Why Queensland is different

by Rebecca Barrigos • Published 12 January 2018

Throughout Queensland’s history there has been an assumption that it is a state with a very distinct political character from the rest of Australia. In particular, the implication has been that Queensland is more conservative and backward than the southern states. Queensland “difference” has been used to explain the long period of conservative National Party rule from the 1950s made notorious by Joh Bjelke-Petersen. In more recent times, the rise of the racist Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, with its base in regional Queensland, as well as the careers of populist politicians like Bob Katter and Clive Palmer, all seem to confirm a state penchant for politicians of a rural, parochial and conservative type.

There is nothing uniquely “Queensland” about racist and conservative politics. However it is the case that Queensland’s economy developed in a way which had a distinct impact on the state’s politics. Specifically, Queensland’s economy was heavily skewed towards regionalised primary industries from colonial times through to the latter half of the twentieth century. This had a series of important and enduring consequences. Firstly, Queensland became an extremely decentralised state with significant concentrations of population on the northern coast around the sugar industry – in the west, traditionally the heartlands of the wool industry and mining, and in the south-east, dairy and wheat-farming localities. Decentralisation set the scene for a very clear divide for most of the state’s history between the regional towns that grew to service primary industries and Brisbane, which although it has always been the seat of government, has never been the state’s economic axis. It is still the case today that Queensland is the most regionalised of all the mainland states, despite changes which have led to a more diverse economy.

Secondly, Queensland was a frontier state for longer than the southern colonies. The large-scale land theft required to establish its economy, first to service the pastoral industry, then increasingly mining, resulted in some of the most brutal racism in Australia and a long history of entrenched government policies to favour industry over Aboriginal rights.

The decentralised nature of economic development also meant Queensland has historically been a weaker and more backward capitalist state. Owing to the emphasis on primary industry, manufacturing and heavy industry were less developed than in Victoria or NSW, and even South Australia. The capitalist class has been less local and more of the key companies with operations in Queensland have been based interstate. This helps to account for the predominance of the Nationals over the Liberals. The weakness of Queensland capital has also been the basis for a strong impulse by state governments to rule with a view to serving the needs of developing capital. This concern has manifested in different policies throughout different periods and governments. Nonetheless, governing in the interests of capitalist development has been a point of continuity in state politics, during both the long period of Labor rule from 1915 to the 1950s, with its focus on promoting agriculture and the period of National government up to the 1980s, with its close connection to foreign mining companies, through to the present, for example, with the state Labor government’s commitment to the Adani coalmine.

The development of Queensland capitalism shaped the working class and labour movement in quite distinct ways. Specifically, the Queensland labour movement has been more decentralised, regional and less migrant in its composition than in most other states, where manufacturing, especially in the post-World War II period led to higher concentrations of migrant workers.

All of these connected factors have laid the basis for a more pronounced regional emphasis in government policy which provided continuity through a political history that at first glance seems comprised of stark contradictions – for instance, the contradictions between Queensland having the longest period of continuous Labor government in Australia, against a similarly long period of Country Party rule; or the contradiction of a conservative and regionally focused ALP alongside an impressive history of industrial militancy that earned North Queensland the moniker “the Red North”. Lastly, there is the apparent contradiction between Labor’s early political dominance and the present reality of a state that produced One Nation and in which Australia’s most right wing federal seats are located.[1]

In recent decades, Queensland has undergone economic changes that have made Brisbane more central, and shifted the state’s economy towards services and tourism. However, these changes have not fundamentally challenged some of the long established consequences of Queensland’s economic foundations. So it is the case that conservative developments in Queensland politics today, like the Hanson phenomenon, or a variety of populist figures, are not just the legacy of the notoriously reactionary regime of Joh Bjelke-Petersen, nor are they just a reflection of a permanently backward, racist and non-militant working class. Rather, they have antecedents in Queensland’s distinctive political economy.

Economic development: from colonisation to the 1950s

From its earliest colonial history, Queensland’s economic development was centred on primary industry, and in particular, the pastoral and mining sectors. This created discernible characteristics that have shaped state politics through to the present. What particularly distinguished Queensland was the very regional and decentralised nature of its economic development over a huge land mass.

Significant towns were established around ports servicing the pastoral and mining industries – Cairns, Townsville, Mackay, Gladstone and Rockhampton – all of which have remained key population centres. The discovery of gold from the late 1860s was the impetus for the formation of other important regional towns like Gympie, just to the north of Brisbane, and the once booming Charters Towers, inland from Townsville. Add to these the once central northern inland mining towns, such as Mount Morgan, first a site of the Queensland gold rush, and later a centre of the copper industry, and Cloncurry, which were essentially mined out by the mid-twentieth century. With regard to agricultural development, sugar had emerged as the most important export by the 1890s. The sugar industry bolstered the development of coastal ports and intensified rural settlement in the north.[2] The rise of dairying and mixed farming in the same period produced a similar effect on settlement in the south-east.

Queensland’s primary industries and the regionalist nature of its economic development also provided part of the historic basis for intense and enduring racism. Queensland’s frontier wars were some of the most brutal waged in Australia, and they persisted for longer. Aboriginal people resisted genocide heroically, but they were confronted by brutal state violence under the Native Police, a force comprised of Indigenous men forcibly conscripted in order to “disperse” Aboriginal resistance. The Native Police operated from 1848 right up to the early twentieth century, acting as a revenge squad for pastoralists.[3] It eliminated whole peoples, such as the Jiman of the lower Dawson River area.[4] Recent estimates indicate that 24,000 Indigenous people were massacred by the Native Police, and a similar number were killed by white settlers.[5] Into the twentieth century, the reserve system continued this violence, subjecting Aboriginal people to stringent government control – separating them from the white population, stealing wages, and denying them autonomy right into the 1960s. Ray Evans observes that the conditions on the reserves, under which Indigenous people were expected to perform 32 hours labour per week in return for rations, made it seem “as though convict times had lived on into the late twentieth century”.[6]

The rabid imperialism that went along with Queensland being Australia’s northernmost colony also contributed to its frontier-state identity. The establishment of the sugar industry led colonists to import indentured South Sea Island labourers to work the burgeoning plantations. The drive for cheap labour to develop this industry created a sordid history of slavery and abuse upon which the profits of sugar conglomerate CSR were built, but also fanned imperialist ambition to the extent that in 1883, the Queensland government annexed south-eastern New Guinea under the rationale of stopping German intervention and to protect Torres Strait shipping.[7] Britain rescinded the annexation. However, into the twentieth century the idea that Queensland’s development was central to defence against the threat of invasion by the “Asian hordes” became central to justifying Australian imperialism.

Early effects of Queensland regionalism

“All roads and rails did not, and were never to, lead to Brisbane.”[8]

The pattern of regional development centred on primary industries militated against Brisbane becoming central to economic life. In fact, Brisbane’s geographic location made it difficult for it to act as a staging post for state development. Brisbane was a poor site for a port, sitting not on the bay but upstream of the river, and as such was not even really able to serve as a distribution centre for Queensland exports until the late 1930s. The manner in which railway construction occurred not only reflected how peripheral Brisbane was as a centre for development, but also reinforced this phenomenon. Instead of rail lines fanning out from the capital, they ran in spur lines from the inland centres to the regional coastal ports. Coastal rail lines linking Brisbane to the northern cities were not completed until the 1920s, which just diverted trade from Brisbane.[9] Consequently, north Queensland trade connections developed by sea with Sydney, rather than through Brisbane. Invariably then, most major businesses with interests in Queensland had their headquarters in the southern states. CSR, which dominated the sugar industry but was based in Sydney, is a case in point. Similarly, the deeds for many Queensland cattle stations were held by interstate capitalists. O’Shaughnessy emphasises that this is a clear point of difference between Queensland and states like South Australia which had a similar pattern of economic development heavily focused on primary industries, but where a much stronger local capitalist class developed. Additionally, the fact that Brisbane was less the home office for Queensland trade and capital worked to limit the development of commercial and banking capital in the state.[10] The capital city had a “branch office” feel, with few large firms, which persisted well into the 1970s and 80s.

Thus Brisbane never attained the economic or political dominance which characterises Sydney and Melbourne. Brisbane was the seat of government, but even though it was larger than any single regional city, it never became the place where most of the state’s population lived. By the mid-1980s, 44 percent of the state’s population lived in Brisbane.[11] It is still the case today that some 51 percent of Queensland’s population lives outside the capital city. By comparison, 65 percent of the NSW population lives in greater Sydney, and Melbourne holds 76 percent of Victoria’s population.[12] State government policy was written in Brisbane, but by and large with a focus on regional development, and the capital itself was held back. Several commentators remark on the lack of sewerage in Brisbane until the 1960s as a sign of its backwardness.[13] Culturally, Brisbane was less cosmopolitan than the southern cities. Regarding the class composition of Brisbane, certainly less of the Australian ruling class has lived in the city, and in the state more generally for that matter, but for most of the capital’s history, it also lacked a significant concentration of manufacturing workers. Ross Fitzgerald contends that “lack of a strong urban industrial base was to have significant social, cultural and political implications for the rest of the twentieth century”.[14] In Brisbane there were a multitude of small factories which broke up the working class and hindered “the development of mass spirit”[15] – or in other words, held back class consciousness and organisation.

This should not be taken to mean that there was never any class conflict or social struggle in Brisbane. Indeed Brisbane experienced Australia’s first general strike in 1912. However, by and large, working class militancy and radicalism, especially in the period up until the 1960s, was synonymous in Queensland with regional areas, and especially the northern coastal cities where there were larger concentrations of workers – in the sugar industry, both cane cutters and mill workers, in mining, meatworks and on the railways and wharves – which made up the backbone of the labour movement and the ALP’s historical support.

Weaker local capital

A significant result of Queensland’s decentralised development was a smaller and weaker local capitalist class. Historically, not only was the economy dependent on interstate capital, but it remained very narrow and highly dependent on the fortunes of the established primary industries for most of the twentieth century. In 1904 Queensland employed the lowest proportion of workers in manufacturing of any state.[16] When manufacturing did emerge, it was closely tied to primary industry – food processing for the pastoral, sugar and dairy industries – and therefore regionalised in nature.[17] Unlike other states, Queensland did not experience a manufacturing boom in the 1920s and 30s. So up until the mining boom of the 1960s, Queensland had a backward economy and was “always discussed as the poor relation among the Australian states”.[18]

With less of a big local capitalist class to drive investment and economic expansion, a strong pattern of state capitalism emerged in the early twentieth century. During Labor’s first terms in government, state intervention took the form of a number of state enterprises, and the establishment of the State Insurance Office (SIO) in 1916, which held a monopoly over compulsory workers’ compensation insurance, offering other forms of insurance and thereby making up for the lack of private insurance firms.[19] The SIO went on to lay the basis for one of Queensland’s most significant companies, Suncorp.

The dependent and weak nature of the economy also meant that from very early on governance and state politics was concerned to promote capitalist development. So both ALP governments, especially in the period after World War II, and the succession of Nationals-led governments from the 1950s to 1980s, consistently adopted policies to encourage capital investment. State intervention to prop up private capital development is not unique to Queensland, but the weakness of the local capitalist class created more of a push towards what Lewis calls a “distinctive brand of state paternalism”[20] which fostered interstate and later overseas monopolies in the primary industries.

Queensland’s labour movement

The decentralised nature of Queensland’s economic development shaped the labour movement and its political wing the ALP from its inception, and in ways that would have lasting political ramifications.

In the period of early colonial development Queensland’s labour movement was very rural, with large concentrations of shearers in the pastoral industry. The shearers were a seasonal, and therefore itinerant, workforce. Up until the mechanisation of the industry in the 1950s, Queensland also had big concentrations of seasonal sugar workers. In 1921, 34 percent of the workforce was concentrated in primary industry, as against a national figure of 26 percent.[21] Significant sections of Queensland’s working class were also consolidated around the export market for primary produce, especially on the northern coast, in transport and the railways, and the meatworks.[22] These industries were the impulse for the growth of big population centres on the coast. By the early twentieth century, the working class was as dispersed and decentralised as the state’s regional centres of primary production, and given its composition it is unsurprising that the Australian Workers Union (AWU), representing at its core shearers, miners and sugar workers, emerged as the dominant union. The AWU wielded more influence than any other union over the Labor Party, which ruled virtually continuously from 1915 to 1957. Between 1920 and 1950, four out of six ALP premiers had been AWU officials – Theodore, McCormack, Cooper and Forgan-Smith.[23]

AWU dominance does not on its own explain the conservative nature of Queensland Labor. Throughout most of its history, the AWU has favoured arbitration over strikes, and its leadership has been, as Lewis argues, “apathetic, reactionary…rurally oriented”.[24] Yet a rural focus and conservative officialdom preoccupied with Labor government was not necessarily synonymous with a passive rank and file totally subordinated to Labor in power. Nor did AWU dominance totally hold back industrial militancy. In fact the nature of the early working class, with pockets of labourers isolated in far-flung mining and sugar centres and pastoral stations, many of them itinerants living far away from their families, tended towards the development of a raw militancy which on a number of occasions spilled over into conflicts which were not easily contained by AWU officials.

By World War I, north Queensland had developed as a bastion of militancy. Syndicalism held strong sway among key sections of workers, especially in the railways and meatworks. Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) influence was carried to north Queensland by itinerant seasonal workers, and many sugar centres became what Burgmann describes as “nurseries for IWW propaganda”.[25] Although the IWW had just a few Queensland branches, in Brisbane, Mount Morgan and Cairns,[26] their following among Townsville meatworkers gave them disproportionate influence in the 1919 Australian Meat Industry Employees Union (AMIEU) strike.[27] This strike was a pitched battle over defence of the right of union hire, which saw workers breaking into ammunition shops in Townsville and seizing guns to force the release of their jailed leaders. The Ryan Labor government responded by sending police reinforcements to Townsville to quell the strike.[28] The strike was indicative of the divide that characterised the labour movement for much of the twentieth century – between the AWU/ALP bloc with its focus on arbitration over militant action, and the left unions, the AMIEU and the Australian Railways Union (ARU). However, as significant strikes among shearers during World War I indicate, many AWU members were capable of rebelling against their conservative officials. From 1916, central Queensland shearers took action for a shorter working week. By 1917, up to 2,000 shearers had withdrawn their labour, despite impassioned appeals from AWU officials to adopt moderation in pursuit of their demands, at least during the war years.[29] The AWU leaders were so vulnerable in the aftermath of the strike that they appealed to the Returned Soldiers League for recruits to work on the pastoral stations, so as to undercut the militants and curtail IWW influence. More generally, Queensland was a stronghold of the anti-conscription campaign that rocked Australia during World War I. Queensland was dubbed a site of “latent rebellion” and Bolshevism by prime minster Hughes,[30] who had been pelted by eggs during his 1917 pro-conscription tour of Queensland.

It was on these traditions that the Communist Party (CPA), founded in 1920 and with a conscious strategy to confront the AWU leadership, was able to build – especially among northern sugar and meat industry workers and wharfies. By 1924, CPA branches were operative in Cairns, Townsville, the mining town of Collinsville and other regional centres.[31] The Communists also developed a base among railway workers. There were significant industrial disputes in the 1930s among AWU-organised sugar workers, and in 1940s meatworkers and railway workers took strike action for rank and file claims against unsympathetic Labor governments.[32] In 1944 Fred Paterson, the only Communist MP ever elected in Australia, won the seat of Bowen, which sat between Mackay and Townsville.

So by the 1930s it was apparent that Queensland was a state divided. There was the north, with its concentrations of seasonal pastoral, wharf and sugar workers, miners and meatworkers with more militant traditions – a labour movement with an undisciplined, Wild West quality. On the other hand, there were significant population centres in the south-east with quite different demographics based on dairying and wheat farming undertaken by small farmers and therefore more conservative and petty bourgeois in composition. Consequently, Labor’s vote remained weak in south-east Queensland and suburban Brisbane well into the twentieth century.[33]

What can be concluded from this brief snapshot is that it is not the case that Queensland has always had a backward, passive or conservative working class. Rather, regionalism and the decentralised nature of economic development meant that for the first half of the twentieth century, significant struggles took place largely outside Brisbane, and mostly in the central/western and northern regions of the state, which were more proletarian in composition. The high quotient of itinerant, seasonal workers far from Brisbane and the reach of AWU officialdom and parliamentarians also created fertile conditions for the influence of syndicalism and at times explosive militancy which was very marked during World War I and into the 1930s.

Some important caveats to these generalisations are that by the end of the 1930s, Communist influence had spread south to Brisbane, where the party had a base among wharfies, shipbuilders and construction workers. The CPA also had significant influence in southern meatworks and rail workshops, and a following among Ipswich coalminers. But the low level of industrialisation in an economy so heavily focused on primary industry and especially pastoralism hindered the development of a politically radical class consciousness. Despite the fact that most Queensland workers lived in towns or cities, there were few large factories with big workforces such as existed in NSW and Victoria. The dispersed centres in which workers lived tended to reflect the political bias of the countryside which the regional cities served. Ray Evans argues that this meant that “[w]orking class consciousness…tended to exhibit marked rural characteristics in the main” with an emphasis on narrow regional concerns and “displaying a pragmatic, agrarian populism”.[34] It is also important to note that post-war economic expansion and mechanisation of primary industry undercut the raw militancy of the earlier period, containing and domesticating the regional working class. This was one factor that helped swing the balance towards a more conservative political climate from the 1950s.

Another important consequence of lower industrialisation, and a historically small and primary industry focused manufacturing sector, was that Queensland lacked the big concentrations of migrant workers in heavy industry that made up a significant portion of the workforce in southern states in the post-World War II period. Queensland’s post-war migrant intake was just 8 percent of the national total. From 1947 to 1961, Queensland’s overseas-born population increased by 56 percent compared to an Australian average of 139 percent.[35] Queensland still has a less ethnically diverse population than other states. According to the 2011 census only the Northern Territory and Tasmania had a lower proportion of people born overseas.[36] Furthermore the majority of Queensland’s immigrants are drawn from English-speaking countries, predominantly New Zealand.[37]

Historically, the AWU’s policies certainly did not help promote immigration, often arguing for preferential hiring practices for Anglophone workers. In the 1930s, the AWU leadership negotiated a quota system to preference British labour over Italian in the cane fields and mills.[38] The early AWU excluded Asian and Pacific Island workers from membership, and support for White Australia was a cornerstone of the AWU/Labor alliance.[39] These policies aside, Queensland was less likely to attract migrants, even than smaller states like South Australia, due to the lack of manufacturing jobs. Lewis also points out that post-war immigrants had lower wages in Queensland, further deterring settlement.[40]

The Queensland Labor Party

From 1915 to 1957, Labor ruled uninterrupted, save for a three-year term between 1929 and 1932. Its bases lay with the seasonal pastoral workers in the west, cane cutters on the northern coast and in the northern mining and cattle electorates. Labor’s weak areas were the metropolitan region and the dairying and wheat farming south-east region, reflecting the weakness of union organisation in those areas.[41]

The result was an ALP that was not only sensitive to the needs of the rural electorate, but was specifically “agrarian” in its orientation. In the period preceding the emergence of the ALP as an electoral force, the sugar industry had undergone an important transformation. It went from an industry based on large plantations worked mainly by indentured South Sea Island labourers, to one dominated by smaller farmers. The large squatters dominant in the colonial economy had been the natural adversary of both workers and the AWU. Now the ALP, under its first premier, T.J. Ryan, sought to cultivate an alliance with small sugar farmers who they saw as central to their vision for economic development. The pastoral industry came off second best, not just because of lingering antagonisms due to the 1890s strikes, but because grazing, which did not require big concentrations of population, was seen as being at odds with Labor’s vision for northern development, as articulated by premier Ted Theodore in 1922: “The best way to get a greatly increased virile population in Queensland [is] to get men to go on to the land and increase wealth production”.[42]

In the first period of Labor government, pursuit of this development plan meant legislation to break up large land holdings and promote “closer settlement”.[43] Later, Labor made inducements to settlement through schemes for returned World War I soldiers and wide-scale investment in irrigation and railway construction to service the sugar coast. These policies did not fundamentally transform the economy. The pastoral industry, with large stations, remained the main industry in the period up to World War II, accounting for 60 percent of exports. However, Labor’s preoccupation with fostering small farmers had a lasting ideological and electoral impact on the party. It was the foundation for the worker-farmer alliance that characterised Labor’s electoral strategy until the 1950s and which subsumed agrarianism, essentially Country Party policy, under a Labor platform.[44] This also meant Labor developed what Lewis has described as a “form of populism”[45] that went along with it being a country party, on one hand very dependent on the support of workers in primary industry, but on the other, seeking to an extent to cut across class boundaries in the regional centres.

An agricultural and populist focus shaped almost all elements of Labor policy, including education. From the outset, there was a lack of emphasis on education. It was incompatible with the agrarian nature of Labor’s development plans to compel children, whose labour was often needed on the family farm, to participate in mass education. Neglect of education continued for the first half of the century. Bahnisch notes that in the 20 years prior to 1952, not a single state high school had been opened, and so by the late 1960s the University of Queensland had a student population of only 6,000.[46] Secondary education was left to private schools, and state schools, when established, were viewed as mainly vocational in function. The result of Labor’s “contempt for education”[47] was a strong anti-intellectual sentiment which compounded the Brisbane-versus-country divide, and which helped create the basis for a kind of pervasive conservatism as the status quo. One example of how this dynamic played out is that while the sugar districts were strongholds of Labor’s state vote, up until the 1950s these districts typically voted conservative federally. As Ray Evans sums up well, the regional agrarianism that Labor stoked promoted “insularity, limited horizons, suspicion, militant conformity and educational backwardness, fed by a belligerent anti-intellectualism”.[48]

The weakness of local capital, combined with Labor’s rural and agrarian outlook, set up a conception, which has endured, that a key role of the state is to promote primary production. In the first period of Labor rule and into the 1920s, a tendency to state capitalism took the form of state enterprises, an extensive network of state-run butcheries and cattle stations, a cannery, sawmill and even a state hotel. The Theodore government later operated a state sugar mill, mines and smelters in the Atherton region to bolster an ailing post-World War I mining economy. State enterprises helped consolidate the relationship between the ALP and farmers, although they were also popular with workers.

They were not, as Labor acolytes might make out, demonstrative of some innate “socialist” tendencies in the early Queensland ALP. Nor was state intervention – to secure access to consumer goods, control prices and exports (as the Ryan government undertook with sugar and meat), and to maintain production – particularly remarkable during World War I. State enterprises were also a feature of the NSW and Western Australian economies in this period. However, state intervention was stronger, of a broader scope and had greater longevity in Queensland.

The period of state enterprises had ended by the 1930s. The Great Depression strengthened the domination of southern and overseas companies over the Queensland economy. By the post-World War II period, British-owned Vestey’s had monopolised much of the meat industry, CSR had expanded its operations into manufacturing building materials, and overseas capital was beginning to make itself felt in mining. Labor came to see these capitalists as central to northern development and, especially under the Hanlon government, undertook measures to attract southern and international investment by making Queensland a low-wage state. Labor’s accommodation to capital was exemplified in the 1948 rail strike centred on the Ipswich workshops, the state’s largest industrial enterprise.[49] The workers were Labor’s support base. They took action to secure their wages against an arbitration ruling that prevented wage increases flowing to Queensland rail workers from a new federal metal trades award. In response Hanlon imposed a state of emergency against mass pickets, and hyped up hysteria against the Communist Party, which played an influential role in the strike.[50]

To summarise, by the end of the 1950s, the ALP was regional and agrarian, had a long history of policies bolstering primary industry, and had fostered a close connection between the state and the needs of private capital. The ALP’s regional character was reinforced by an electoral gerrymander initiated by the Hanlon government that weighted electoral zones in favour of traditional Labor-voting rural areas. If it had not been for the 1949 Electoral Districts Act, Labor would not have won the 1950 election. The great irony was that Labor’s rural gerrymander went on to entrench National Party rule in the second half of the century. Additionally, the gerrymander reinforced the underpinnings of electoral volatility that is a key feature of Queensland state politics, by consolidating Labor’s lack of a base in metropolitan areas and areas outside the traditional regional electorates.

Lewis contends that “Labor normally found it difficult to win seats in the metropolitan area”.[51] There are no truly safe federal metropolitan Labor seats. This is because regionalism hindered the development of “demographically uniform” capital city seats in the manner of Melbourne or Sydney.[52]

Under Hanlon another source of trouble for the ALP emerged in the form of the Industrial Groups, the rabidly right wing Catholic anti-communist movement in the unions. Anti-communist rhetoric had been a staple of Queensland Labor since the 1920s. It was also the case that Catholics held a disproportionate influence in Queensland’s labour movement and in the state public service.[53] Hanlon’s repression of the meatworks and railways strikes gave the Groupers an important opportunity to consolidate their dominance, and their influence grew under the new ALP premier Vince Gair, a right winger sympathetic to their cause. After Gair succeeded Hanlon in 1952, a divide opened up between the AWU, traditionally closely aligned with the party’s parliamentary wing, and Grouper-controlled unions like the Queensland State Services Union and the Federated Clerks. Tensions escalated and in 1957 the ALP executive sacked Gair. Gair was supported by the majority of his cabinet, and when he declared himself leader of a new Queensland Labor Party (QLP) the result was a rift that helped render the ALP unelectable for decades.

Country/National Party rule and Joh Bjelke-Petersen

The conservative parties were the beneficiaries of the Labor split in a couple of ways. The split caused havoc within the ALP by displacing the vote of the Catholic middle class that had historically supported Labor. Initially the chaos led to a split Labor vote in the 1957 election which saw the Nicklin-led Country-Liberal Party coalition come to power. Unsurprisingly, the QLP eventually merged with the Groupers nationally in the Democratic Labor Party (DLP). By the 1970s, the Nationals, now led by the notorious Joh Bjelke-Petersen, were able to pick up former Labor votes via the DLP. The long period of National Party rule that began with Nicklin was buttressed by the regional gerrymander. Already under the Hanlon gerrymander, the decentralised regions held more electoral weight than Brisbane. Under National rule, the gerrymander was further adjusted to magnify “the government’s support in both remote regions and in agriculturally oriented coastal and hinterland communities. This was done by overweighting their votes and, in relation to the coastal and hinterland communities, separating them from Labor-leaning provincial cities”.[54] In 1959, the gerrymander was reinforced by legislation imposing stringent residential requirements, disenfranchising the remaining concentrations of Labor-voting itinerant workers.[55] Within the LNP, the gerrymander cemented the dominance of the Nationals over the Liberals, whose base was in Brisbane. The Nationals’ dominance in conservative politics also flowed naturally from the historic weakness of local capital, the domination of southern-based banking and commercial firms, and the lack of large-scale manufacturing already noted.

The gerrymander was not the only factor underpinning the Nationals’ growing dominance over regional Queensland. From the 1950s on there were important economic shifts that reshaped primary industry as well as the demographics of regional centres in ways that would have important political effects. Firstly, mechanisation undermined the seasonal workforce of many primary industries. Traditional Labor-voting areas became less proletarian in composition. In central Queensland and in important regional cities like Rockhampton, mechanisation in the sugar and meat industries generated high unemployment, and led to some decline in population. In the pastoral industry the trend towards mechanisation came earlier. Hearn and Knowles note that the agricultural workforce declined by 20 percent between 1933 and 1954 due to mechanisation.[56] By the late 1950s, growth had begun to slow in central Queensland, with south and north Queensland’s population growing at double the rate of this region.[57] A second but related factor was the centralisation of farming, which led to larger farms and reduced the sizeable number of relatively impoverished small farmers that Labor had historically appealed to.

The most significant change post-World War II was the dramatic rise of mining, which underwent a massive boom from the 1960s, facilitated by increased international demand for coal and other minerals. Both the former Labor and the new Nationals governments shared a regionalist approach to economic growth, but the Nicklin administration was heavily focused on regional industrialisation – a departure from Labor’s agrarian outlook. Under the Nationals-led governments which endured until 1989, state politics became synonymous with slavish service to the interests of mining corporations and wide-ranging measures to attract corporate investment. These took the form of government-sponsored infrastructure development, for example, construction of a rail line from Moura to Gladstone in the early 1960s to aid the operations of Thiess Peabody, which was granted extensive prospecting rights.[58] Additionally, the government granted substantial subsidies, tax and royalties concessions to mining corporations, culminating in companies like Comalco (now Rio Tinto) paying some of the lowest royalty rates in the world.[59] The Nicklin government further demonstrated its commitment to big mining by intervening more than once in strikes by Mt. Isa miners for increased bonuses. In 1961 Nicklin declared a state of emergency to quell a strike, and in 1965, when the dispute flared again, special police powers were introduced to undercut strike solidarity by preventing anyone deemed “suspicious” from entering Mt. Isa.[60]

It was Joh Bjelke-Petersen, premier from 1968, who came to personify the Coalition’s approach to development based on accelerated growth of mining, and increasingly involving foreign corporations, which came to dominate the minerals industry. In 1979, Terry O’Shaughnessy found that foreign-owned mining corporations accounted for 85 percent of value added compared to an Australian average of 58.9 percent.[61] Defending the interests of huge mining corporations became central to state politics, and as O’Shaughnessy posits, Queensland’s “Country Party dominated administration became the most vocal supporter of foreign mining capital in Australia”.[62] This commitment was evident in the rabid anti-Aboriginal rights policies the government introduced to clear land for mining. From the 1960s, the mining boom prompted the passage of legislation to force Indigenous people from reserves located in the mineral-rich Cape York region. These moves culminated in a campaign of state terror to smash Aboriginal resistance to mining by an American-owned consortium at Aurukun, located on the land of the Wik and Wik Way people. In 1978, after years of sustained protest against forced removal, Bjelke-Petersen sacked the Aboriginal-elected Aurukun council and sent in a detachment of police to quell remaining resistance.[63] In typical fashion Bjelke-Petersen proclaimed: “White Australians would be converted to second class citizens unless mineral rights were removed from Aboriginal land legislation”.[64]

The mining boom exacerbated regionalism, with much new development centred on coal in central Queensland. Most of the secondary industry related to mining; refining and processing also took place in north and central Queensland. The effect was the rise of newly important industrial towns like coastal Gladstone, located around 500 kilometres north of Brisbane. Gladstone’s population exploded from 6,000 in 1962 to more than 25,000 by 1982 off the back of the power stations, smelting and harbour developments established to service mining.[65] The new mines were very capital-intensive and generated relatively little employment, even considering labour requirements for associated industries. The highly profitable nature of Queensland mines rested on the fact that wages were so low. In the 1970s, Queensland mining corporations received $5.47 in profits for every $1 in wages.[66] Additionally, the new coal mines were mostly open-cut, rather than underground, unlike the NSW coalfields that previously had been key to the coal industry. The lesser skill set required to work open-cut mines meant that miners were less likely to come from mining families and their traditions. Some were former farmers, and therefore less likely to be Labor-voting. The revival of central Queensland associated with mining did not therefore make up for the displacement of concentrations of workers that had formerly constituted a base for Labor.

Economic development in the Bjelke-Petersen era also impacted Brisbane. By the 1960s, manufacturing had grown in areas around the capital. Overall manufacturing remained on a smaller scale than in the southern states, with production per head of population the lowest in Australia. Nonetheless, the growth of the sector created more of a concentration of manufacturing workers in Brisbane and Ipswich. Due to the lower level of post-war migration, this workforce remained relatively monocultural. By 1976, only 16 percent of Brisbane’s population was overseas-born, compared to 25 percent in all other “major urban” centres in Australia.[67] Brisbane remained as marginal to the Nationals electorally as it had been to Labor. Bjelke-Petersen’s support base outside of mining was among the ranks of large farmers and graziers. This did nothing but exacerbate the divide between the capital city and regional areas.

In another respect, however, Brisbane did become politically important in the 1970s. The capital was the heart of opposition to Bjelke-Petersen and home of a civil liberties campaign to challenge the ban on street marches imposed in 1977. It was Bjelke-Petersen’s authoritarian measures that did most to promote an enduring view of Queensland as a conservative backwater, a repressive “police state” defined by a climate of official racism and bigotry. In 1971, student-led protests against South African apartheid and in response to the tour of the all-white Springbok rugby team were met by brutal police repression. Bjelke-Petersen declared a state of emergency, which suspended civil liberties for a month.[68] This was but a portent of the violence the state would level against protesters in enforcing the ban on street marches from 1977. For two years thousands of protesters who defied the march ban would regularly be confronted with mass arrests and bashings. The repression was complemented by stultifying social policy, which saw the government introduce homophobic legislation in 1985, allowing bars to refuse service to those perceived as “deviants”.

Although Queensland was not bypassed by the radicalism of the 1960s and 1970s – indeed it had probably Australia’s largest student movement – the long period of LNP rule, with its pro-mining bias, virulent racism and authoritarianism, and law and order politics laid the basis for modern Queensland conservatism. This was especially the case as Bjelke-Petersen’s reactionary politics were reinforced by a right-wing ALP. The ALP’s conservative parliamentary wing did not support the civil liberties campaign and backed social policies matching the Nationals’ reactionary agenda.[69] Labor’s electoral strategy rested on winning back regional areas, but with these now dominated by big farmers and the petty-bourgeoisie of regional cities, such a strategy could only pull the ALP and establishment politics further to the right. Regionalism, bolstered and consolidated in this period, is also a starting point for understanding the rise of modern populist conservatives in Queensland.

The last thirty years

In the past 30 years, Queensland has undergone important changes. The Nationals have declined and are no longer the dominant conservative party. The 2007 merger between the Nationals and the Queensland Liberals to form the Liberal National Party was both the reflection and logical outcome of a series of important economic developments that undermined Nationals strength from the late 1980s. One of the most important of these was the diversification of the economy, and the rise of the service and tourism industries, which along with construction, now employ a very significant proportion of workers. Ninety-one percent of all new jobs created in the 1990s were in the service sector.[70] A huge proportion of these jobs have been in health services and business and financial services that went along with the continued strength of the resources industries. However, many service jobs have been in tourism, which has been consciously fostered since the 1990s as part of government policy to enlarge the economies of the coastal cities previously so dependent on primary industries. To that end, the Goss Labor government financed a new international airport in Cairns. In the southern regions, a tourism and property development boom on the Gold Coast from the late 1960s laid the basis for significant growth in the area, especially by interstate retirees. A similar phenomenon on the Sunshine Coast and its hinterland has also created a concentration of retirees. These population flows consolidated a conservative voting base in the south-east and Sunshine Coast regions. In the 2015 state election, all Gold Coast seats went to the LNP. They also returned strong votes for One Nation.

Brisbane has now superseded the coasts as the heart of the tourism industry.[71] By 2001 two-thirds of the population lived in south-east Queensland, an area including Brisbane, the Gold and Sunshine Coasts, compared with 58.2 percent in 1976.[72] Despite this, regional Queensland continues to be important economically and politically, with the continuation of growth in the mining sector, around coal, and a boom in LNG projects in the past decade.

In 2000-01, 66 percent of Queensland exports were dispatched from non-Brisbane ports.[73] State politics has continued to be heavily influenced by regional considerations, especially those related to the interests of mining corporations which have been key to development plans under both ALP and LNP administrations. This helps explain the leading parties’ commitment to Adani and other mining corporations, despite questions over their capacity to create jobs and make any significant contributions to the local economy. This commitment to mining capital also means that Aboriginal land rights are no more secure than under the Bjelke-Petersen regime.

One important change to regional Queensland has been the marked decline in agricultural industry, and the attendant decline in population centres formerly connected to it. Currently, agriculture accounts for a mere 2.5 percent of Queensland’s economy and employs 57,700 people.[74] This is a substantial decline from the strength of a sector that once sustained a large labouring workforce to bulwark Labor’s regional vote, and later buttress the Nationals. The decline of the industry also led to a decline in public services and commercial services in some regional towns.[75] This has been exacerbated with the end of the construction phase of many mining projects. As Ben Reid has noted, the decline of agricultural industry is a significant factor driving a right wing populist vote in former National Party strongholds for the likes of Bob Katter and Clive Palmer,[76] both of whom appealed heavily to parochial concerns and advocated for mining corporations to promote growth in failing regional centres. Similarly, this trend helps account for the rise of One Nation in the late 1990s, and Hanson’s continued support in regional Queensland.

This article is not the place for a detailed demographic study of Hanson’s support base, and in any case, this has been previously undertaken by Ben Reid in this journal,[77] but it is relevant to note that key areas of support for One Nation are the previously National strongholds of southern rural Queensland, the Wide Bay and Burnett areas, as well as along the northern coast.

Of course, the decline of regional centres associated with agriculture is not the only factor underpinning Hanson’s rise. With its noxious mix of anti-Asian and anti-Aboriginal racism, One Nation originally came to prominence in a political climate rife with official racism against Indigenous rights, and resurged as an electoral force in the 2016 federal election in a climate of rabid Islamophobia, stoked for over a decade by both major parties. The racism at the core of One Nation also intersects with a long history of racist government, particularly regarding Indigenous rights, in a state that is still one of the least ethnically diverse in Australia. In addition, the long period of the Nationals’ dominance over regional areas, where Hanson’s support lies, has given them a conservative colouration.

While there have been important changes over the past 30 years, the characteristics that gave Queensland its distinctive political character have to a significant extent endured from colonisation to the present. The most important of these is the decentralised economic development that fuelled regionalism and fostered a close connection between state government and capital development, and which laid the foundations for administrations with a heavy bias towards mining corporations since the 1960s. It is this regionalism that over time helped lay the basis for a more populist ALP, and later consolidated the Nationals’ dominance. Added to this, Queensland has a long history of racism deriving from voracious measures to clear the land for primary industry which dominated the economy since colonisation, and a working class that despite its impressive capacity for militancy and radical political traditions has been fragmented and suffered from its decentralised and regional nature. Added together, these characteristics have laid the basis for more conservative, yet volatile, state politics.

Australian Bureau of Statistics, “Regional population growth”, cat. no. 3218.0, 2016.

Baldry, Hannah, Ailsa McKeon and Scott McDougall 2015, “Queensland’s frontier killing times – facing up to genocide”, QUT Law Review, 15 (1).

Barrigos, Rebecca 2016, “Cape York: a history of Aboriginal dispossession and resistance”, Marxist Left Review, 11, Summer.

Bahnisch, Mark 2015, Queensland: everything you ever wanted to know, but were afraid to ask, NewSouth Publishing.

Burgmann, Verity 1995, Revolutionary Industrial Unionism: The Industrial Workers of the World in Australia, Cambridge University Press.

Cain, Frank 1993, The Wobblies at War: A History of the IWW and the Great War in Australia, Spectrum Publications.

Evans, Raymond 1981, Loyalty and Disloyalty: Social and Ideological Conflict in Queensland During the Great War, Allen and Unwin.

Evans, Raymond 2007, A History of Queensland, Cambridge University Press.

Evans, Raymond and Carole Ferrier (eds) 2004, Radical Brisbane: An Unruly History, The Vulgar Press.

Evans, Raymond, Kay Saunders and Kathryn Cronin (eds) 1975, Race Relations in Colonial Queensland: A History of Exclusion, Exploitation and Extermination, University of Queensland Press.

Fitzgerald, Ross 1984, A History of Queensland: From 1915 to the 1980s, University of Queensland Press.

Fitzgerald, Ross 1986, A History of Queensland: From the Dreaming to 1915, University of Queensland Press.

Fitzgerald, Ross and Harold Thornton 1989, Labor in Queensland: From the 1880s to 1988, University of Queensland Press.

Fitzgerald, Ross, Lyndon Megarrity and David Symons 2009, Made in Queensland: A New History, University of Queensland Press.

Hearn, Mark and Harry Knowles 1996, One big union: a history of the Australian Workers’ Union 1886-1994, Cambridge University Press.

Lawson, Ronald 1973, Brisbane in the 1890s: A Study of an Australian Urban Society, University of Queensland Press.

McQueen, Humphrey 1979, “Queensland: A state of mind”, Meanjin, 38 (1).

Menghetti, Diane 1981, The Red North: The Popular Front in North Queensland, History Department, James Cook University of North Queensland.

Minns, John 1981, “Queensland: the last two years”, International Socialist, 11.

Murphy, D.J. (ed.) 1975, Labor in Politics: the State Labor Parties in Australia, University of Queensland Press.

Murphy, D.J. (ed) 1983, The Big Strikes: Queensland 1889-1965, University of Queensland Press.

Murphy D.J., R.B. Joyce and C.A. Hughes (eds) 1970, Prelude to Power: The rise of the Labour Party in Queensland 1885–1915, The Jacaranda Press.

Orr, Graeme and Ron Levy 2009, “Electoral Malapportionment: Partisanship, Rhetoric and Reform in the Shadow of the Agrarian Strong-Man”, Griffith Law Review, 18.

O’Shaughnessy, Terry 1979, “Joh and Don: capital and politics in two peripheral states”, Intervention, 12.

Reid, Ben 2017, “Understanding Hansonism”, Marxist Left Review, 13, Summer.

Wanna, John and Janice Caulfield (eds), 1995, Power and Politics in the City: Brisbane in Transition, Macmillan Education Australia.

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[1] Claire Blumer, Colin Gourlay, Ben Spraggon and Matt Liddy, “Vote Compass: Australia’s most left-leaning and right-leaning seats revealed”, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-06-12/vote-compass-right-left-leaning-electorates/7501092, 24 June 2016.

[2] J.R. Laverty, “The Queensland Economy 1860-1915”, Murphy et al 1970, p32.

[3] Evans et al 1975, p55.

[4] Evans 2007, p74.

[5] Baldry et al 2015, p92.

[6] Evans 2007, p212.

[7] Fitzgerald 1986, p213.

[8] Fitzgerald 1986, p266.

[9] Lawson 1973, p6.

[10] O’Shaughnessy 1979, p5 and pp7-8.

[11] John Wanna and Janice Caulfield, “Brisbane: A City in Transition”, Wanna and Caulfield 1995, p36.

[12] Australian Bureau of Statistics 2016.

[13] Glen Lewis, “Queensland nationalism and Australian capitalism”, Wheelwright and Buckley 1978, p115.

[14] Fitzgerald 1986, p299.

[15] Lawson 1973, p83.

[16] Fitzgerald 1986, p299.

[17] Laverty, “The Queensland Economy 1860-1915”, Murphy et al 1970, pp41-42.

[18] O’Shaughnessy 1979, p10.

[19] Fitzgerald 1984, p49.

[20] Lewis, “Queensland nationalism and Australian capitalism”, Wheelwright and Buckley 1978, p121.

[21] Laverty, “The Queensland Economy 1860-1915”, Murphy et al 1970, p37.

[22] D.J. Murphy, “Trade Unions”, Murphy 1983, p33.

[23] Hearn and Knowles 1996, p180.

[24] Lewis, “Queensland nationalism and Australian capitalism”, Wheelwright and Buckley 1978, p128.

[25] Burgmann 1995, p223.

[26] Cain 1993, p152.

[27] Fitzgerald 1984, p17.

[28] Burgmann 1995, p179.

[29] Evans 1981, p381.

[30] Fitzgerald 1984, p11.

[31] Menghetti 1981, p15.

[32] Fitzgerald and Thornton 1989, p47.

[33] D.J. Murphy, “Queensland”, Murphy 1975, p152.

[34] Evans 1981, p40.

[35] Evans 2007, p207.

[36] Queensland Government, Office of Economic and Statistical Research, “Population Growth Highlights and Trends”, http://www.qgso.qld.gov.au/products/reports/pop-growth-highlights-trends-qld/pop-growth-highlights-trends-qld-2012.pdf, June 2012.

[37] Daryl Passmore, “Queensland: 28 ways we’re different to the rest of Australia”, Courier Mail, 8 July 2015.

[38] Menghetti 1981, p56.

[39] Hearn and Knowles 1996, p39.

[40] Lewis, “Queensland nationalism and Australian capitalism”, Wheelwright and Buckley 1978, p112.

[41] D.J. Murphy, “T.J. Ryan”, Murphy et al 1970, p212.

[42] Fitzgerald and Thornton 1989, p90.

[43] Fitzgerald 1984, p57.

[44] Fitzgerald and Thornton 1989, p162.

[45] Lewis, “Queensland nationalism and Australian capitalism”, Wheelwright and Buckley 1978, p121.

[46] Bahnisch 2015, p62.

[47] Lewis “Queensland nationalism and Australian capitalism”, Wheelwright and Buckley 1978, p121.

[48] Evans 2007, p207.

[49] Douglas Blackmur, “The Railway Strike, 1948”, Murphy 1983, p238.

[50] Evans 2007, p202.

[51] Lewis “Queensland nationalism and Australian capitalism”, Wheelwright and Buckley 1978, p111.

[52] Jason Wilson, “Queensland election: Labor on the wrong side of the boom”, The Conversation, 26 March 2012, https://theconversation.com/queensland-election-labor-on-the-wrong-side-of-the-boom-6024.

[53] Fitzgerald 1984, p3.

[54] Orr and Levy 2009, p640.

[55] Fitzgerald and Thornton 1989, p177.

[56] Hearn and Knowles 1996, p227.

[57] Fitzgerald 1984, p293.

[58] Fitzgerald et al 2009, p151.

[59] Fitzgerald 1984, p305.

[60] Fitzgerald et al 2009, p155.

[61] O’Shaughnessy 1979, pp20-21.

[62] ibid., p22.

[63] For more detail see Barrigos 2016.

[64] Fitzgerald et al 2009, p169.

[65] Fitzgerald et al 2009, p151.

[66] O’Shaughnessy 1979, p21.

[67] McQueen 1976, pp42-43.

[68] Evans and Ferrier 2004, p278.

[69] Minns 1981, p19.

[70] Fitzgerald et al 2009, p241.

[71] Queensland Government, “Queensland Economy”, https://www.treasury.qld.gov.au/economy-and-budget/queensland-economy/.

[72] Fitzgerald et al 2009, p240.

[73] ibid., p241.

[74] Queensland Government, “Queensland Economy”, https://www.treasury.qld.gov.au/economy-and-budget/queensland-economy/.

[75] Fitzgerald et al 2009, p270.

[76] Reid 2017, p11.

[77] ibid.

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