I lived in Queensland for three decades and represented the sunshine state as a Labor Senator for sixteen years. I spent much of my time trying to convince my parliamentary colleagues and the media that Queenslanders are very much like the rest of us. They too are concerned about job prospects for themselves and their children. They want good quality health and education services. They expect governments to listen and respond to their concerns.
The recent election result in Queensland is yet another opportunity for the southern media commentariat to again proclaim that Queenslanders are different. This is arrogant nonsense from afar and ignores the reality that Queenslanders have preferred State Labor governments in the last thirty years.
Yet the myth that Queensland as an ultra-conservative state persists. Having travelled throughout Queensland in the 1980s and 90s I am more familiar with the reality of the state’s politics than many so-called experts who rarely venture beyond capital cities and have some considerable difficulty understanding anywhere in regional Australia. The “difference” that divides Australia is not between states but rather between urban and non-urban voters.
While non metropolitan members are elected to our national parliament, their numbers are in a minority as population determines electoral boundaries, so city-based parliamentarians are better able to dominate the political agenda. The media too is obsessed with their view of Australia from generally comfortable and well serviced inner-city suburbia So how can both the Federal Government and the Opposition respond to all those Australians who live so distant from decision-making?
Firstly, all parliamentarians need to better understand that it is the wealth of regional Australia that maintains our economy and standard of living. Secondly, Federal government department staff need to seriously examine how they relate and plan for regional and rural communities. Many state governments are equally culpable in ignoring the needs of local communities.. So, it is interesting to speculate on different policy priorities if capital cities were in Broome, Alice Springs, Port Pirie, Geelong, Queenstown, Newcastle and Townsville!!!!
Of course, capital cities. have major challenges too so public policy needs to address both city and regional planning. The difference is that city-based policy development is unsuited to our regions. Local knowledge is essential together with respect for those who live and work in regional Australia. An immediate audit of Federal and State expenditure differential between urban and regional Australia would be a good start in addressing the inequities that regional communities have experienced for decades.
How should the Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese respond to re-establishing his party’s support in regional Queensland? Listening tours are a good start, but he will require the strategic support of Queensland Labor Senators and Queensland regional state members to re- build a conversation about policy priorities and expectations in these areas.
From the 1970s to 2016, the ALP ensured there was a North Queensland Senator based in Townsville or Cairns…first Jim Keeffe, Jan Mc Lucas and me. As residents we lived a continuous listening tour and were able to travel widely in Central and Northern Queensland while our Brisbane based colleagues focussed largely on the urban fringe.
Sadly, the ALP no longer has a North Queensland Senator as factional preselection prioritised only Brisbane candidates. They probably travel now and then as fly in/fly out workers gaining only a superficial understanding of complex regional issues. It does make a difference in a large state like Queensland if political parties seriously plan regional policy and back it up using local communities to advise and advance serious debate of problems and solutions.
In the 1980s and 1990s I had a wide range of local interest group networks around Queensland and this enabled me to contribute to initiatives that recognised regional priorities. It started in 1983 with Bob Hawke launching his policy “North Queensland- A Special Place “and continued with many diverse Federal Government programs that included regional Queenslanders. In 1987 I established my ministerial office in Townsville and electorate office in Mt Isa, despite the incredulity of Canberra bureaucrats who found it difficult to cope with the necessary adjustments required. In those days cabinet documents had to be couriered back and forth and yes our travel budget was higher than average. But the benefits of accessible government cannot be ignored. With such changes in communications there is no excuse for presuming all policy design must remain in Canberra.
Of course, we didn’t do enough, and many policies of that era have long disappeared but some of the lessons of those years should be re visited if Anthony Albanese wants to engage with the 30% of us who live in rural and remote areas of Australia. In doing so he will find our concerns are as wide ranging as in cities, but as citizens we have a right to be involved in shaping policies that suit our lifestyles in various regions.