Queensland: a state of mind

[Editor’s Note: After the once-in-a-generation result in the 2012 Queensland state elections, it is timely to reprint Queensland: a state of mind by Humphrey McQueen. The Labor Party in Queensland was destroyed by the split with the catholics in the 1950s and re-built in the 1970s and 80s by Dennis Murphy, George Georges, Bille Watts, Ian MacLean and Peter Beattie. It has now been destroyed again. Will unions rebuild the party that was born on rural labourers’ backs? Now Queensland is urbanised and multicultural. Liberal elites in the city are happy to build mines on the backs of migrant labour. These elites live off middle class welfare, government jobs and superannuation pensions. Queensland may be a state of mind but it is a different one to that Humphrey described when this piece was first published by Meanjin in 1979. With thanks to Humphrey and Meanjin – comments are welcome in the space allocated below. Ian Curr, April 2012.]

Queensland: a state of mind

By Humphrey McQueen

For a majority of Australians, Queensland is more a state of mind than a state of their nation. As such, ‘Queensland’ excuses them from doing much about what is wrong in their own states: ‘If things are so bad there, then we can’t be too bad here’. A similar process works inside Queensland, where the awfulness of Joh is occasionally used as an excuse for not doing anything about him. A mood of waiting for Joh to go has been broken by Aboriginals, by strikes, and most recently by opposition to the street march legislation. Yet a commonly encountered response is either a despairing ‘Anything’s possible in Queensland’, or an incredulous ‘Were you born in Queensland?’, as if nothing radical ever came out of Brisbane.

Against Joh’s attempt to convince Queenslanders that they live in a sovereign state and are in some way superior to the rest of their fellow Australians, ALP apologists push the counter-view that Joh is the odd man out and that Queensland is, and has been, very much the same as the rest’ of Australia. For party political reasons neither side in this argument can face up to the facts of the situation. The past is too embarrassing for present-day Labor reformers, while the present is too revealing to be good propaganda for a premier seeking re-election.

On a number of important counts Queenslanders are different, although no one has yet suggested that, like Tasmanians, we all have pointed ears. As Byron implied, inbreeding is usually not the problem where the climate’s sultry. The differences which exist are in population distribution, educational attainments and work-force participation, all of which are anchored in the primary industry bias of Queensland’s political economy. Queensland’s economic pattern is not unique; Tasmania’s and Western Australia’s are fairly much the same. What is unique is the spread of primary industries and population across so much of the state.

Brisbane is the only mainland capital to contain less than half its state’s population: 857,066 out of 2,037,197. The percentage of Queenslanders living in rural areas is the highest for all mainland states: 20 per cent against a national average of 14. Brisbane is closer to Melbourne than to Cairns, and closer to Canberra than to Townsville. Compared with either far northern city, Kingaroy is just another outer Brisbane suburb.

It is the economic matrix and not distance which makes regionalism more significant in Queensland than in any other state. Even before separation from New South Wales in 1859, there were proposals to slice Queensland horizontally into three. The sugar industry’s demand for Pacific Island labour was at the root of separatist, anti-Federal, and finally secessionist movements in the far north. Regionalism was bolstered by a rail system which spread inland out from a string of ports from Brisbane up to Cairns, which were not linked to each other by rail until 1924. Brisbane was never the focus of Queensland’s economic life. Indeed, there never has been such a focus. As well as competing against Brisbane for the state’s trade, eight ports battled their nearest neighbours for regional supremacy. Bowen’s annoyance at the Cloncurry-Mt Isa railway ending in Townsville helps to explain why Bowen returned Australia’s only acknowledged communist parliamentarian, between 1944 and 1950.

Twenty years of non-Labor rule have not altered the primary bias of Queensland’s economy. With 13 per cent of Australia’s civilian employees in 1976, Queensland had 19 per cent of the nation’s rural workers but only 10 per cent of those engaged in manufacturing. Moreover, the structure of manufacturing is skewed towards rural products. Food, beverage and tobacco processing employ a third of Queensland’s manufacturing workers, twice the national figure. The proportion of working wives is lower: 37.5 against 42 per cent. The population is very slightly weighted towards the under 20 year-olds and the over 55 year-olds, suggesting that people leave the state to work but go there to retire.

The reluctance to industrialise meant that fewer migrants went to Queensla’1d. Between 1947 and 1961, Queensland’s overseas-born rose by 56 per cent, against an Australian average of 139 per cent. The proportion of overseas-born remains substantially lower; 13 per cent for Queensland and 20 per cent for Australia; 16 per cent for Brisbane and 25 per cent for all major urban centres in the country. The percentage of Italians and Greeks in Brisbane is 1.4, compared with a mainland range between the next lowest of 4.4 in Perth up to 7.7 in Melbourne.

Well into the 1920s, Queensland’s tropical and semi-tropical latitudes were considered by many scientists to be a major cause of mental and physical debilitation amongst its population. The 1920 British Medical Association Congress, held in Brisbane, was specially charged with determining if whites would thrive in the tropics; the Congress found that they could, but only with more and better sanitation. (Most of Brisbane was not sewered until the mid-1960s.) The University of Queensland has collected a large body of evidence showing that some people still find it hard to work and think in hot and humid conditions and often drink too much.

Partly because of the economic pattern outlined, but more because of a complex cultural inheritance discussed below, educational levels are markedly lower: 36 per cent of Queenslanders left school after only five or six years, compared with a national average of 24 per cent; only 12 per cent of Queenslanders have more than nine years schooling, as against 18 per cent for Australia as a whole. Inevitably, the number of people with qualifications and degrees is noticeably smaller. And this pattern of early school leaving is continuing, so that while only 43 per cent of sixteen year old Queenslanders are still at school, the Australian average is 57 per cent.

So there is something to the view that Queensland residents are different; on average, they are much less educated, very much less urbanised, more likely to be Australian-born, and less likely to work in a factory.

In no sense do I wish to argue that centralisation and industrialisation make people good, or that schooling and migrants will, of themselves, make us better. Yet, irrespective of the value of these experiences, people who possess them will have values which differ from those who do not, especially where such differences have existed for three or more generations, as they have in Queensland.

Important as economic and geographic forces remain, they always have to work through politics, of which parliament is only one small part. Queensland is different because arrangements made out of rural circumstances largely held in place until the mid-1950s. Underneath the accommodations reached in the 1920s and 1930s with the major companies operating in Queensland – Colonial Sugar Refinery, Mt Isa Mines, Vestey’s meat, and the London bond market -a governing stratum of Labor party politicians, Australian Workers Union officials, state public servants and Catholic clergy built a political culture that offered most Queenslanders some of what they then wanted most: for example, public instruction rather than education, and free hospitals rather than more of either. The repressiveness of this alliance grew as the old grouping was challenged by militant workers. When Bjelke-Petersen declared a State of Emergency during the 1971 Springbok football tour, he used a section of a strike-breaking Act that Labor had introduced in 1938, and had buttressed during the 1948 rail strike. The police bludgeoning of communist MLA, Fred Paterson, while he stood on the footpath watching a protest march against these 1948 amendments, is only the most notorious example of how Labor governed.

The linkages are clear. At root, there was a shared commitment to rural life as morally, politically and economically sound. The A.W.U. machine was a prize in itself but its voting strength extended its officers’ ambitions to the Labor party, and through it to the government. Industrialisation threatened this power flow by strengthening craft unions open to ‘communist’ influence. The A.W.U. believed that it could be secure as Queensland’s one big union, covering all kinds of unskilled and all grades of semi-skilled labour, only if Queensland’s rural bias was maintained. The Labor party was Labor in name but represented more rural seats than. city ones; its leadership was non-metropolitan and usually derived from within the A.W.U .. The Catholic Church favoured farming as the best bulwark against the Syllabus of Errors, arguing that everything from ‘race suicide’ to communism was less likely away from urban industry.

The church had a special interest: state aid, which it had got for its secondary schools in 1900 by having the Scholarship moneys won in competitive public examinations paid directly to its schools. Thereafter, proposals to raise the school leaving age above 14, or to open secondary education to everyone, were opposed by the Church: such reforms would undermine the Scholarship system upon which its colleges and convents depended. The Church also opposed modernising the curriculum because such changes were invariably subversive and often beyond the teaching capacities of their own poorly educated religious orders. There was no Jesuit college in Queensland. Support for the Scholarship became a question of faith and morals. As so often before, the church had adapted a pagan instrument, in this case, of liberal progress, to its own conservative ends.

In addition, the Scholarship system offered some social advancement, especially into the state’s teaching and public services, whose recruitment standards were kept at Junior (Intermediate) level in order to aid this emancipation. One result was that the public service and the state’s teachers became defenders of the Scholarship and of low entry requirements, if only because their promotion prospects were threatened by matriculants and graduates. At the close of Labor’s rule in the late 1950s, two-thirds of Queensland’s 91 senior public servants had entered the service with Junior or lower qualifications. Senior did not become the entry standard for clerks until 1974. The public service tended to be not only catholic and Labor, but also rural-minded and inept. Even when Labor governments recruited outside experts, they brought similar attitudes: Colin Clark and Raphael Cilento.

Between 1938 and 1953, Colin Clark was Queensland’s economic brains trust. His religious commitment to small scale rural production gave a veneer of respectability to the prejudices of and problems that were the Queensland economy. By 1921, employment throughout Australia in manufacturing almost equalled employment in pastoral pursuits and agriculture combined. Not so in Queensland, where pastoral and agricultural employment were each greater than that manufacturing. In the first quarter of the century the state’s railway mileage was more than doubled. This massive public underwriting of rural expansion meant that the government had no funds to join in Australia’s limited industrialisation in the 1920s, even if it had really wanted to. The rural bias of the economy helped to conceal under-employment throughout the 1930s while the assured domestic sugar market, although at reduced prices, somewhat sheltered Queensland from the depression’s worst effects. The lesson learnt was that agriculture was sounder than manufacturing. The 1940s reinforced this experience with its great demand for food to supply Australian and U.S. armies, and later, British civilians. Queensland was considered unsafe for war industries and so missed out on another stimulus to manufacturing. A committee which reported on the Development of Secondary Industry in 1946 was soberly optimistic because the war had left Queensland with one empty munitions factory to lease to manufacturers. The government equated mining with machinery and most of the loans from its Secondary Industry Division went to copper, tin and cement extracting firms.

Cilento’s 1936 appointment as Director-General of Health saw the start of a public hospital program, especially concerned with maternity cases, in which the government’s desire to populate the whole state coincided with a Catholic concern for large families. There can be no doubt of the program’s popularity, indeed, of its almost mystical presence. One of my firmest childhood memories is of being reminded that the professor of gynaecology had delivered me free of charge in a public ward. Ned Hanlon, the then Health Minister, is remembered less for his premiership (1946-1952) than for the building of Brisbane’s Women’s Hospital, in whose forecourt stands his statue. After Commonwealth finance ended in 1950, Queensland was the only state to keep free hospitals, which it managed to do at the expense of secondary education. Such priorities suited the Catholic ascendency, and did not conflict with the ailing nonindustrial economy.

The free hospitals versus high schools question captures the spirit of Labor’s rule because its remoteness from immediate political and economic demands shows how pervasive the rural-Catholic outlook became, even under the premiership of a Scottish Protestant, William Forgan Smith, who added four faculties to the University: Agriculture, Medicine, Dentistry and Veterinary Science.

Although the constituents of the ALP-AWU-Catholic alliance came with the Labor government in 1915, it was during Forgan Smith’s decade as premier from 1932 to 1942 that they were consolidated. His initial cabinet of ten comprised nine non-metropolitan members, seven Catholics and six AWU men. In the first period of Labor’s rule from 1915 to 1929, there was substantial internal opposition to the dominant clique, who were occasionally brought into line. Under Forgan Smith, these elements were eliminated from the ALP and the AWU but they reformed around the Trades and Labour Councils and the Communist Party. Labor’s ferocious anti-communism delighted that political architect and admirer of Mussolini, James Duhig, who had been priest and bishop in Queensland for twenty years before being Archbishop of Brisbane from 1917 to 1965. Duhig’s ideological contribution to the Labor alliance is not surprising until his conservatism is recognised; unlike most Australian Catholic bishops, Duhig was a Tory. What is no less surprising was his involvement in the administrative side of the state’s political and economic life. Like Theodore, whom he greatly admired, Duhig promoted the development of primary industries, and his presidency of the Royal Geographical Society was in keeping with his enthusiasm for oil exploration. Duhig took care to court the Anglican hierarchy and to avoid offending Protestant sensibilities, but his political successes made it inevitable that the Nonconformists would be implacably resentful. At the 1938 elections, a Protestant Labor Party polled well enough to gain one seat. Sectarianism was no less bitter in Queensland than in Victoria, even if Duhig could be more gracious in victory than Mannix was in defeat.

Thus Queensland was administered by a Catholic rural movement long before Santamaria met Archbishop Mannix. The Hanlon and Gair governments (1946-1957) did not need the Industrial Groups to show them the shortest way with communists. Santamaria’s early ideal of ‘The Earth -Our Mother’ was being realised in Queensland, though almost everyone involved there would have been embarrassed by the intellectual pleading which Santamaria provided. A general mentality of feudal clericalism proved as good a way as any of sustaining the rule of monopoly capital on behalf of Mt Isa Mines and CSR. Colin Clark recently reported that when he returned to Queensland in the late 1930s he found that the Labor government ‘purported to control the entire production and distribution of sugar, using the C.S.R. Company as agent. But it very much looked as if the reverse was taking place …’)

The potential for northern development to puzzle outside observers is indeed great, and several writers confuse it with the corruption practised in other states. In 1883, the premier, Sir Thomas Mcllwraith, showed his faith in Queensland by proposing that his government allow a land grant railway company 12 million acres. In 1896, Mcllwraith was acutely embarrassed by the unexpected death of the general manager of the Queensland National Bank, which had lent him £255,000 on securities of £60,700. This lesson in public finance was not lost on a subsequent Treasurer who, in 1899, concealed the colony’s bankruptcy by using £500,000 of Government Savings Bank deposits without any authority. It was from this stimulating intellectual climate that E.G. Theodore emerged as a pre-Keynesian mine-owner. Although his failure to anticipate the multiplying effects of public expenditure on his private enterprises cost him the Federal treasurership.

Not all Queensland politicians have been so large-minded. In 1946 Commonwealth police found 250 kilos of black market tobacco stored in the garage of the house occupied by the Minister for Health. Ten years later, a Royal Commission found the same minister guilty of collecting bribes for Labor party funds. Magistrates acquitted him on both occasions. Most rumours and allegations of corruption were either not investigated or were dismissed. In 1940, when bridge contractors presented the premier with a portable radio, the main point of public dispute was the value of the banknotes inside: £10,000 being a favoured sum. The frequency and grandeur of such allegations made it too easy for the opposition to suggest that only Labor politicians operated with one hand in the till and the other in the ballot box. Time has not weakened nor coalition government stifled the venality of public life. In 1966, the state parliamentary Labor leader resigned on the day before the Courier Mail announced that he had understated his taxable income by over $66,000 as a result of importing tin plates from Taiwan. The 1970 Comalco share handouts went to cabinet ministers, public servants, ALP officials and the Labor member for

Gladstone. Many of the checks on government available in the Westminster model have long been absent from Queensland. The Legislative CouncIl was abolished in 1922 under Gilbertian circumstances and preceded by one of the most remarkable devices ever: a proxy voting bill which allowed Theodore to exercise personally the vote of absent members. In the words of an opposition squib,

Whenever the government is found in a fix
My voice shall carry for those of six.

Significantly, Bjelke-Petersen has not demonstrated his loyalty to the British way by re-establishing a house of review. Two innovations which he has been forced to live with are a few parliamentary committees, and questions without notice, which are answered in kind.

Labor’s grand old alliance was broken from outside in the aftermath of Evatt’s splitting the Federal party, and from within when the AWU temporarily allied itself with the communist-led Trades and Labour Council following the 1956 shearers’ strike. When Labor was defeated in May 1957 it was succeeded by Australia’s only Country Party-dominated government, which had no more idea of how to break out of Queensland’s malaise than had its predecessors. These economic difficulties were highlighted by the Federal government’s 1960 credit squeeze and the 1961 swing to Labor which brought Calwell within one seat of forming a government. The credit squeeze blinded some commentators to the state’s chronic unemployment, which had been much higher than the Australian average throughout the 1950s, despite (or because of) a relatively slower rate of population increase. In 1962-63, an investigation of Queensland’s manufacturing industry found too few new factories to draw statistically significant conclusions.

The 1961 swing to Labor has been added to a list of alleged proofs that, despite the past decade, Queensland is inherently radical. To support this cheeriness, a long tradition is established from the armed camp at Barcaldine in 1891, through the world’s first Labor government in 1899, Australia’s first general strike in 1912, the anti-conscription stance of premier Ryan, forty years of nearly continuous Labor rule, Australia’s only communist parliamentarian, and the militancy of certain Queensland unions in the 1920s and 1940s. Just as it has been shown that the Labor party was in reality a country party, so it can be argued that most of the other examples cited are either misinterpreted or extrapolated out of context. For example, the militancy of the Twenties and Forties was directed against the Labor government’s reactionary policies. Other dissenting highpoints were protests by depressed rural producers or disadvantaged regions, that is, by forces which today are marshalled behind Bjelke-Petersen’s government. Change over time is history’s divisive equation. Broken or blunted are the tough realities which once brought forth shearing-shed anarchism and bush populism, or determined railway workers in their militancy.

likewise, the experience of Queensland’s blacks is not only different from that of whites, it is also more of a piece than that of blacks elsewhere. Well before other colonies started, and long after other states stopped, Queensland’s government took an activist approach towards Aboriginal management. Despite some recent window dressing, the philosophy of preservation and protection, first enacted in 1897, still prevails. The health of the whites was protected by locking away on penal settlements, like Palm Island, those blacks to whom whites had given tubercular, leprous and venereal infections. The wealth of pastoral companies was preserved by using other settlements as breeding grounds for cheap station labour. Blacks under this system acquired a healthy respect for a law which was custodian of such wealth as they were allowed to earn and able to keep from swindling police sergeants. Under this regime, Aboriginal numbers increased, the militant moved to Redfern, those under church control developed centres of resistance, and Uncle Toms abounded. Today, the militant are driven out of, rather than into, the camps which officially are hailed as the antidote to the apartheid of land rights. Within that old frame-work, change has moved slowly over time, establishing new forms of oppression before provoking fresh resistance.

Bjelke-Petersen is both inheritor and destroyer of these old ways. He uses ALP laws from the 1930s and ’40s to bolster the transformation of Queensland from being a hillbilly Tennessee to become a Texas bonanza. The over-used metaphor of a ‘Deep North’ entirely misses the point. Queensland is no longer like the Deep South, but is the New South. Its faults are those of progress, growth and development -as foreign monopoly capital understands those words. Under post-depression ALP governments, Queensland was indeed like Tennessee, or, more accurately, like County Clare in Ireland. To label Queensland by its civil liberties is to ignore the substance of Bjelke-Petersen’s regime, which cannot be as easily authoritarian as some of its Labor predecessors were precisely because it has unleashed on Queensland that ‘Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation’2 which Marx identified in the bourgeoisie.

History judges Bjelke-Petersen to be the farmer who killed rural idiocy, the lay preacher whose policies ensure that all things holy will be profaned. (Hasn’t Joh himself started to take a little white wine with his meals?) From his first equipment-hiring ventures and aeroplanes to his current use of a professional image-maker, Bjelke-Petersen is stamped as capitalist moderniser, not as feudal throwback. He knows the relative significance of mineral and peanut oils, even if his opponents do not. The votes of a few small farmers help him to realise the interests of certain big corporations. His party’s name change from Country to National and the votes won by National Party candidates in urban areas are the signs to read. It is the Liberals, not the ALP, who have lost most and have the most to fear, in parliamentary terms, from Joh’s successes. Forget about Joh Bananas, and remember that his life-long hero has been Henry Ford.

Not that Bjelke-Petersen wants to industrialise. He ridicules southern manufacturing as a charge against Queensland’s wealth. To the extent that he has any long-term economic plan, it is that growing mineral exports can lever overseas meat and sugar contracts; will need construction work; can support service industries; and be supplemented by tourism. As evidence he can point to state government expenditures which have quadrupled since he became premier in 1968, while mining royalties are twenty times greater. Beyond a pride in these superficial trends, he places his faith in foreign investors rebuffed by the Commonwealth, which has to watch the broader and longer-term interests of Australia and of capital.

As an advocate of states’ rights, Bjelke-Petersen ruris a poor third to Labor premiers Forgan Smith and Hanlon. His far greater success derives from those people whose rights he actually is defending, namely, anyone avoiding Commonwealth regulation, or with speculative capital: Utah and CRA; Wiley Fancher and the Moscow Narodny Bank; Mr Iwasaki’s Yeppoon resort and -in time to come -Great Barrier Reef Oil Drilling (Aust) Pty Ltd. They are Joh’s constituency. The book-burning bible bashers who want to castrate poofs and shoot reds merely get the pleasure of playing with his gerrymander. States’ rights have always been a mask for class interests, or more usually, for the interests of some section of capital which is on the outer at Melbourne and Canberra. United secession by Western Australia, the Northern Territory and Queensland would serve Japanese capital better than the old Brisbane Line.

In encouraging miners and speculators, Joh has attached himself to one predicted Australian future. The small farmers and bush workers who kept Labor in office are going, and Joh is using their dying resentment to reward the very people who have killed them off and who are already undermining factory and office jobs. The regrowth of massive opposition in Queensland is coming from such newly threatened groups, as well as from Aboriginals and mine workers, who are once more in the front line of the profit-making. Radicalism cannot be born again from the glory that was Labor’s Portuguese-style fascism.

If mining is allowed to conquer manufacturing until all of Australia becomes, in Sir Roderick Carnegie’s words, ‘the Uruguay of the South Pacific’, then fascist will be a far more appropriate description of all of Australia than it ever has been of Queensland. The rule of capital could not survive such a total economic reverse without open dictatorship. In such a pass we might be tempted to apply to Bjelke-Petersen, and even to his Labor predecessors, the Bulletin’s 1922 obituary judgement of an earlier Queensland Premier: ‘We had no idea how good a man he was till we found out how rotten subsequent men could be.


Quadrant, December 1978, p.9.

K. Marx & F. Engels, Collected Works, Volume 6 (Lawrence and Wishart, London 1976) p487.

Bulletin, 22 June 1922, cited by G.C. Bolton, ‘Robert Philp’, in D.J. Murphy & H B. Joyce, (eds.) Queensland Political Portraits, (University of Queensland Press 1978) p.220


Rupert Goodman, Secondary Education in Queensland, 1860-1960 (A.N.U. Press, Canberra, 1968). Marion Gough, et al., Queensland: Industrial Enigma (Melbourne University Press, 1964).

Glen Lewis, ‘Queensland Nationalism and Australian Capitalism’, in E.L. Wheelwright and Ken Buckley, (eds.), Essays in the Political Economy of Australian Capitalism, Volume Two, (A.N.Z. Book Co., Sydney 1978), pp. 110-147.

B B. Schaffer and K.W. Knight, Top Public Servants in Two States (University of Queensland Papers, Brisbane, 1963). ‘Political Chronicle’, Australian Journal of Politics and History, 1955-1978 passim.

Social Indicators, No.2, (Australian Bureau of Statistics, Canberra, 1978).

Queensland Year Book, 1977 (Australian Bureau of Statistics, Brisbane, 1977).

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