‘You’ve got to hang shit on the place,’ an ambitious journo mate urged me in early 1989 when I was sent to Brisbane to work as the correspondent for the Age. ‘Treat it like a foreign posting,’ said another who’d been there before me, adding I would ‘need a lifeline out’.
It wasn’t exactly New York. But Queensland, with its crime-commission-carnival atmosphere, rogues’ gallery of crooked cops, politicians and dodgy, white-shoe-brigade businessmen, was rich pickings—a page-three-one-day, page-one-the-next news story for a Melburnian journalist like me with a broadsheet pedigree and self-righteous sense of my home state’s superior cultural credentials. ‘It’s good to run away from the pack sometimes,’ the first friend, predatory wolf-journo that he was, had added sagely.
Former premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen, former police minister Russ Hinze, former police commissioner Terry Lewis and (then) soon-to-be-former Supreme Court judge Angelo Vasta: these men were caricatures of an undemocratic state political system riddled with cronyism and ‘a culture of corruption’, as Commissioner Tony Fitzgerald said in his report. We had our problems down south, but our institutions were, we were sure, of a better breed, although that proposition would later be found wanting when the Victorian Cain government’s economic credentials collapsed along with the state’s finances.
When I packed my bags and flew north, I got to view the circus close up as the courtrooms of Queensland’s capital became packed theatres of exposed bad behaviour on the part of officials both small time and big. Outside the sun shone daily as Queensland began to shed its scaly old skin. And it was a lawyers’ bonanza. There had been two and a half years of corruption allegations involving senior police, judges, cabinet ministers and favours paid for with cash-filled brown paper bags. Colourful criminal trials resulted. Some big fish went to jail.
In the lead-up to the election that would sweep away much of that corruption and cronyism, spring turned to summer and an atmosphere of expectation gathered. Angry people, expecting change, turned out in greater than usual force to demonstrate for nothing more than the right to demonstrate. I was there reporting but also half participating, swaying on a platform in the Queen Street mall with the crowd as, one by one, demonstrators were dragged into police vans and arrested while onlookers simultaneously celebrated and jeered in the certainty that the laws the cops were enforcing with what seemed a heavy hand would soon be trashed. Part of me was tempted to get arrested so I could write a story about what I speculated was certain to be my mistreatment by the Queensland police.
On 2 December 1989, when Labor’s Wayne Goss thumped to victory after thirty-two years of National Party government, I wrote in the Age:
Queensland is to join the rest of Australia. The state, it appears, is ready to ditch its defiantly maverick status in favour of a political philosophy that applauds and rewards educated decision making and accountable government.
Was Queensland really that different from the rest of Australia? When, at twenty-seven, I arrived to live in Brisbane, I stayed at the Sheraton hotel for a couple of weeks while looking for somewhere to live. Having found a room in a share house, I invited my new housemates, a film-industry couple from Sydney, to dinner at the hotel’s silver service restaurant. The woman had bought a dress for the occasion but the manageress took issue with the boyfriend’s pants, which she said were jeans and a breach of the dress code. We three women looked him up and down like a cattle-yard specimen, arguing for a while about the definition of jeans. Finally he and we were allowed to stay, a good business decision on the restaurant’s part since it was almost empty. What followed was a poor excuse for a silver service meal, in which I noted and later wrote (with what I now see as arrogant smart-arsery) about the gaucheries of those hapless hospitality workers who were no doubt just trying to do their job as instructed. For me it summed up Queensland at that time: so full of conservative ideals, so unable to live up to them, so reluctant to let go of them.
I grew up in Melbourne but something had always pulled me north. Put it down to being born in a place where smothered optimism is what you feel when the low grey-blanket sky quickly conquers the half-sunny morning, as it so frequently does, without a fight. The smell of wood-smoke or the sound of an Aussie Rules footy match on a radio can perk you up, but only momentarily. The landscape remains grey and flat, the shadows on the roads deep and long, the inner city’s tram-tracked streets still towered over by high-rise housing commission estates, from which people scurry and the more desperate have been known to jump.
Others, similarly weighed down by Melbourne, a famous example being playwright David Williamson, chose Sydney to liberate their minds and bodies from those six-month-plus winters in what Leo Schofield cruelly termed ‘bleak city’ before he changed his mind and took up a lucrative arts post there. Sydney sparkled and swaggered. Queensland was seen as an intellectual backwater as well as a police state. But for me it was a breath of fresh air—a fucking great story in a semi-tropical location.
There seemed no end to the people on the take, the crass money, the religious nutters, the bizarre crime stories—which were probably no more bizarre than anywhere else when I think about it. (Why are we always tempted to blame a crime on its location?) They contrasted with the sheer physical beauty of a place so full of exotic smells, trees dripping with mangoes and ramshackle wooden houses with vertical-join weather boards that rattled when you walked through them to outside decks with better-than-Bali sunsets.
But it was a beauty ever under threat from ugly highways and overpasses, fast-buck tourist developers with greedy eyes on the state’s natural wonders and city lunch outlets with dishes drenched in melted cheese and equally drippy hospitality. It was also a place where you could still fight for something like the right to march in the streets or to not be persecuted by police for being homosexual; or to save the Daintree rainforest. And it was a place where indigenous issues were close enough to touch your white consciousness if not your white conscience.
I visited an Aboriginal community at Yarrabah, south of Cairns, where I met a seventeen-year-old petrol sniffer who told me a doctor said he’d be dead in three months. He was so matter of fact about it, as though it were a calling. In May 1989 I flew to Murray Island in the Torres Strait to cover a sitting of the Supreme Court, one of the first court hearings of the Mabo case. On the small plane over, I met a local kid coming home after six months in jail for, from what I could gather, what was at worst a bungled, small-time break and enter (which the angel-faced teenager denied), and at best a complete miscarriage of justice by an overzealous legal system. Dressed in acid wash jeans, which he’d bought for $80 of the income he’d earned in the clink, the kid was jumping out of his skin as the plane descended over the azure water to the tiny island—known to locals as Mer—of his and Eddie Mabo’s birth.
‘See it, see it?’ he said as we hit 5000 feet. ‘Do you like it?’
He was worried what his dad would say about him getting into trouble in Cairns. But his excitement to be home outweighed it. We sat on a trailer hooked up to the back of a tractor that met our plane after we landed on a grass strip at the top of the island. Our transport rocked and wobbled down the hill, our legs dangling over the sides as locals chatted up a storm about their visit to the mainland.
We were four days on Murray, where people drifted in and out of a makeshift court in the community hall and where wigged and gowned barristers stood looking incongruous before a multicoloured bar table addressing Justice Martin Moynihan, who looked even more out of place at a red and yellow floral ‘bench’ in front of a joyous island mural. At the end of this historic far north Queensland Supreme Court sojourn, women with brightly coloured dresses and flowers in their hair and men in shorts and crisply ironed short-sleeved shirts farewelled us with gifts of hats hand woven from banana leaves and adorned with pink hibiscus. Even the gowned barristers got into the spirit and swapped their horsehair wigs for them.
On Murray Island I saw the fish traps on which rested part of the Mabo challenge to the colonial British legal concept of terra nullius. I watched the children dancing at the water’s edge as small sharks chased schools of sardines into the shore. I ate the day’s fresh catch with yam chips from the local fish and chip. This, it was hard to fathom, was Queensland too. It was also Australia.
At the opposite end of the vast state’s reaches were parts of northern New South Wales that may as well have been Queensland if atmospherics were anything to go by. One of them was the hot dusty dead-end community of Toomelah in the far north inland of New South Wales where the then president of the Human Rights Commission and now disgraced former judge, Marcus Einfeld, once wept as he walked through the place’s raw sewage in rolled up suit pants and later ordered an inquiry into the living conditions of indigenous people there. I flew there from Brisbane for his return a year later where not much, apart from a bit of infrastructure, seemed to have changed although constructive noises were made by all concerned. Just another of those going-nowhere places in the middle of Australia’s nowhere.
The thing I remember most about the Toomelah job is the storm our tiny plane flew into on the way back to Brisbane. As our aircraft bounced around like a cigarette butt in the surf, the pilot looked younger by the second, my guts leapt to my mouth at ever-decreasing intervals and I lamented that afternoon that this story was neither bad enough nor good enough to die for.
In Queensland, more than anywhere else I’ve worked, so much of a journalist’s life is about being on the road, driving fast, or flying in tiny planes, for hours at a time to get to some far-flung state or federal electorate, to understand what makes its people tick and why they will or won’t vote an incumbent back in, or visiting a remote Aboriginal community, the Barrier Reef or the Daintree. Blackfellas, barramundi, bananas, pineapples, sharks, crocs and extreme weather events: there is no need for contrivance. These are among the many motifs that parade through Queensland’s stories, a metaphorical mural of its life and culture.
On 20 October 1989 I chartered a two-seater and once again overcame my fear of flying to go with an ex-RAAF pilot from Brisbane to cover what was then the worst road crash in Australian transport history. A semi-trailer driver, full of ephedrine, had hit a Brisbane-bound passenger bus on the Pacific Highway on the North Coast of New South Wales near Grafton. Twenty-one people died and twenty-two were injured.
When we got there eight hours after the impact, the dead and injured had been ferried to a handful of regional hospitals. Huge skid marks scarred the thin track of road, a stretch of which was still closed. A toothbrush, false teeth and a small plastic doll remained. As I noted them, I shivered in the quiet emptiness and lush beauty of the tall green grass and misty hills beyond, registering the unspeakable irony that this scene of such recent hell now, again, passed for paradise. Away we drove at speed ourselves from hospital to hospital hunting like pack wolves for bus crash survivors with their tales of good and bad luck. One lost seven members of his family. My story, which appeared on page one of the Age the next day, below an aerial photograph of the ripped-open bus, said:
In the eerie silence immediately after the Grafton bus crash, Graham Wilson found himself lying in a puddle on the Pacific Highway. He counted 18 bodies around him. The 18th body he counted was that of a child he had befriended hours before on the bus to Brisbane when the victims of Australia’s worst road smash were watching videos and drinking pineapple soft drinks.
The juxtaposition of happiness or beauty with something darkly opposite would often haunt me that year in Queensland. When I visited the friend of a friend at an idyllic farmhouse on a hilltop inland from Noosa, a small crowd came to watch the shooting of a pig. It’s with embarrassment that I look back on even having been there, of knowing such people as these posturing middle-aged backwoodsmen, jack-of-all-trades Queensland locals both new and old.
‘Any of youse feminists want to cut off the pig’s balls?’ said one of the men who’d helped wrangle the beast. I made mental notes of the scene although I’d refused to watch the actual killing. I knew I would want to tell that story sometime. Is that what a journalist does or is it, I now wonder, just a voyeur’s alibi? Back then I believed passionately in the journalist’s role as societal watchdog. But now I am less sure, more critical of the profession and its ego and adrenalin-driven nature. And what of the motivations of the other onlookers there that day? There was a sense, again, that life in Queensland was different. More raw. More bloody. More real. But it was a pride of identity that felt faked up to me, a poor excuse for primitive entertainment.
Yet this was not the whole story. I remember too tours down the Daintree River with conservationists who inspired me with their passion for the World Heritage listed forest, its river and its ecosystem. One guide railed against the injustice of hunting crocodiles that had the temerity to eat swimmers who chanced it in the river after a few too many cans on a balmy night, or the stupidity of teaching crocodiles to jump up at meat dangled from boats by tourist operators to create a spectacle for their paying hordes. If you listened, there were many such voices to be heard in Queensland. It’s just that they lacked clout.
A week before the 2 December 1989 Queensland election, I wrote the following introduction to a feature story, the headline for which was, ‘Will Queensland be born again?’
About midday next Sunday, the whine of power tools in Brisbane’s suburbs will give way to the smell of barbecues. Bare-chested men will alight from cars carrying cartons of Fourex towards meaty celebrations of nothing in particular. Straw hatted women will trail behind them wearing colourful cotton dresses, carrying plates of food under plastic … The men will drink from cans of beer in cooling foam containers. The women will drink from glasses. Smoke will curl through Hills hoists, past stainless steel garages and station-wagons. Meat will be burnt and eaten. This will happen regardless of who wins the Queensland election next Saturday.
When that story was published, some of my Queensland-born journalist colleagues were pissed off at the way I’d portrayed their state. Even though I was a tourist on their turf, I’d been accepted as a fellow traveller of sorts in the battle for political change in Queensland. I’d been grateful for their help.
In my piece for the Age I’d referred to the drinking culture in Queensland and how, mixed with heat, it was a dangerous combination. I cited domestic disputes I’d witnessed in the back yard of a house a few doors down and within sight of the house I’d once stayed in for six weeks. I spoke of politicians engaging in crude jokes and lewd behaviour towards women. I talked of Queensland’s beauty but also of many of its small-town ways. I emphasised that these were one southerner’s view. Yet some of my Brisbane colleagues felt I’d gone too far.
Years later I was hired by one such critic, an ex-Brisbane journalist for whom I still have much respect and affection. She reiterated to me how she’d ‘hated that piece you did about Queensland’. I told her I thought it was one of the best I’d ever written. We still disagreed. But at least we could laugh about it. I didn’t tell her about an anecdote I’d self-censored from the piece.
Not long before I left Brisbane, a friend had a yacht on which, along with a bunch of journos, I went out sailing one Saturday. The women prepared the food while the men stayed on deck sucking from cans. As we sailed around Moreton Bay on that glorious early summer afternoon, one by one the blokes squashed their empties, broke them in half and threw them into the water: ‘It’ll make a reef,’ they told me. If I looked like I had a problem with that, the urge to express it was extinguished by a belligerent burp that seemed to say: ‘Fucking southern greenies. Think you know everything. This is our state and we’ll do what we like.’ Until then I’d mistakenly thought these Queensland journos and I were more or less of a similar mind. In the end Queensland, in my experience, really was that different—in all the good ways, but also the bad.
© Sonya Voumard