Far North Queensland – just getting on with it - The Good Oil by Rod Brown

Southerners might know Cairns Airport and Port Douglas, and perhaps the Daintree and the Kuranda railway – but there’s a lot more to Far North Queensland. It’s a fascinating insight into regional Australia. 

My mum was born and raised in Gordonvale, 23km south of Cairns. There were 13 children so there’s a pretty big family footprint there, and I’ve been able to track the town’s progress.

These days Gordonvale’s population is about 6500. The key economic driver is the sugar industry and the 120-year-old Mulgrave sugar mill. Its output, together with that of 23 other mills from Mossman to Grafton, is mostly exported to Indonesia, South Korea and Japan.

These mills generate $2 billion annually in manufacturing exports, which is eight times our automotive exports at its peak. Not bad for an industry with declining local demand.

Like other FNQ towns, Gordonvale has friendly pubs, good roads, schools and health facilities. The Chinese and Italians have been there for a century, and there are strong educational and commercial links to the nearby Yarrabah aboriginal community. Gordonvale’s entry sign proudly proclaims NRL hardman Nate Myles, while the racing fraternity knows that Frank Reys, the only aboriginal jockey to win the Melbourne Cup (Gala Supreme, 1973), is a local product.

Less advertised is that Gordonvale was home to Australia’s first toads.

Other FNQ towns
Atherton and Mareeba are other pleasant, stable towns. Being on the Atherton Tablelands, they have a gentler climate, and tropical foods (mangoes, nuts, bananas, pineapples, coffee) have taken off in recent years, facilitating the transition out of tobacco. A game-changer has been the progressive upgrading of road and air infrastructure and refrigeration capacity generally, enabling the servicing of southern markets.

The region’s funkiest town is Cooktown, and the fun is in getting there – all sorts of wildlife and outstanding scenery on the 3.5-hour inland drive from Cairns. Cooktown has a lovely old weatherboard pub (circa 1875) with rooms the size of a prison cell with metal-framed beds – a steal at $65/night. Down the road is the classy Bowling Club, with a memorable seafood basket ($29) and covered bowling greens. And there’s the wharf near where Cook beached the Endeavour – here you must keep limbs well above water.

Another fascinating place is the Palmer River Roadhouse about two-thirds of the way to Cooktown. This area saw a major gold rush in 1872. Last month the taciturn publican treated us to memories of his first and only trip to Melbourne in 1985.

Further on is Lakeland, a town with five or six huge banana plantations. How so? I was advised that the economic drivers are the rich soils and, being inland, it has less exposure to cyclone damage. The game plan is for growers to enjoy super-profits when coastal plantations suffer cyclone damage. Backpacker labour is also important.

At Lakeland you can turn off to Laura, which is the start of Cape York proper. Laura has only a small population, but its annual picnic races and rodeo attract thousands. The road to Laura is now sealed and, thanks to lobbying by federal MP Warren Entsch, the feds have committed a further $200m to seal the worst sections towards Weipa.

I figure Cape York should be a rite of passage for every southerner – dust and flies in the dry season, impassable roads and mossies in the wet season, sleeping rough, crocs, wild cattle, aboriginal art and history.

And then there’s Cairns. It has overtaken Townsville on some key indicators over the last decade. Its streetscapes and public amenities are first rate, and its property market and tourism industry are healthier than five years ago. Cairns also has growing credibility as a hub servicing Pacific nations – think engineering, tropical medicine, food, education, disaster relief etc. I walked the hub notion past some international agencies a couple of years back, and now it’s time to move. Mind you, Townsville has its strengths too, and there’s room for two hubs.   

Lessons
Far North Queensland has a certain confidence and independence, similar to that of Perth. Their outspoken federal and state politicians reflect this. It’s also a melting pot for many nationalities. And it has much upside in terms of integration with the wider Asia-Pacific economy.

The downsides are that it’s damned hot for six months of year (air-conditioning now softens the blow) and crocs, sharks and stingers are a continual reminder. The locals’ reluctance to lobby hard for some serious croc culling is puzzling. Surely 51 percent of voters count in a democracy. The other downers are the odd looks when introduced as from Can-berra. Indeed in an attempt to conform, I was finishing sentences with an ‘eh’?

Post-script: backpacker tax
A huge take-home message from FNQ is the importance of horticulture, and the role of backpackers as a source of labour. It was thus heartening to see the recent ditching by the feds of plans to make backpackers pay substantially more tax. Backpackers work hard and pay their full whack of GST because they spend everything they earn.

However the Treasury-inspired move to add $5 to passenger departure taxes to cover the revenue loss was pathetic and irrational. Stronger efforts on corporate tax evasion would help address the Turnbull Government’s polls predicament.

Rod Brown is a Canberra-based consultant and lobbyist specialising in industry/regional development, investment attraction and clusters, and accessing federal grants. He also runs the Cockatoo Network.
Phone: (02) 6231 7261 or 0412 922 559

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