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The night they stopped laughing at Queensland

Opinion

Forty years ago, Queensland was a punchline for sophisticated southerners. But a growing economy and new premier, Wayne Goss, changed all that. Robert MacDonald was there the night the joke ended.

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When I began reporting on Queensland business nearly four decades ago, the place was a joke – literally.

I was the Australian Financial Review’s Queensland correspondent in the early 1980s. One of my colleagues in our office in Elizabeth St wrote for The Sydney Morning Herald, and The Age in Melbourne.

“I’ve got the easiest job in journalism … one Queensland joke a week,” he used to tell me.

It was almost too easy to find stories with the punchline, “only in Queensland”, especially if you were writing for sophisticated southerners.

There was Russ Hinze’s Big Man calendar – a year’s worth of photographs of Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s “Minister for Everything” judging beer-belly competitions with his shirt off and sitting on sulkies behind trotters with pleading eyes.

December’s photograph was the only month he objected to according to the local press photographer who’d put it together; Hinze at the head of a table of party-goers, wearing a spangled dinner jacket making a rude gesture at the camera.

“Because it made him look undignified?” I suggested. “No, because his ex-wife was in it,” the photographer replied

There was the Horvath hydrogen car, a 1974 Ford Fairlane V8, which, according to its inventor, Stephen Horvath, was powered by water turned into hydrogen via nuclear fusion – a world-first. At least, by Queensland’s standards.

Joh was so impressed he showed up at a media launch in King George Square, which turned into a farce. No one could find the keys to start the car or open the bonnet to look at the engine.

An insider told me later they’d had to lose the key because the secret gas cylinder providing the power for the stunt had sprung a leak.

“We were worried that if someone lit a match, we’d blow up half the city,” he explained.

But behind this buffoonery, something serious was happening. Thanks to the rigorous financial discipline of Treasury Under-Secretary Leo Hielscher and the Government’s senior economic bureaucrats and the bounty of Queensland’s natural resources, the state’s economy was beginning to boom, so much so that it outperformed the rest of the country for most of the next four decades.

Soon enough, Queensland stopped being a punchline and I’m sure I was there night it happened.

It was the early 1990s and I was now working on Wayne Goss’s staff with the fancy title of business policy adviser. The occasion was a dinner hosted by the directors of one of the big southern banks, in town for a board meeting.

It didn’t begin well. The chairman – a knight of the realm – interrupted pre-dinner conversation to call for the loyal toast. We all stood up, except for Goss, a life member of the Republican movement.

I’d had a feeling from the outset, Goss was unhappy – too much a sense perhaps of the colonials being summonsed to show up at the big table to doff their hats to their southern masters.

Based on nothing more solid than my memory, things just went downhill from there.

“I’m surprised that a bank as forward-thinking and modern as yours would still embrace the loyal toast,” Goss said to the chairman once everyone else had resumed their seats.

“Well, it’s an opportunity to let people know they can now smoke,” the chairman replied.

“I see,” Goss said, “You’re not so much a royalist as a tobacconist.”

No great gag perhaps but the knighted chairman was clearly taken aback. Goss then got to the heart of the matter. This particular southern bank had been aggressively shutting branches in regional Queensland, in the name of efficiency, better services, and all the other justifications companies use to defend their cost-cutting moves.

Goss grilled the chairman, asking him to explain how closing local bank branches could possibly benefit country towns.

The chairman could only reply in generalities. I suspected he wasn’t used to having a Queensland politician quizzing him so forensically..

Nothing was resolved but the message was clear – if you wanted to do business with Queensland, take it seriously.

Forty years on I’m delighted to have this opportunity, once again, to write about business in Queensland. I’m not joking.

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