Understanding Herbert: Politics and Colonialism in Northern Queensland
By Madeline Ward
The journalist Jason Wilson has named North Queensland “the sharp end of Australia.” Originally from Townsville, Wilson is one of the only writers in Australia seeking deeper understanding of the region, though the recent federal election result will likely bring, as Wilson predicts, scores of journalists from the southern Cities analysing the culture of the North. Like Wilson, I was born and raised in Townsville, leaving home at 17 to study at the University of Sydney. Almost my entire family still lives there, and in visiting home for the two weeks leading up to the federal election I was reminded of the many complexities of one of the least understood regions in Australia.
The visual effect of Clive Palmer’s $60 million on advertising was most present in inner city Townsville. The United Australia Party was never going to poll highly in Herbert: the memory of Townsville’s working class is long, and Clive Palmer is deeply disliked in Northern Queensland. Palmer is yet to pay the entitlements owed to the 800 workers that lost their jobs in the financial collapse of the Queensland Zinc Refinery in 2016, a refinery that he has promised to re-open with little success. Not even the star power of former rugby player-turned politician Greg Dowling could save the UAP, who in Herbert received a thousand less votes than the Greens. Was, as many have suggested, the $60 million all for naught? In Townsville, the garish yellow billboards and posters were inescapable as the aesthetics of Palmer’s unique brand of vaguely unhinged conservatism dominated every corner of the CBD. Combined with the over-representation of other right-wing minor parties, such as the KAP, Australian Conservatives and One Nation, the advertisements had the effect of cloaking the city in conservatism.
But this abundance of conservatism is not isolated to the election period. News Corp enjoy a year-round monopoly on the press, with the Townsville Bulletin most recently embarking on a sustained campaign in favor of building the highly controversial Adani Carmichael Mine. In a world where most people get their news from the internet, surely print media couldn’t have this much of an impact? In Townsville, like other regional towns, the Bulletin is as much a cultural item as it is a news source: weekend editions contain photos of recent events and social gatherings, people announce recent marriages, deaths and babies. Pro-Adani politics also dominate the airwaves: Triple M breakfast presenter Pricey is somewhat of a Townsville icon, and can be heard espousing the benefits of the mine on breakfast radio, in between repeats of Pearl Jam.
A large part of this regional culture is the deep resentment people in Northern Queensland have for their southern neighbours, including those that live in parts of Queensland that are south of Rockhampton. This is a historic resentment that is experiencing a contemporary resurgence: half-joking calls for the succession of North Queensland can be heard often in public discussion, and politicians, including Labor’s Cathy O’Toole, know to play into this bias by deriding their southern colleagues. In many senses, this desire is understandable. Townsville experiences double the national unemployment rate, and in many senses it feels as though the city is dying. Long running local businesses are shutting with increasing frequency, and council attempts to revive the city have been met with little success. The recent floods have only heightened this feeling, with 3100 homes in Townsville remaining severely damaged, and 1,800 uninhabitable. The Townsville Bulletin, and local MPs, are increasingly preoccupied with the idea that Townsville is becoming the “Crime Capital of North Queensland” with the paper splitting its coverage more or less evenly between building the fear of a youth crime wave and advocating for the building of the Adani Coal Mine. The dominant feeling amongst the population of Townsville is that, along with the rest of North Queensland, it is largely forgotten by state and federal government.
Adani, along with the false promise of its 10,000 jobs, is naturally thought of as the saviour of the region. Any resistance to Adani, especially from southern activists, is thus met with an often violent opposition, a violence that is in many senses over-inflated and encouraged by the Townsville Bulletin. Bob Brown’s recent climate convoy was met with similar derision by locals, many of whom see these activist interventions as southerners, who know nothing about living in North Queensland, telling them what to do.
That’s not to say that Queensland is any more racist or conservative than the rest of the country, though the legacy of colonialism is more immediately apparent in Far North Queensland than it is in many other parts of Australia. Queensland is not especially unique for the fact that it is racist- the racism of Queensland is the same that affects every layer of Australian society, but there is something different about it. Many have suggested that the specific manifestation of racism in Northern Queensland is due to the development of its economy and its geographic distance from major city centres, which I think is true. The enduring legacy of colonialism, which in Queensland feels ever present and slightly more recent, is at play in kind.
As Jason Wilson pointed out in his analysis, Labor received “the lowest primary vote in the seat since the first national election 1901, when north Queenslanders sent Labor’s Fred Bamford to Canberra after he campaigned on excluding South Sea Islander workers from the sugar cane fields.” This electoral anecdote is an echo of a point in Australian history that has been, until recently, largely forgotten: blackbirding. Blackbirding refers to the practice of kidnapping men from the Pacific Islands- namely the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, to work as labourers on plantations in Queensland. The first of the blackbirded labourers arrived in Queensland in 1863, in the same year that Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in the USA. The practice ended with The Pacific Island Labourers Act of 1901, which ordered the mass deportation of the 10,000 indentured labourers in Australia, and marked the beginning of the White Australia Policy as we understand it today.
Blackbirding is as much a part of Queensland’s present as it is an important part of its past: but a trip through the cane producing regions north of Mackay has scant mention of it, even in all of the museums dedicated to sugarcane and agricultural production. The South Sea Islander community nonetheless persist in telling their historical and contemporary stories: The Mackay and District Australian South Sea Islander Association ran a project to uncover the unmarked mass grave of hundreds of blackbirded labourers in the Mackay Cemetery in 2016, and the Australian South Sea Islanders Association do important work in activism and awareness, most prominently calling for further awareness and understanding of the history of Blackbirding in North Queensland.
In Townsville, a life-size statue of the city’s namesake stands next to the Victoria Bridge. Robert Towns was the owner of that ship that initiated the first waves of blackbirding in 1863, and yet there is no mention of his fundamental role in this history on any of the many statues and monuments dedicated to his legacy in Townsville. Though there have been persistent efforts to change this, most initiated by the Australian South Sea Islanders Association, the city remains in ignorance of its recent colonial past.
65 kilometres north of the coast of Townsville lies Palm Island, a former settlement established by the early colonial government where Indigenous people from a number of locations in Queensland were taken after being forcibly removed from their communities. The post-invasion history of Palm Island is one of colonist state violence and Indigenous survival and resistance, with the community most recently experiencing a water crisis not dissimilar to that of Walgett in NSW, or of Flint in the United States. The tap water on Palm Island has been undrinkable for almost a year, after several years of ongoing water supply issues. There was much talk of fixing the water supply from Labor in the last days of the Federal election campaign, but with the shock win of the Coalition, the situation remains unaddressed by both parties, and residents of Palm Island are forced to rely on bottled water supplied by the Palm Island Aboriginal Shire Council. There has been very little coverage devoted to the issue outside of North Queensland, though Aboriginal community leaders are persistently vocal in demanding action. Colonialism is not so much a ghost in Northern Queensland as it is an ever present force of oppression.
It’s likely that you’ve encountered the meme being shared across social media since last Saturday’s “shock” conservative victory: a map of so-called Australia, with the entirety of Queensland omitted. Intended to represent the great betrayal of the uneducated, bogan masses of the Sunshine State, the image is in fact a stunning visual metaphor for the role that Queensland plays in the liberal imagination of contemporary Australian culture. In inner-city Sydney, where one needn’t regularly confront the hum of racism and conservatism that exists under all Australian society, small-l liberals may smugly share their surprise and devastation at the loss of a progressive party on Saturday evening. By establishing North Queensland, a distant geographic and social concept, as a racist, uncouth outlier, city dwelling progressives are able to escape responsibility for their own role in our settler-colonial society, and in doing so escape responsibility for changing it.