The Gympie Times and the community that could not be beaten
IT WAS January 1999 when then Gympie Times editor, Michael Roser, took a risk and gave me a job. I sometimes wonder how often he regretted that decision, but I certainly did not.
Only weeks later, in early February, Gympie saw its “Flood of the Century,” and I saw how a people could come together in a crisis. The water kept rising even days after the rain stopped, rushing down the Mary River from Conondale and coming up through Monkland St manholes, even under a perfect blue sky.
Successive floods became a measure of improvements in communication technology. From isolated communities being really isolated in 1999, we have since entered the era of digital photography and pictures, videos and data you can email in and out, even if the phone lines are down.
The Mary Valley Rattler was a commuter and grocery lifeline for the temporary island of Monkland. Next flood, we can probably expect emergency supplies to be deliverable by drone.
Then, from one extreme to another, came the Millennium Drought and the catastrophic decision by Premier Peter Beattie to dam the Mary River at Traveston Crossing.
The drought collided with the southeast Queensland population bomb, as dams dried up and the government looked to build more. Predatory eyes fell on the Mary Valley.
Apparently dismissing residents as hicks and rednecks who voted the wrong way anyway, dam proponents did not reckon on the hidden reserves of strategic talent and determination hidden away in the Valley.
People like Glenda Pickersgill and Kevin Ingersole emerged as leaders, joined by hundreds of people in all different walks of life, all doing the best they could.
In line with a corporate policy of campaigning for our readers, Michael Roser immediately declared that we had to fight this, win lose or draw, on behalf of the people who had supported us for more than 100 years. Three increasingly rugged years of campaigning later, we encountered the ruthlessness of government officials who apparently felt entitled to silence the dissent they saw expressed in the pages of the paper.
Then Democrat senator (later the Queensland Greens), Andrew Bartlett was the first federal politician to put feet on the ground at Kandanga, arriving by helicopter to listen to dam victims.
Mayor Mick Venardos, who initially supported the dam when Mr Beattie announced it at Kybong airport, quickly changed tack and became an indispensable part of the anti-dam effort.
He pulled together the Mary Valley Council of Mayors, with representatives of all councils from Caloundra to Maryborough. It commissioned an alternative scientific study of the dam proposal. He also flew to Canberra and lobbied his old friend, Nationals senator Ron Boswell, who successfully moved the motion for a Senate inquiry, which forced the release of damning but otherwise secret government information on the dam’s problems. Glenda Pickersgill and I attended the International Riversymposium at South Bank in Brisbane, submitting what organisers said was a most unusual contribution to a seminar normally attended by dam engineers.
It probably did not do any harm that Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was from this area, but ultimately the decision to stop the dam was made by federal Environment Minister Peter Garrett, using his powers under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, originally introduced to parliament by Senator Bartlett.
Never have farmers, conservationists and urban residents had so much in common, nor had the Greens and the Nationals.
Peter Garrett described in his memoir Big Blue Sky the discomfort of ruling against his Queensland Labor colleagues and being on the same side as National Party members “who had never met a dam they didn’t like.”
During all this time other issues bubbled along.
Widgee was declared to be outside the known universe in that its lack of phone reception made it an exception to the telecommunications industry’s “universal service obligations.” Satellite phones enabled residents to communicate with the rest of planet Earth from outer space.
Ruthless state government attempts to stamp out the folksy, harmless and traditionally significant Tin Can Bay dolphin feeding institution kept coming back as soulless bureaucrats kept pushing their line that this would destroy the dolphins and be a danger to human participants.
The Gympie Times, along with the civil disobedience of thousands of ordinary Queenslanders eventually put them in their place, via legislation introduced by a later state Environment Minister, Andrew Powell.
There was no such luck for the Fraser Island dingoes, demonised to justify policies had already led to two human deaths, Azaria Chamberlain on Fraser Island and Clinton Gage on Fraser Island, which is now increasingly known by its Aboriginal name, K’Gari, meaning paradise.
An important challenge for Gympie was dairy deregulation, heralding the destruction of much of Queensland’s near-urban regional economy, all in the name of deregulation, a religion subscribed to by all major parties.
Dairy farms closed down after generations of family effort, some converting to beef breeding or production. “We seem to be regressing,” ex-Imbil dairy farmer Rob Priebe said. “But that’s what we call progress these days.”
Corporatisation of electricity supplies created monopolies which governments could claim operated independently, even though those governments were the major shareholders, making electricity prices a hidden tax. Maintenance was neglected to the point where it was said, with only slight exaggeration, that a cloud passing over the sun at Goomboorian was enough to cause blackouts at Tin Can Bay.
Meanwhile the dam campaign became uglier by the week as The Gympie Times sent reporters and photographers down almost every road, street and laneway, recording the struggles and heartbreak of a broken community.
Then came Peter Garrett’s announcement. Our then photographer Craig Warhurst arrived at my place just after dawn and we agreed we should go to Brisbane for the announcement. One day was little enough investment to report the end of a three-and-a-half year campaign. “Let’s just go,” he said. “If we ask anyone they might say no.”
The city media just did not understand that the dam was a bad idea, that it would not hole enough water to be worth building and would not even be built in time to relieve the drought.
But Peter Garrett said no. Anna Bligh who had been given the poison chalice of leadership at a very unpopular time, had no choice but to go along or become even more unpopular.
I had the chance as the press conference wound up to say, “Thank you Mr Garrett.”
He pretended he hadn’t heard it, but was able to be less formal when I spoke to him at Kandanga, where he was guest of honour at the Mary Valley’s celebration of survival, held every year on the date of his announcement, Remembrance Day, November 11.
No-one in the Mary Valley will ever forget.