‘QUEENSLANDERS NEVER GIVE UP!’
– Sign left by workers on a deserted building site in Brisbane during the past week, as raging floodwaters of “biblical proportions” left a trail of death and destruction and threatened to leave much of Australia’s third largest state capital submerged.
It’s true, Queenslanders are a tough bunch and they don’t seem to give up. And they won’t, even in the face of the dreadful floods that have left three quarters of their state underwater, an area the size of California and Texas combined – or, as the British and European press have been saying, France and Germany combined – and the nation dealing with loss and tragedy on an almost unthinkable scale.
Even compared to other Australians, who are immensely proud of the pioneering, fair-go-for-all and never-say-die spirit that took a continent infamous for giving back nothing but tears and grief and turning it into one of the world’s wealthiest and most productive nations, Queenslanders are known for taking pride to another level.
Their countrymen and women in the other states and territories of this island-continent nation have always regarded them as a bit different, a bit like Texans but without the 10-gallon heads, and in Queensland, different is not regarded as an insult; it’s something they wear as a badge of pride.
They do have a lot to be proud of. In upside-down, southern hemisphere Australia, where Christmas comes in mid-summer or during the height of the wet season, it’s the opposite of the US: cooler down south, and the north is the tropics. Heading up the coast from Sydney, the nation’s Big Apple capital of New South Wales, to the state border, northern NSW ends and Queensland starts at the very hot extreme edge of the continent’s temperate zone, then stretches north through the Tropic of Capricorn, past the Great Barrier reef towards the equator. It’s a beautiful place, normally.
It’s not called the Sunshine State for nothing. It looks and feels different the moment you cross the NSW border from Tweed Heads and drive into Tweed’s twin city of Coolangatta, first stop in the massive southeast Queensland conurbation linking the Gold Coast with Brisbane and the Sunshine Coast, and now beyond, in a great swath of high-rise city and suburban development — which is also why the floods have been so devastating. Parts of the eastern seaboard of Australia are among the most urbanised regions on the planet, which means there’s so much to lose.
I have some personal experience of that Queensland spirit, too. In a classic case of bad organisation, most of my own family are Queenslanders and I can attest to their Queenslander-first, Aussie-second, attitude. And they really are a bit different, mostly. It can feel like 35 degrees Celsius in our house on humid summer nights, and my wife won’t want to switch on the aircon (even when it’s not on the blink) because she doesn’t feel the heat. If she does put it on, she’ll go for a “comfortable” 28C — and sleep with pyjamas and an extra blanket. Like most Queenslanders, she’d rather have the ceiling fan on. My mother-in-law doesn’t want the state to have summer daylight saving, something much of the rest of Australia embraced decades ago. “We need less sun up here, not more,” she says, playing into the old jokes about fading curtains and window-box flowers shrivelling up because of the extra hour of sunlight.
I am also a regular victim of it during the annual three-game State of Origin Rugby League series played between Queensland and New South Wales, during which the Queensland side will inevitably pull something out the bag in the last minutes of a closely fought game to snatch an unlikely and against-the-odds victory. It’s always something like an impossible length-of-the-field four-pointer that sees the ball passing through the hands of the entire team at lightning speed after a NSW fumble on the Queensland goal line, or a last minute field goal from the halfway line by a Queensland player who’s never, ever, managed to kick one before in a 10-year professional career. It seems like a NSW tradition of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, but there’s so much more to it.
I always thought it had something to do with the quality of their players, and that’s obviously part of it too. Queensland also has a large population of Australians of indigenous background and that is reflected in the silky skills, the athleticism, the razzle-dazzle style and all-star line-up of their Rugby League sides. Usually, it will be a bit of magic from one of these players that sparks the rest of the side to feats that look superhuman. At the very pinnacle of what is arguably the toughest full-contact team sport of all, I could never work out how, after literally being bashed black and blue and belted from one end of the park to the other for the best part of 80 minutes by a bigger, meaner and fitter-looking NSW team, the Queensland team would inevitably come up trumps by pulling off the kind of move that more likely should have come in the opening minutes.
My son, himself a keen former footballer who always wears his Maroon Queensland jersey to watch the Origin games and treats each high-adrenalin, seesawing moment as a life-and-death experience, tells me all I need to know,
“It’s because we’re QUEENSLANDERS!’’ he says, or rather, shouts.
The once sharp dividing line between urban and rural Australia might be a bit more blurred these days, but the inference here is that the guys in the blue jerseys are a pack of soft-cock city-slickers from (lower-case) new south wales who couldn’t fight their way out of a wet paper bag, while QUEENSLANDERS! are the new antipodean ubermensch, and don’t you forget it. This past few weeks or so, with his late grandfather’s old house in Rockhampton among the thousands in the sugarcane belt cut off by the floodwaters, he’s been more sombre than usual about the connection Queensland. But more than ever, he’s a QUEENSLANDER!
Now the whole state needs to collectively draw on that pride and fighting spirit, even if it is one that’s been partly manufactured and whipped along over the years by sports marketing gurus, and reach deep inside itself to overcome a tragedy of unprecedented proportions. It needs to keep its sense of community in the months to come, and to go at the task of rebuilding with a determination that will rely heavily on lots of dry Aussie humour, which is the way antipodeans usually attack adversity.
So far, that humour is still in evidence. A long-running TV ad designed to lure Aussie tourists to what is the nation’s holiday playground used to proudly proclaim: “Queensland – beautiful one day, perfect the next.” A mate of mine living in Brisbane, watching the floodwaters slowly circling his house, rewrote it slightly this past week, telling us what we all knew as we watched the dreadful results of the heavy rains and flooding play out on our TV screens: “Mate, can you believe it. Queensland … beautiful one day, fair-dinkum pissing down the next.” Near Grantham, one of the hard-hit towns in the Lockyer Valley that were virtually demolished by the flash floods that came sweeping down out of the ranges last week through the beautiful inland city of Toowoomba, and which now seem likely to have killed dozens whose bodies are yet to be found, a couple rescued from the roof of their house in Helidon went back later to find nothing but stinking mud and debris in what was almost a shell and through their tears, joked: “We’ll have to sack the housekeeper … and the landscaper.”
Well, this week, Queenslanders aren’t different as far as the rest of us are concerned. Not that different, anyway. Even the auld-enemy south of the border, in lower-case nsw, are in it with them, with the floods now seriously affecting the far north of our state, too. Indeed, the whole nation, from island-state Tasmania to coastal Western Australia, much of the rest of it also experiencing bad (but far less severe) flooding because of the bizarre, cyclical, La Niña South Pacific rim weather pattern, is busy looking after their backs. Many Aussies have already gone north to help with the cleanup, some giving up their Christmas/New Year summer vacations or putting their work on hold.
Those who didn’t know each other from a bar of soap five weeks ago have come together to help in the cleanup. Amid the horrific stories of children being swept from the arms of parents and rescuers by raging floodwaters, or parents sacrificing themselves to save their children; heartbreakers like that of brave 13-year-old Jordan Rice who died with his mother after insisting rescuers take his little brother first then come back for his mum before they took him, there are also the unheralded stories of long and tireless work, that other kind of courage.
The kind that demands you keep going when you think you can’t give any more. Ordinary people risking their lives to save others, volunteers and police and firefighters and ambulance officers working through the day and night when chronic lack of sleep should have knocked them down hours earlier, the civilian emergency and Army and Navy helicopter crews, braving conditions no one would normally fly in, to pluck small groups of people from the roofs of their homes. And doing it in the dark, too, with night-vision goggles, dodging power lines, trees and TV antennas in horizontal driving rain, saving many hundreds who might otherwise have perished. Truck drivers from interstate taking the long, dusty route through the outback to deliver food to Queensland because it’s the only way they can get in. People making endless piles of sandwiches in the evacuation shelters. Or multimillionaire mining magnate Clive Palmer rolling up his sleeves and using his own helicopter for a ferry-style rescue of 60 stranded people.
I can’t even begin to put the tragic human cost of the floods into words here or tell the whole story. Most readers will doubtless have seen it on TV. What more can you say? Words become inadequate when it comes to describing this stuff. I’m glad I wasn’t there and I’m glad my family is safe.
But now the time for grieving starts, and the huge clean-up begins.
Sports stars, federal and state governments, big corporations, small-to-medium businesses, along with thousands of ordinary working Aussies, have already kicked in millions of dollars to a flood relief appeal to help the tens of thousands who’ve lost their homes, businesses and livelihoods. Many of the homeless are being looked after in temporary accommodation provided by government, where they have been given respite from the storm, a warm bed and hot meals. From the other side of the ditch, New Zealand State Emergency Service volunteers have flown in across the Tasman Sea, and are pitching in with the rest — while keeping a keen eye on their Aussie colleague said to be the “snake-catcher”. US president Barack Obama offered help from our cousins over the big pond, too, if we need it. I know we’d prefer to look after our own, but we still might take him up, such is the scale of the devastation. And if we don’t need the help in the wash-up, well, no one will forget that Americans offered it.
Then there’s the English cricket team, fresh from their victory over Australia in the Ashes Test series, one of the world’s most keenly fought sporting contests and a challenge that stirs deep emotions. They’re still here playing a Twenty20 series, and they’re passing the bucket around and trying to organise flood relief fundraisers in a show of shoulder-to-shoulder solidarity with their Aussie counterparts. We didn’t like their top batsman Kevin Pietersen much, until this week, because he was belting Aussie bowlers all over the paddock and letting us know how good it felt to have his foot on Aussie throats. But like the rest of us, he knows sport is just sport. We might have been wrong all along: Flinty-eyed Kev and his sunburned Pommy mates have turned out to be a godsend.
I spend a lot of time arguing with Americans on BC about why I believe their views are wrong when it comes to the concept of community. From a place that sometimes seems to run on the credo of every man for himself, many Americans will mistakenly take us to task for our “socialism”, will rail against our system of universal health coverage and can’t understand why it is that while I don’t want the federal government poking its ugly nose into my business or states and councils charging me an arm and a leg for stuff that should be free and telling me what I can and can’t do and will fight all that ‘til the cows come home, I’m happy to give a reasonable chunk of my hard-earned in higher-than-American income taxes so that my neighbour down the street who earns less than I do gets the same level of health care that I do. Or that I like the idea that nobody in this country has to go bankrupt when they get sick or starve when they lose a job, so long as the government of the day isn’t trying to force chardonnay socialist loony-left or blackshirt too-far-to-the-right ideas down my throat. I think back to Hurricane Katrina and I hope we don’t go down that path in the months to come.
Australia is a place where the concept of “mateship”, or looking after each other, still has a higher currency than money. Only just, but it does. I suspect it relates to the way the continent has been settled and lived in, both by indigenous Australians and the white settlers and other non-indigenous immigrants who came later. It’s a place where the difference between death and survival or eking out an existence in the face of adversity has always depended on depending on each other.
Yet there’s a paradox: Modern Australians, probably because of the nation’s convict origins, hold authority figures in contempt. Aussies are deeply suspicious of politicians, even those of their own persuasion, and won’t believe them carte blanche. This is still a democracy alive at the grass roots, one that will still take a stick to government, even if it’s in a softly-softly fashion at the ballot box, and it doesn’t want rhetoric. The people know talk is cheap and they want action and in the end they usually get it. And if ever action were needed, it’s right now.
So when Queensland Premier Anna Bligh tearfully said last week, speaking publicly about the crisis literally engulfing her state, her voice choking with emotion, “I want us to remember who we are; we are QUEENSLANDERS, the people they breed tough north of the border; we’re the ones they knock down and we get up again’’, we all know she meant it and those of us who aren’t Queenslanders but know Queenslanders knew exactly where it was coming from. It wasn’t bluster. She made Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who has been standing behind her at some of the press conferences, look second rate although it should be pointed out the PM, a Victorian, was stuck between a rock and a hard place. She had to be there alongside Bligh but couldn’t hog the limelight because Aussies would have accused her of grandstanding by using the tragedy to boost her dwindling stocks.
Bligh, for her part, is now a national hero. Just five weeks ago, she was on the nose in Queensland, staring down the barrel at defeat in the next state election. She has balanced a can-do, will-do, and have-done attitude with empathy, compassion and genuine emotion that came from the heart. We can spot a fake a mile off down here, and she isn’t. Social networking sites, talkback radio stations and newspaper letters-to-the-editor columns have been alive with one theme: “Bligh for PM”.
Now we need her and the PM to back up their words with action.
Bligh has described the coming cleanup and the rebuilding phase as being of “post-war proportions”, and the PM has promised that all Australians are standing by to help.
Queenslanders will rebuild, and as the sign left by the construction workers says, they won’t give in. But there’s no doubt they will struggle. It’s inevitable as the adrenalin of the past weeks begins to drain away and the terrible truth dawns. They will need our help for a long time to come. I hope the rest of us are as certain, sure and steady in our intent over the coming months or years. We musn’t allow anyone to be left behind.
That is, not one single person — because true mateship means looking after those in these kinds of situations who can’t look after themselves. Let’s hope the politicians get that too. Let’s hope they realise we don’t want an endless round of recrimination, buck-passing, of crying poor, or blame games. We just want them to remember where the taxpayer dollar comes from, to use it for something worthwhile for a change, and to stand up for us and let us get on with it.
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