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Rural and Regional Volatility: Across Endless Plains and Wealth Divides

By Denis Bright

From the cities of the Darling Downs to the nearby grain-belt and grazing lands beyond, rural and Outback Queensland is usually perceived as LNP Heartland.

The LNP now hold every state and federal seat west of Ipswich except for Kennedy, held by veteran Independent, Bob Katter jnr. The Toowoomba-focused federal seat of Groom and the sprawling seat of Maranoa are currently the safest federal LNP seats in Queensland.

Pockets of resistance remain like the town of Barcaldine. Many local families still recall the symbolism generated by the Shearers’ Strike of 1893 and the formation of the Labor Party under the Tree of Knowledge in Barcaldine.

Now in the safe LNP electorate of Maranoa, some of the old flame still burns brightly as shown by the federal election vote in Barcaldine on 2 July 2016.

Labor had better historical successes in representing the Outback. James Page was the veteran member for Maranoa (1901-21). After the loss of Maranoa to the Country Party at a by-election in 1921, Labor managed to regain the seat for one term (1940-43).

Barcaldine Votes in Maranoa Electorate

Labor’s hold on the seat of Kennedy lasted almost continuously for 65 years to 1966. Veteran Labor member Charles McDonald died on the day before the 1925 federal election. Ultra-conservative candidate Grosvenor Francis was deemed to have been elected unopposed. Grosvenor Francis narrowly retained the seat for the last and only time in a fully contested election in 1928.

Kennedy became Katter-country in 1966. Labor regained the seat briefly (1990-93) after the retirement of Bob Katter snr.

Labor’s long drought in the outback at a federal level was challenged by the creation of the new seat of Flynn in Central Queensland. It extended to Gladstone and included many Central Queensland coal mining communities.

Flynn was held by Labor’s Chris Trevor (2007-10). In the less than predictable 2016 federal election, Labor’s Zac Beers reduced the LNP’s margin to 1.04 per cent after a resurgence of the One Nation Party (ONP) brought a new element of volatility into Outback Politics.

Inviting Critical Comments

Despite occasional visits to the Region, my article can only offer an outsider’s perspective. Comments are always welcome to broaden my understanding of the local political dynamics. However, Outback seats at federal and state levels are worthy of attention at a time of recent controversies over the Adani mine and the coal seam gas issues.

Insights into regional politics during the early 1940s were passed on by my parents.

My deceased mother, Kathleen Ryan, served as a teacher at Malakoff Road School outside Dalby as well as North Branch School near Pittsworth.

My father, Colin Bright, spent some months at Wallangarra in a posting to the Ammunitions and Logistics Depot (Wedding Picture St. Mary’s Ipswich, 20 January 1945).

The Depression Years challenged the optimism of the post-1918 period. Schools like Malakoff Road were opened to educate the baby-boomers from the Great War Period (1914-18). This optimism is captured in the line sketch of Malakoff Road School by Chris Souilijaert.

Australian politics after the 1940 election were secondary issues to hard-working families in rural Australia.

Most well-connected families supported their local Prime Minister Arthur Fadden who held the seat of Darling Downs for the United Australia Party (UAP)-Country Party Coalition. His accession to national leadership followed a no-confidence vote against Prime Minister Robert Menzies in late-August 1941. Toowoomba’s political fame as the Prime Minister’s home electorate was short-lived.

Labor’s Response to Regional Disadvantage

As war-clouds gathered in the late 1930s, there was an over-supply of smaller farm holdings on the Darling Downs which had political implications in rural electorates locally and across Australia.

Labor won the Gwydir federal by-election in North Western NSW on 8 May 1937. The seat was held by Labor until the Menzies’ landslide in 1949. The federal seat of Maranoa was won by Labor from the Country Party and held for just a single term (1940-43).

The Labor member, Francis Patrick Baker (1873-1959), had come up through the ranks as a teacher to serve as an inspector of schools. Francis Patrick followed his son Francis Matthew John Baker (1903 to 28 March 1939) as member for Oxley (1931-37) and then Griffith (1937-39). With a law degree almost completed, Francis Matthew John Baker’s life was cut short in a road accident.

Leyburn is reputed to be the birthplace of Francis Patrick Baker. It is a touch ironical that Leyburn is now a hot-bed of local support for the ONP. Both Leyburn and the Border Township of Wallangarra divided 50-50 for ONP after the allocation of preferences in the federal electorate of Maranoa at the 2016 federal election. Only the Charleville North Booth could achieve a better result for the ONP with a 52-48 divide against the LNP.

In those far-off days, disillusionment with market ideology was channelled to the Labor Party. In the Toowoomba-based federal seat of Darling Downs, Labor activist Leslie Bailey had reduced the majority of the Leader of the Opposition, Arthur Fadden, by 1943.

The transition from the United Australia Party (UAP)-Country Party Government of Arthur Fadden on 7 October 1941 to Labor’s John Curtin did not require a second unscheduled war-time election.

Two Victorian Independents who had kept the Fadden Government in office simply changed their allegiance. The Toowoomba-based Arthur Fadden representing the seat of Darling Downs was now Leader of the Opposition until 1943. Leadership reverted to Robert Menzies after a disastrous wartime election loss in 1943.

The two Victorian Independents chose to change sides and support Labor’s no-confidence motion against Prime Minister Arthur Fadden who had just deposed Robert Menzies in a wartime leadership spill. The Independents should have been pillars of the UAP-Country Party Coalition. Arthur Coles was the son of the deceased founder of Coles Variety Stores. The second Independent was Alexander Wilson, wheat farmer and now disillusioned former Country Party Member for Wimmera.

A resurgent Labor Party had no qualms about taking up the needs of constituents in rural and regional Australia.

Do parallels exist in contemporary Australia to cope with a new wave of political volatility?

Contemporary Challenges

Before the last state election on 25 November 2017, media speculation about the extent of the challenge posed by ONP proved to be an overstatement, but only in retrospect. The state electorate ultimately rejected the possibility of a minority LNP government that depended on the ONP for crucial supply votes. This was not a foregone conclusion before the votes had been tallied and the preferences allocated.

Real efforts were made in ONP campaigning which secured the seat of Mirani in Central Queensland on LNP preferences. 78.49 per cent of LNP preferences in Mirani went to the ONP.

The risk of this scenario was still apparent on both sides of the Great Dividing Range in South East Queensland (SEQ).

In the largely urbanized Beaudesert-focused state electorate of Scenic Rim, ONP scored 27.6 per cent of the primary vote.

In the state seat of Lockyer, ONP harvest was more threatening with 34.4 per cent of the primary vote. This translated to 45.9 per cent after preference allocations.

To a region that is in search of more investment flows, corporate townships like Plainlands by the Warrego Highway to Toowomba were deemed to be compatible with the town planning guidelines of the Lockyer Valley Council.

Corporate New Town Near the Vegetable Patches at Plainlands in the Lockyer Valley

In the words of the old popular folk song from the 1960s, constituents need more than tar and cement to maintain personal and social identities. Struggling to pay off a large mortgage in a new corporate town may be fun for a while but eventually the burdens of life can take hold unless family income levels are comfortable enough to meet the repayments.

While there was no polling booth in Plainlands at the last state election, the ONP primary vote exceeded 30 per cent in Gatton and reached 44.67 per cent at the attractive nearby township of Helidon.

Federal LNP leaders retain their steadfast faith in this market ideology when a better balance between market and government intervention is so essential for sustainable regional futures and for their long-term survival as representative.

This balance was not forthcoming from stalwarts of the federal LNP who made a strategic switch from the state seat of Toowoomba South to represent Groom (Dr John McVeigh’s Maiden Speech 12 September 2016):

I applaud those who work their guts out, as business founders, owners or employees, who succeed in their businesses and their jobs such that they can then contribute in turn to their communities.

I often regret that such Australians and their families can be seen by some as privileged, and their success as being unfair, when that is exactly the enterprise, self-reliance and community support that we need to encourage in our country—in line with the Liberal ideals of enterprise and social justice.

It is, as our Prime Minister and Treasurer have stated, the moral challenge of our time to bring the national budget back into order for the sake of future generations—and that is as true in Groom as it is anywhere in our nation.

The ongoing challenge of limited resources and competing interests, I believe, is best addressed by small government that backs rather than regulates individual enterprise and freedom.

We must appreciate the very broad range of concerns and aspirations across the generations and world views that make up our nation—especially those who feel disenfranchised—but at the same time we must guard against extremism in any guise.

Ongoing reform and change is difficult for any community, but it is up to us as representatives here, and our state and local colleagues right across the nation, to listen to our communities, to represent our communities, and to lead the change necessary for our nation’s future.

Fortunately, a rejection of this market ideology is in the air.  Labor launched its Darling Downs Environment Action Network (LEAN) at Pechey Homestead near Crows Nest, just 40 kilometres from Toowoomba on Saturday 21 April 2018. In a spirit of bipartisanship, even key LNP members on the State Parliamentary Innovation, Tourism Development and Environment Committee were invited to the event.

Perhaps the spirit of change has extended to David Littleproud as Federal Minister Minister for Agriculture and Member for Maranoa whose federal electorate does extend to the Bunya Mountains and Crows Nest:

Agriculture and Water Resources Minister David Littleproud says farmers should not be given “carte blanche” when it comes to managing their land and environmental assets.

But amid the announcement of an agri-specific review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, Mr Littleproud said governments should be able to entrust them with land stewardship and management “in a balanced and mature way”.

The EPBC Act review was announced last week by Mr Littleproud and Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg following a recommendation of the Productivity Commission’s comprehensive report last year into red and green tape in Australian agriculture.

The Minister’s environmental activism is very qualified on the big challenges facing outback Australia such as water management in the Murray-Darling Basin, expansion of irrigated farming, coal seam gas exploration or federal funding for the Adani Carmichael coal mine.

At federal level, Dr John McVeigh in Groom had his federal primary vote trimmed by a mere 1.64 per cent to 54 percent in 2016. ONP did not contest the federal seat of Groom at the 2016 elections.

Dr McVeigh’s vote of majority after preferences of 65.31 was greatly assisted by a significant Family First vote (10.02 per cent). The member for Groom now has a place in the federal LNP’s Inner Ministry as Minister for Regional Development, Territories and Local Government.

While urban and regional planning is not a prime federal responsibility, the Turnbull Government can always assist in funding for big-ticket items that assist in the delivery of planning goals including the SEQPlan 2016-41 which extends to the City of Toowoomba and the Darling Downs Regional Plan.

The Inland Freight Railway is held up by the LNP as an example of positive federal intervention in support of the regions. The electorate might be surprised that it is not designed to carry passenger traffic from Toowoomba. It terminus will be the anticlimax of the Intermodal Rail-Road freight terminal at Bromelton near Beaudesert, some 80 kms south of the Port of Brisbane.

In the Groom electorate, there were a few ripples of dissent in parts of Toowoomba and adjacent townships. Nevertheless, Labor’s primary vote in Groom was 22.2 per cent (up 0.1 per cent). Preferences from minor parties, built Labor’s vote up to 33.53 per cent after preferences which was a good result in a conservative heartland seat.

There is an emergent challenge to continued LNP control of Toowoomba and District from a more educated workforce in education, health and other service sectors. Welcome to an increasingly diverse region that extends from the City of Toowoomba across the Toowoomba Planning Region with a projected population of 205,025 by 2036.

Toowoomba’s Labor Day March in 2018 should attract an enthusiastic crowd of marchers and supporters from the education, health, administrative, transport and construction sectors (QTU Online 2017). The vibes generated is surely just as steadfast in the best traditions of Labor Day Marches in the 1950s when the industrial and transport sectors were in their heyday.

One in six residents in the Wider Toowoomba Region had changed houses in the last year according to the latest report from the Queensland Government Statistician. This is no longer a region which has been locked into years of ongoing support for the LNP. It is equally open to challenges from both Labor and ONP.

Despite the clean sweep by the LNP at federal elections in 2016, there are some significant emergent trends which can be fostered by new generation progressive leaders from the ranks of the marchers and supporters.

In the federal seat of Maranoa, federal LNP member just missed out on an absolute majority with 49.19 per cent of the primary vote.

The ONP polled well with 17.82 per cent of the primary vote, compared with Labor’s 18.27 per cent (up 1.98 per cent). There were strong localized pockets of ONP support particularly in some outback towns.

The contest was a very unequal one with the LNP’s David Littleproud attaining 67.54 per cent of the final vote after preferences. The Katter’s Australia Party (KAP) candidate offered a strong preference flow to ONP. Labor and Family First preferences were divided between the LNP and the ONP.

In the Charleville booths, the final vote after preferences divided 54-46 per cent after preferences in favour of the LNP over ONP.

Even in Charleville, median home rental prices are still $218/week as home ownership is beyond the capacity or the immediate needs of many residents. The median home price of $145,000 is quite a daunting investment (realestate.com.au).

In the historic border town of Wallangarra, the outcome of the 2016 federal election was a tied vote between the LNP and ONP after preferences. ABC News Online announced the fate of Wallangarra just days after the federal election on 2 July 2016:

Low stock numbers and difficult global trading conditions have been blamed for the imminent closure of Queensland’s largest sheep-processing facility.

Thomas Foods International owns the plant located on the state’s southern border and has confirmed in a statement the Wallangarra abattoir will close on Friday for the “near to medium” future.

The Australasian Meat Industry Employees Union said while staff had been offered redundancies or the option to move to a New South Wales plant, it would have a dramatic effect on the small town.

Acting branch secretary Ian McLauchlan said while the closure was being called temporary, there was a chance it might be years before the plant operated again.

“The people have been stood down for two months and the company is saying that the availability of stock, especially goats and mutton, is not there to keep the plant in operation,” he said.

“The company said to me that they won’t say the plant will never open, but it may be two years before it opens up.”

Excellent ABC election graphics permit a closer look at the situation in the predominantly safe LNP state seats. The coverage comes with map graphics and overall swings. This can be extended to polling booths in each of the state electorates on the site of the Electoral Commission of Queensland (ECQ).

Outstanding too, are the regional economic reports which can be downloaded online from the Queensland Statistician’s Office. In thirty seconds, users of the site can generate their own economic profiles from any number of local authorities across the trajectory from Toowoomba to S W Queensland. A customized report from on all regions from Toowoomba to S W Queensland offers some sober realities that should encourage progressive activists to challenge the political hegemony of the LNP.

The starting point for change should be electoral enrolment drives particularly with school-leavers. In just two local government areas of Southern Downs and Western Downs, there were 2,000 unemployed people in the December Quarter of 2017.

From the Queensland Government Statistician’s Office, customized regional profiles can be generated in thirty seconds from interactive regional planning maps. Toowoomba and Darling Downs-Maranoa are actually better off than the state average. Many Outback Areas are unemployment black-spots. The fullest picture is available from comparative regional profiles of all areas.

Youth Unemployment Trends Across Queensland Regions

Such global figures need to be qualified by more data on underemployment levels, including involuntary part-time casual employment and unemployment concealed by tracking long-term unemployed people into training programmes.

Such unemployment in the midst of skill shortages across Australia’s regions has invited criticism from Business Council chief executive Jennifer Westacott (ABC News Online 30 November 2017).

The Chronicle Online in Toowoomba (21 March 2018) has offered positive and detailed coverage of Bill Shorten’s Town Hall Meeting in Gladstone in Central Queensland, just four days after Zac Beers was officially launched as candidate for the federal seat of Flynn.

Zac Beers made this federal seat marginal in 2016. The LNP survived by a one per cent after the distribution of preferences.

The Darling Downs Regional Plan looked to oil and gas industry as a key mechanism for economic diversification (Darling Downs Regional Plan Online 2012:17).

In the electorate of Flynn, the federal LNP is steadfast in its support for the Adani Carmichael Mine. Federal funding for the construction of the rail link from the mine to Abbot Point through the North Australia Investment Fund (NAIF) seems to be exempt from the LNP’s market ideology principles.

A better funded regional planning scheme might focus on the renewal of aesthetic townships like Allora. Such historic centres offer a remarkable heritage and hospitality to visitors and new residents. This town excels its own publicity machine with charming parks and heritage buildings.

Image: Aussie Towns Online 2018: ‘The Best Little Town on the Darling Downs’

Funding commitments to assist in the management of rural and regional networks across Australia will be part of Bill Shorten’s transition to government. Like Arthur Fadden as Prime Minister in 1941 in his Toowoomba-based electorate, the successors of the UAP-Country Party Coalition have a blind-spot about the needs of their own constituents due to their current over-commitments to market ideology and benevolence towards the funding of rail connections from the Adani Carmichael mine to the Coral Sea.

Denis Bright is a registered teacher and a member of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA). Denis has recent postgraduate qualifications in journalism, public policy and international relations. He is interested in advancing pragmatic public policies compatible with contemporary globalization.

 


14 comments

  1. Jon

    Country towns have some of Australia’s worst income divides. Ultimately the regions will have to assess which political party best supports them.

  2. Abdul

    Extensive insights into the political history of the region to now – what a journey.

  3. Paul

    Thanks for sharing the rich history of regional Australia Denis.

    Lots of challenges ahead for these areas. Innovated solitons from all sides will be needed to resolve and it will take some time.

  4. Andrew Smith

    Good article; not limited to Australia either.

  5. New England Cocky

    An excellent analysis for Queensland which possibly demonstrates that when you keep the population under-educated the political result is major crop of unthinking rednecks.

    Voters choosing to live in the luxury of an urban regional community must recognise that, as Tony Windsor said, “The world is run by those who turn up” which results in the second maxim “city based politicians can only rip-off country voters with the help of country voters”.

    When voters in urban regional centres realise that only the squeaky wheel gets the government infrastructure spending and turn their respective country electorates into swinging seats from the present idyllic political sinecures, then, and only then, will voters living in urban regional centres get fair and better value for their taxation.

    Why do I travel half way across the country to see my grandkids? Because successive governments have concentrated government jobs in metropolitan cities rather than seeing the opportunity in the ALP original high speed FTTP Internet to decentralise government jobs and hence the Australia population.

  6. Tessa_M

    Wonderful insights into the political history of regional qld. Regional planning is key to supporting our rural areas and towns.

  7. Stella

    Denis, thanks for your article highlighting the issues in rural and regional Qld.

  8. James Robo

    Regional planning is the way forward for rural communities in outback qld and beyond. Here’s hoping for innovative solutions from all levels of government.

  9. Myra

    An interesting political history of the region.
    It is important to have well educated localpassionate political advocates for these areas.
    Rural councils should not be allowed to subdivide some of our best farmlands such as the area around Plainlands with a nod from the LNP .

  10. Regional Player

    Commitment to Market Only Solutions by the LNP has been a disaster. Campbell Newman cut outback train services. All fuel supplies are now distributed by road to the regions. Cattle trains are privatized and the number of livestock moved by rail has totally diminished. Press reports suggest however, that he accepted a financial grant from the Commonwealth to install robots on his farm property. How inconsistent!

  11. Leila Smith

    Australia needs to be active in developi rural communities, we can’t sustain the urban sprawl of the big cities. Several issues arise at great cost to the community and family life.
    Decentralisation with industry and infrastructure developed across this great nation will enhance the quality and sustainablility of the nation and its people.
    Great article Denis

  12. Alan Nosworthy

    thank you for shedding light on a situation which has long puzzled and disturbed me as a 30 year resident of Kennedy “Katter country”. We were one of the last holdouts of One Nation at a state level, but Bob Katter is well aware that it is Labor and Green preferences which keep him in power as the lesser evil. This is reflected in his voting record and public utterances re. union bashing and indeed the glossy KAP manifesto delivered to my p.o.box. Contrary to new england cocky assertions my immediate neighbors hold a combined 5 doctorates mainly in environmental sciences whilst 2 others are working professors with J.C.U. and 1 retired professor of nuclear physics also lives close by. I may be letting the side down being sans tertiary qualifications beyond a trade, but am not the total dill that nec envisages every time Queensland is mentioned. Bobkat is a canny political operator and knows how to appeal to the disaffected

  13. Denis Bright in Brisbane

    Thanks Alan. Australia needs to be an inclusive independent country in the spirit of Francis Baker who was the Labor Member for Maranoa during the war years (1940-43).

    Francis Baker jnr also represented Oxley and then Griffith before his tragic death in a car accident. Labor ‘s win in Maranoa and Griffith at the 1939 by-election following Francis Baker jnr’s death meant that John Curtin had the numbers to form government in 1941 when the two Victorian Independents supported the no-confidence motion against Arthur Fadden as Prime Minister.

    Unlike today’s LNP which always manages to support President Trump in his eccentric policies, John Curtin withdrew the AIF Division from the Middle East despite opposition from Winston Churchill. The returning ships were not fully escorted and the AIF personnel were lucky to return safely. It is sheer folly to rely on ‘Great and Powerful Friends’ particularly while Conservatives are at the helm in Britain and the USA.

    Sending off war-ships to annoy the Chinese Navy in the South China Sea serves no real diplomatic goals and is a re-election stunt for Malcolm Turnbull.

    Who cares about academic qualifications, Alan. I am more concerned about underemployed people of all ages and cut-backs to TAFE training programmes in favour of profit making commercial colleges which are the LNP’s preferred training option.

    A Diploma Course in hair styling at a commercial college may cost $25,000 when countries like Germany offer free access to such training programmes.

  14. Maria H

    It would be marvellous if other states followed Victoria’s lead and offered 50 free TAFE courses.

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