Australia Boom, bust and a sense of distrust in central Queensland's coal country

22:01  18 december  2021
22:01  18 december  2021 Source:   msn.com

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The heart of Australia's coal country looms as a key federal election focal point, but with a lack of job insecurity and basic services, these Queenslanders still feel forgotten.

There's change in the air for communities in central Queensland.

The coal mining industry that has made many rich is no longer a job for life, and many feel like there isn't much of a plan for their future.

At next year's federal election, central Queensland will again be a place to watch. But the grassroots issues of locals have more in common with other states than cynical onlookers might think.

Travel through seven major towns in the region and you will find contradicting stories of boom, bust and a sense of distrust.

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"Up the Battlers" reads a handwritten sign along the Leichhardt Highway to Taroom.

It is the name of the local rugby league team, and a nod to the people who live there.

This is rolling cattle country — many will tell you, it's some of the best around. The landscape opens up as you dip down off the Great Dividing Range.

Eight hundred people live in Taroom, on Iman country. Its name is taken from the Wakka Wakka word Tarum, meaning wild lime tree.

Roughly five hours northwest of Brisbane, the town itself looks a little tired around the edges, but new Toyotas dot the main street. The rain has returned, the paddocks have greened up, and the price of cattle is at record highs.

"It's what you call old-school friendly," Andrea Beard says.

"People help each other out [and] support local."

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She and her husband were born and raised in Taroom. They run the town's butcher shop with entrepreneurial enthusiasm.

"They're the first ones to ever put on an apprentice," a passer-by on the street says.

If locals are thinking about the national debate on how to reach net zero emissions by 2050, they are certainly not talking about it in the butcher shop.

Instead, one of the biggest problems is finding people to fill jobs.

"Pretty much throw a rock around anywhere and any business is looking for someone," Andrea says.

When it comes to federal politics, she says people in Taroom feel a sense of disconnect. She understands the appeal of minority parties.

"I think they feel [politicians] are forgetting about the country people and more just worrying about what city people want."

Her feedback for hopeful MPs this election is straightforward.

"Listen to people out in the country, and some of the things they've been giving feedback [on] and not just say you're going to do, but actually follow through."

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On the other side of town, Rob and Myra Phipps have just finished an ice cream on a stormy afternoon.

He is one of the last of his kind — a former horse trainer and council water officer, he only recently retired as Taroom's last locally-based funeral director.

On federal politics, he doesn't take much prompting to share an opinion.

"They are a lot of fools for a start. Both sides of them," Rob says.

"Unless you're in sight of the city lights, you're a long way from anywhere."

He is a working-class Labor man, the son of a politically active father, raised in a house where debate was encouraged.

The Liberal National Party have held Flynn since 2010, but in decades gone, a lot of people around here voted Labor.

"We'd have people come over and speak in the main street in the back of a truck," Rob says.

"You don't get the good deep discussions now."

For many, he reckons, there's still the pull to vote the way your family has always voted.

"Getting people to think ahead to think what today's life is, and not [that of] their great grandfather's," Rob says.

"They didn't give a bugger if you come with better ideas and things than what any other party has been for 20 years, they still voted for that one."

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Gladstone is on the Byelee, Gooreng Gooreng, Gurang, Taribelang Bunda peoples' country.

From the CBD you can see a power station, a coal port and an aluminium smelter. In the distance there are other stacks from which smoke or steam wind into the sky.

Jaclyn McCosker grew up here. She moved away to study, travel and live, but she's back now — in the hope her hometown will change.

Gladstone is Queensland's biggest multi-commodity port. More than 100 million tonnes of coal, bauxite, aluminium, cement and liquefied natural gas from the nearby Curtis Island facility moves through it each year.

For Jaclyn, who is now a climate and energy campaigner with the Australian Conservation Foundation, this is the frontline.

"What we know about people in Gladstone, and Flynn in particular, is that everyone wants more progressive action on climate action," she says.

"Everyone believes in climate change, but there is a justifiable nervousness about what that actually means, because most of the jobs here are in heavy industry."

As big businesses commit to big cuts to emissions, the future of the Gladstone economy is set to be transformed in the coming decades.

"Rio Tinto is the biggest employer in Gladstone and they've just announced that they will reduce their emissions [by] 50 per cent by 2030," Jaclyn says.

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"These large mining [and] finance companies, they all have their own decarbonisation targets.

"To achieve that they have to decarbonise heavy industry — so that's going to happen a lot faster than people realise."

Retired Gladstone labourer Robert Melvin has been in "Gladdy" for 30-odd years.

He has worked hard, but now lives week-to-week on the pension. He worries that despite hosting many billion-dollar resources companies, there'll be nothing to show for it.

"If they are going zero, no coal, no this ... why would we exist?"

"We put billions every year into the Australian economy, but we end up with a hospital with no doctors.

"How can that be?"

The major political parties have, in his opinion, been ineffective at best.

Don't get him started on stories of rorting and alleged corruption.

"Nobody seems to bloody do anything. It's like banging your head up against a brick wall," he says.

In Gladstone, Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party has emerged as a serious option.

"Who else do you vote for if the major parties aren't doing it for you?" Robert, who is no fan of Hanson, says.

"You just jump at anything."


An hour's drive north of Gladstone takes you to the beef capital of Australia, Rockhampton.

With 120,000 people in the region, there is far more to it than just beef.

It's a major service centre, not just for the mining industry, but also for agriculture and health.

The regional city is on Darumbal country, built on the Tunuba (Fitzroy River).

During the gold rush in the late 1800s around nearby Mount Morgan, it was once a major river port. Sandstone facades and buildings still stand as a reminder.

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When it comes to national politics, Darumbal elder Uncle George James senses stagnation.

"With our politics here, we've come to a bit of a standstill," he says.

"We've got to rev it up, put it in top gear, move it along a little bit."

Uncle George's mother ran the railway station at Bluff, to the west. His father was a renowned community figure, who forged a successful career in both the cattle and mining industries.

Against the odds, the proud Aboriginal family owned their own house.

It is that kind of honest work ethic Uncle George would like to see reflected in his national leaders — people he usually only sees flying in and out for the annual Beef Week.

"We've got our local people, that's nice. But we've got to have the big ones here — the top one's here — because they fly over us."

Uncle George's message to parliament is simple: "Honesty, and cooperation would be the main key for me."


West of Rockhampton is the small town of Dingo, on Gangulu country.

The town's biggest employer is the sawmill, which cuts timber props for underground coal mines.

It is a reminder that almost everyone living here is connected to the coal industry.

People like Lance Olive.

He is a timber cutter and his family have lived in Dingo for generations.

He can sense uncertainty around the town's future.

"No one talks about it," he says.

If coal mines start shutting down, he believes it will mark the end for Dingo.

"It will shut down. It will be a ghost town."

During the week, Lance lives in the bush for his job.

He selectively cuts native trees for the Dingo sawmill, and he advocates for environmental sustainability.

He believes in climate change and knows the world needs to cut carbon emissions. But he's also confused about the long-term plan.

"That's what I can't understand," he says.

"They're letting new coal mines open up, but they're saying they want to ban it?"

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If coal mines are to close, which Lance accepts will happen one day, he doesn't want it to be a sudden shutdown.

In the 1980s, Lance remembers having a beer with Queensland MP Russell Cooper at the Dingo pub. Cooper, who went on to be state premier (a short-lived stint), turned up the next morning at Lance's place to further discuss an issue raised at the pub.

Today, it feels like a long time between drinks in Dingo.

"There's just no touch at all with the people," Lance says.

"They don't see them and they don't talk to them."

In the 2019 election in the seat of Flynn, Pauline Hanson's One Nation got nearly 20 per cent of the vote.

"I reckon you'll see more of them going for One Nation and United Party," Lance says.


Keep driving west of Dingo and you arrive at Emerald, the centre of Queensland's Central Highlands, with a population of more than 12,000 people.

It's a railway town on Gayiri country and has traditionally serviced productive agricultural and horticultural industries. In recent decades, coal mining has become a major economic driver.

The mines are one the biggest clients at Kaia Tebbatt's office supplies business.

Here, too, there is uncertainty in the air. The Australian government has finally pledged to reach net zero emissions by 2050, but ministers keep saying the coal industry will have a bright future.

"They're just confused. Are we doing this? Are we not doing this?" Kaia says.

"We're just not sure what to do — what our next move is."

Right now, her more pressing concerns are basic health services that many urban Australians might take for granted.

"I would like medical facilities ramped up," Kaia says.

"I want for people who are suffering from terminal illnesses to be able to stay with their families here.

"I want the opportunity for people to have their babies here. I want to be able to go to our local hospital and for them to be able to help us."

In the last financial year, the Central Highlands Region generated over $10 billion of output.

"The companies that make all that money are here, but they fly everyone back to these big cities," Kaia says.

"That's all well and good, but we still need to provide for the people here that are the backbone of these towns — the railway, the hospitals and the council."

Anglican minister Jenn Hercott echoes Kaia's concerns.

She says making Emerald a better place to live requires better engagement from all levels of government.

"Seeing that we're more than one thing, and actually planting seeds of hope for the future based on who we are and what we can be."


The Bowen Basin is Australia's largest coal reserve.

Currently, there are about 44 mines operating over 60,000 square kilometres.

The majority of the coal mined here is metallurgical coal. Without it, you can't viably make steel — at least, for now.

There seems to be an acceptance that will eventually change.

Even the two biggest mining companies in the Bowen Basin, BHP and Anglo American, have committed to net zero emissions by 2050.

They even have plans to support cuts to emissions generated by third parties they supply.

Right now, the town of Moranbah is humming.

It was purpose built by the Utah Development Company only 50 years ago, on the traditional land of the Barna people.

Today over 8,000 people live there, with many thousands more flying in and out of one of the busiest regional airports in the country.

"We're predominantly mining, but we're so much more than that," Moranbah business owner Carolyn Fritz says.

She runs multiple shop fronts offering tyre and mechanical services to the mines.

Recently, she has found it hard to hear people, who have never been to Moranbah, call for the shutdown of an industry that has given so many a great life.

"This is people's livelihoods," Carolyn says.

"We're families and we're real people, so when you want to shutdown our major industry, you're talking about families."

After a slump, the price of coal is at record highs and business is good, for now.

Empty houses around town and a prominent collection of now-abandoned brick BHP accommodation is a reminder of how quick fortunes can change.

Carolyn is a passionate Moranbah local, and wants the best for her community. She feels forgotten by national leaders.

"It has been left to the locals," she says.

For now, she's confident the big miners will continue to engage and plan for the future.

"They have end-of-life for their mine sites, and that might be in 40 years time, but they're already engaging with the community and community leaders on what it is we'd like to see happen," Carolyn says.


Until the much-hyped hydrogen industry starts operating at scale, and green steel becomes a reality, coal trains will keep rolling into ports like Hay Point, near Mackay.

It's a striking picture of industry set against the blue water of the coral coast, on the Yuwi peoples' country.

Once all that coal is shipped and eventually burnt in steel blast furnaces, the CO2 it creates will keep driving global warming.

The urgency of the problem has seen career coal miner Grant Howard start campaigning for change.

It has put him at odds with some in his industry, but there are others who quietly acknowledge his stance.

"I don't want to shut the industry down.

"Nobody does.

"What we want is a transition.

"I want coal miners to understand that transition, and be part of that transition."

"We dig up coal, and we make stuff, and everyone uses that stuff.

"So at the end of the day, we are all equally responsible."

The Australian Labor Party was born in Queensland. Now the place is better known for controversial pro-coal populists like Pauline Hanson and George Christensen.

Things are changing and across the coal seats of Flynn, Capricornia and Dawson, where two popular coalition MPs are retiring. Two of the three Labor candidates work in the coal industry.

Then there are the potent additions of Pauline Hanson and Clive Palmer to the mix at the next federal election. Coal, and the jobs it creates, will once again be a key concern of the campaign cycle.

Mining remains a big part of the Mackay region, but the area is also known as Australia's sugarcane capital.

It is an industry that Marion Healy's South Sea Islander community helped to build, after being shipped to Mackay to work as indentured labourers.

"I say to kids today, 'Your grandfather shopped in the back of the shop so you could walk through the front door'," Marion says.

When the coal industry eventually winds down, the sugarcane industry will still be a place to get a job, but Marion says people will need to take a pay cut.

"They need to be skilled in other things. So tomorrow, if the mine turns off — what's your skill you're going to fall back on?"

It is a conversation many here know they'll need to have, sooner or later.

They just hope it is one politicians are willing to have.


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