Australia

Queensland rodeo punters prepare to buck major parties in key marginal seat

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At a rodeo in central Queensland, voters are as cranky over politics as the bucking bulls.

In central Queensland, rodeos are a staple on the social calendar. 

The Miriam Vale rodeo, an hour’s drive out of Gladstone, features chainsaw races, woodchopping and barrel races.

But the main event is, of course, bull riding. Cranky bulls burst out of the gate determined to throw off cowboys.

The best in the business stay on for about 10 seconds.  

Watching on is cattle farmer Mark McLachlan, who used to compete on bucking horses growing up. 

He says concentration and anticipation is the key.

“The really good rodeo riders somehow just know where the bull is going to jink or buck next.”

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This year, the rodeo is on a week before the federal election and voters here are just as cranky about politics as the bulls.

Miriam Vale is a small town in the electorate of Flynn that stretches from the coast in Gladstone to the Great Dividing Range in the west.

Ken O’Dowd holds the seat by just 1 per cent for the Coalition.

Rodeos are a family affair.
Rodeos are a family affair.
SBS News

After nine years in the parliamentary saddle, the Nationals MP is in danger of being thrown off by Labor’s Zac Beers.

But as the major political parties struggle to read the mood of the bucking constituents, Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party and Pauline Hanson’s One Nation have been gaining ground.

Along the Bruce Highway that cuts through the electorate, canary-yellow Clive Palmer billboards outnumber Ken O’Dowd and Zac Beers’ posters about five to one.  

Motorists won't get far along the Bruce Highway before seeing a Clive Palmer billboard.
Motorists won't get far along the Bruce Highway before seeing a Clive Palmer billboard.
SBS News

“The major parties have probably pissed off a lot of people and they don’t appear to be listening to people,” says Mark McLachlan's friend, retired farmer Mick Colyer.

“I think Pauline Hanson is painted in a bad light by a lot of people, when a lot of the time I think she has genuine interest in Australia and Australian people and wants everyone to get on together.

“I don’t believe she’s quite the racist that everyone tries to paint her to be.”

The rising popularity of far-right parties in Queensland is an unsettling prospect for Cema Simpson, who moved to Australia from Fiji as a skilled migrant 12 years ago and proudly calls Gladstone home.

“It's quite worrying, but I believe in our little community it's more multicultural and I think the votes will sway in either way.

“If they know their values, I think they'll vote for the right parties.”

A cowboy practices his lasoo.
A cowboy practises his lasso.
SBS News

Fuelling voter discontent is the sense that life is getting harder economically.

Miriam Vale, population 500, is a traditional cattle-growing town, but its economic fortunes depend on the wider region’s mining industry.

Karen and Geoff Rouse run the Bororen Motel about 10 minutes north on the Bruce Highway.

“Without coal in this area the economy would stop. At the moment there is no alternative,” Mr Rouse says.

It’s been a long time since the motel’s 10 rooms have been all booked out.

Flynn locals gathered at the Miriam Vale rodeo to discuss politics with SBS News.
Flynn locals gathered at the Miriam Vale rodeo to discuss politics with SBS News.
SBS News

“For most people around here, where they either work on the land, have a small business or don’t have a job, they’re stuffed,” Mr Rouse says.

What can government do to turn it around?

“I’ve no idea,” he says.

But his wife Karen names the proposed Adani mine in the Galilee Basin as offering some hope.

“Coal mining is a necessary part of our community. It affects everyone, not just the miners, so until our renewable resources can come up and be run profitably for everyone so people can get jobs out of it, we need the coal.”

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Climate change has been a dominant issue on the campaign trail, with many voters in the battleground state of Victoria naming it a vote decider, but there are more pressing concerns among spectators at the rodeo.

“I look at more the economy and what each party is doing, what each party is offering,” Ms Rouse says.

“You have to deal with what’s in front of you every day, and if you’re not dealing with that climate change becomes an excuse, that’s why it’s not a vote changer at the moment,” Mark McLachlan says.  

Wearing her "Stop Adani" T-shirt, Anna Hitchcock from the Gladstone Conservation Group, stands out in the rodeo crowd.

“Coal mining is dead, it’s on its last legs. That’s the sad reality and it is going to affect this area very badly.”

“The world cannot afford for that Galilee Basin to be opened. And the reason we cannot afford for that to open is because of climate change.  

“This isn’t really about central Queensland, it’s a global issue, but it’s coming to a point in central Queensland.”

Many people are more focussed on local issues rather than global, particularly the provision of health and drug rehabilitation services and employment.  

At one stage, Indigenous teacher Neola Savage and her husband were forced to move from Gladstone to Rockhampton after the twice-weekly two-hour drive for his dialysis became too much.

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Now there’s fears that babies will be born on the side of the road due to a lack of local maternity services.

The region is also battling an explosion of ice addiction.

“You talk your child into going to rehab and there’s nowhere around for them to go,” Neola laments. “It’s taken over. We have to pick up all the pieces because of this drug.”

But her major concern is education and employment, particularly for young Indigenous people.

“When I came out of uni I had two degrees, I couldn’t get a job as a teacher. Even though they said ‘go to university, you’ll get a job’. No.”

“Here look here, see this here,” she says pointing to the back of her hand. “You’re black mate, you got to go to the end of the queue.”

While some positions are identified as exclusively for Indigenous Australians, the 71-year-old is frustrated that is the major source of employment.

“You go into Woolworths, you go anywhere around town, you don’t see blackfellas working because they can’t get a job.”

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