Before I went to work at a minesite up in northern Canada I had met very few Australians. Beside boarding with a teacher trainee from Perth in my fourth year at college, there was a father and son team I met one summer when I worked for the Canadian Pacific Railway on a maintenance crew. We would see them working on their fences along the right-of way and sometimes we would drop our shovels, claw bars, hammers or whatever for a yarn. They were two big men with open, easy manners. They dressed identically in shorts and black singlets and sat on one heel with the other leg outstretched there on the ballast under the blazing sun (which I have never seen done since even after having lived in Australia for forty years) while they did their sums on the sheep. Each ewe would have twin lambs, there would be shearings and wool clips and they were to be the pioneers of a lucrative new Canadian industry that the rest of us could never have otherwise imagined. But way up north in a camp perched above a glacier young Australians were everywhere. And they talked about their country and travels.
One day one of the mechanics mentioned his sister was going to have a baby. One of the WA brothers asked; "Is she happily married and starting a family or just up the stump?"
The mechanic; taken aback, was silent.
"Well, then, where are you from?"
"Up the stump then. They don't teach them about those things in school there. It's just one of those supernatural phenomena like floating clouds of swamp gas that glow green in the night."
So it seemed that Queensland was for some reason an especially unpleasant case of regional disparity. Eight years later I had moved there, up in the tropical north with my Australian wife and it was certainly different.
It's hard to sort out the web of circumstance and conditions that makes the state what it is but it starts with the heat. It takes you by surprise - there's no failure of speech or balance like a long afternoon on the grog; you feel ordinary, like yourself until its too late and only afterward; trembling in the shade with a handful of salt and cold water do you realize the unspeakable has happened and your life is ruined. You have propositioned a 15 year old local girl and driven oblivious through at least two red lights; all in the same hellish hour before you reached a safer condition close to collapse and this will become the stuff of local legend. These things happen to the natives too, but not often; they know the signs and happily shirk their responsibilities to while away the worst of the afternoon doing as little as possible; preferably in the pub where legends are made and retold indefinitely. And here is also where the real complexities of sex education take place. Besides the perils of unprotected and anonymous acts, drunkenness or heat stroke, there are important social conventions everyone understands and considers. For instance a respectable housewife is greeted by a beery passerby with a leering familiarity. Her response is critical. If she is too friendly or blushes or cuts him dead, it will fuel an updated retelling amongst his cronies and the rest of the circle at the bar of some youthful indiscretion -long ago when she was dumb and he was attractive. No male ever wants to forget those things, and every woman does. So you don't even need to learn to read -everyone knows the ropes by word of mouth and however the syllabus is formulated, that is the kind of thing a teacher would never prepare them for anyway. One of my workmates claimed to have solved that particular problem by marrying the only virgin in - let's say Bowen and preserve anonymity and male honour. If that last is confusing, you probably went through the Queensland school system.
Close beside sex is the problem of politics; seemingly another failure of the educational system. Democracy all across the nation is treated with contempt or disinterest most of the time except during elections which are assumed to be something like horse racing and the TAB. Every so often you get to place your bet and hope for 'dividends' which is cynical horsey marketing jargon for some kind of unlikely positive return on your 'investment.' If the winning horse turns out to be a dog, they shrug, throw their tickets away and hope for better luck next time. They genuinely believe their candidates are good guys -silvertails from Brizzy maybe but out in the bush they are simple sons of the soil just like them who they feel they mostly know personally. A wave, a handshake, a shared prejudice is enough or there is the ultimate proof of character -someone came to town and actually 'bought a round.'
I lived up there in the heyday of Joh Bjelke-Petersen and most of my neighbors were farming people. A lot were ardent National Party supporters. The dairymen had a lucrative monopoly at the time which they associated with Joh's 'free enterprise values' that he and they believed were the essence of democracy and the Westminster system. This was a pyramid of delusion, but very comfortable for the beneficiaries. One day I got a reply to a negative comment.
'Joh is as honest as the day is long' - to this day I don't know if I was being set right by a supporter or wound up by detractor. One thing is certain; that back then no local would have imagined that a 'bagman' was anything other than a helper during the potato harvest or that celebrated jolly itinerant by his billabong, waltzing matilda. And before the denouement he was even going to be parachuted into Canberra as prime minister and thereby save the nation with his commercial acumen. Afterwards no-one could remember ever having voted for him but I had taken him up on his fractured tirade about 'leaving if you don't like it here' and had gone to Tasmania. Unprosecuted on account of his age and health, (although he claimed to have been exonerated) this patriot had the effrontery to appear down here amongst us exiles at country shows waving his cane and advocating secession from the federation while promoting a pumpkin scone fast- food franchise involving his wife and local business partner. And there had been talk of his middle-aged slow-talking hayseed son John succeeding him, whose touted qualifications (beyond dynastic necessity) mainly rested on his purported virginity; proof of an uncompromising integrity; probably the same as his dad. The family was not just simple, they were shamelessly weird.
So how do his one- time boosters feel about having repeatedly backed the same jackrabbit for the both the Cox Plate and the Melbourne Cup? No problem. Shame isn't the province of simple folk. Like with Joh himself, the driving obsession is about making their way in life and they don't waste time introspecting. Its all about 'dividends' and opportunities in Queensland had been pretty good. I had figured that out when I was up there earlier having a look around. It wouldn't have mattered if the neighbour's dog had taken the helm, Queensland was on the verge of a boom; the dog didn't and Joh got the credit. When I bought an old defunct dairy farm with a collapsing home on it, I heard local rumours about my stupidity. When I sold a couple years later for a small fortune, I was told essentially the same thing to my face - if I had only held on, it would be worth a large fortune. I then bought a dairy farm in Tasmania. I had been subcontractor but never had I really taken on free enterprise face to face. About a year later when I did the books I belatedly discovered my neighbours had been right about me after all, just not on those occasions.
Queensland looked a lot better looking back, feeding out hay in those cold wet Tasmanian winters and occasionally some viral clanger from the very top of Queensland's leadership would filter down across all those isobars and lines of latitude to warm the cockles of the heart. Joh with his famous take on the Westminster system as unfettered capitalism and later premier Bill Gunn was asked what he knew about 'separation of powers' and was quicker on his feet; standing on the socratic defense. He demanded his tormenter should define his terms which was of course the answer to the question. No-one was fooled into thinking he knew but it didn't matter. Because nobody up there can tell you but everyone knows what it means in a practical, round-about way. It doesn't work for them. Its like those insulator things that hold the power lines apart. The trouble is that nothing ever seems to happen until the wires come together and then all hell breaks loose.
So last winter my wife and I decided to take a sentimental journey during the worst of the Tasmanian winter. Cairns has grown in thirty years, the Atherton tableland where my kids were born is almost the same as ever, just everyone I knew is a lot older and sadder, some maybe a little wiser and most of the cows are gone. There's a memorial to the industry in Millaa Millaa, a life-size fiberglass statue of someone supposedly pushing a stubborn cow through a gate that looks from most angles like he is up there to his shoulder doing AI or assisting a birth. Been there, done that; its nice to have it behind you.
On the last weekend of our trip we had decided to take off early Saturday morning and drive way out in the Gulf country. I knew there wouldn't be any decent bread out there, and a few minutes before closing time Friday afternoon I went to a local bakery to buy some. The shelves were full of the usual gunky white fluff and I had given up hope but then, up on the top rack I saw a beautiful long loaf of rye bread, which I took to the lady at the cash register. She looked at it in astonishment, snatched it up and waving it like she was left at the station, trying to flag down an errant train she turned towards an open door into the back.
"Waaats thiiiiis!! she yelled kind of like through a bucket of gravel, backed by a Marshall amp.
"Waaats waaat!" came the identical response from somewhere in the back.
"This breaad!" / "Waaat does it say?" / "Well it saaays its 486 rye!"/ "We don't haave any 486 rye!"/
"Well that's waat it saays!"
Moments later her clone comes bobbling out the door, and with hands on hips she bends to inspect my prize. Shaking her head in wonder she silently turns and disappears into the back. It must be some other customer's quarantined order, I thought, but what the hell, you can only try.
"How much is it," I ask.
"How muuch is it?" she screams into the back.
"Waat does it say on the list!?"
Which was right in front of her. "Three dollars and aaaaty five cents!"
"Will you sell it to me?" I asked timidly.
She looked at me with suspicion and maybe a touch of contempt.
"O.K.," she nods.
And so an executive decision has been made and once again the wheels of commerce turn free, unimpeded by legal or constitutional niceties, committee indecision, or stultifying vested interests. I am walking out on air, the loaf under my arm and a smile on my face. This is Queensland, just as I remember it.