

Or will it be the untested Australia Party with their graphic and aggressive television ads condemning same-sex marriage? 

For many remote Queenslanders, no candidate has satisfactorily addressed the issues of paramount importance. Health, education, high speed internet, transport, roads and housing are primary concerns. Like in other electorates, these basic needs are not being met. But, unlike other electorates, alternative facilities are much, much further away. The closest city is 1200kms by road.

That’s a long way to travel if you suddenly find yourself homeless. In January, Birdsville resident Kathy Kracht was in this situation. Her landlord increased the rent without notice. Kracht couldn’t afford to pay the exorbitant increase or challenge it. There were no other houses available for rent or sale in Birdsville, where she is a full-time employee.

After filling in an 18-page application for one of the few available community housing properties, she was informed that she was not a high priority applicant, despite working in the town and having nowhere to live. Almost three months later she was given a one-bedroom townhouse for herself, her partner and her partner’s young daughter who sometimes stays with them. "I was effectively homeless for three months," she says. "I work hard and I like to be self-sufficient but here I was with nowhere to go. I believe I’m entitled to the option of renting a house but there just aren’t any houses available to rent in Birdsville."

However, the Diamantina Shire Council’s Corporate Plan suggests there will be 2000 people living in the Diamantine Shire by 2029, an increase from the current population of 350. The housing shortage is of urgent significance.

Birdsville isn’t the only town with this issue. With the huge growth in mining, there’s been an influx of workers to regional Queensland and there are just not enough houses to accommodate them. Both Campbell Newman and Anna Bligh have failed to satisfactorily address this issue in the 2012 Queensland election campaign. It is just one of many issues affecting rural Queensland that is being ignored.

In the Queensland Debate on Monday, little was discussed about regional Queensland. Anna Bligh did suggest that should the LNP be victorious on Saturday, Newman would be passing over experienced frontbenchers, like Vaughan Johnson of Gregory, because of their support for previous leader, Lawrence Springborg. Bligh implied that this would disadvantage regional Queenslanders because they would not be equally represented in parliament. However, Newman denies that this would be the case.

In contrast, Katter’s Australian Party, led in Queensland by Aidan McLindon, seems to have been tailor-made for the outback voter. Conceived by controversial federal independent MP Bob Katter, a western Queensland cowboy, its policies are enticing for farmers.

The Australian Party promotes Australian production of food and agriculture, is against the privatisation of state assets, against the Coles/Woolworths near duopoly that is crushing the value of farmers’ produce and vocal about the specific needs of regional Australians.

The Australian Party, the party for "shootin’, huntin’ and fishin‘", is also the most aggressively critical of same-sex marriage. According to Australian Marriage Equality, 62 per cent of Australians agree with same-sex marriage.

The thing is, many regional Queenslanders will not consider the Australian Party’s social policies. The fact that the party developed in the outback and is strongly advocating farming, agriculture and Australian production may be enough for people to ignore its controversial stance on same-sex marriage.

This is particularly disappointing as Campbell Newman does support same-sex marriage. Still, he is the candidate most likely to ignore regional Queenslanders should he win. He has said that the LNP supports Queensland tourism — but the LNP supports mining and will sacrifice national park land to enable more.

Because of mining, it’s almost impossible to book a motel room in regional Queensland. Mines have booked whole motels for six months or more and the general public has nowhere to stay. This concerns outback Queenslanders, in particular, especially those towns without mines. Before the mines, their towns largely survived on tourism. After the resources are exhausted and the miners leave, they will have to start from scratch to rebuild the once thriving tourist trade. The scarred land will make it much harder.

Living in the outback has never been easy. You need strength, organisation and a bloody good sense of humour. We’re not in Brisbane — without government help we can’t turn to the closest alternative for medical services, housing or transport, even if we had the money for private providers. There aren’t any. Instead, our nurses busk for tips.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.