The Great Divide: Why We Don’t Feel Like One Nation


23 FEBRUARY 2017



On Christmas day 1942 a boy from Sydney arrived here in Townville. 

He came on a military plane from Port Moresby, carrying with him a piece of shrapnel in his stomach. 

He got that from a Japanese mortar that exploded near him on the first day of the battle of the beach heads at Sananda.  That boy who had just turned 19 was my grandfather, Jack Clare. 

While he was here he met a girl named Jean Campbell from Rockhampton who was part of the Women’s Auxiliary Corp.  She was my grandmother.

Townsville is a very different place today to the one where my grandparents met and fell in love.

75 years ago Townsville had a permanent population of about 30,000. There were also about 90,000 here in uniform.  It was a major military base and a target for Japanese bombing raids.  It was bombed by the Japanese three times that year.

Today it’s still a major military base.  The population is almost 200,000 and Townsville is now the home of two world class universities, a world beating rugby league team and soon a first rate stadium for them to play in.

But Townsville faces another threat.  Something that hasn’t been this bad here since the Great Depression.  That’s unemployment.  And it’s not just a problem here.  It’s a problem right through Central and Northern Queensland.



Back when my grandparents were here about a third of Queenslanders lived in Brisbane.  That’s not the case anymore.  Now it’s half.  One in two people who live in this massive state live in one city: Brisbane.

Just like other big cities here, and around the world, it has a gravitational pull.  Sucking people in from the regions and smaller towns. 

The reason for this simple: jobs. Big cities are where most of the jobs are.  In the last 10 years half the jobs created in Australia have been within a two kilometre radius of the CBDs of Melbourne and Sydney[1].

That also brings with it problems like traffic congestion and ridiculous house prices.  On the weekend on the front page of the Daily Telegraph was a story that in some parts of Sydney house prices are going up by almost $2,000 a day[2]. In Brisbane house prices have risen by about 12.5 percent in the last five years[3].

It’s a very different story in regional Queensland.  In places like Gladstone and Mackay house prices have fallen in the last few years by about 20 percent.  In Rockhampton they have fallen by 10 percent.  Here in Townsville they are down 8 percent[4].

Even more worrying is what’s happening to unemployment.  The Courier Mail did a big spread on this last week.  It revealed that in the last 12 months 13,500 new jobs had been created in Brisbane.  Over the same time period 43,300 jobs have been lost in the rest of Queensland.

When the GFC hit Australia in 2009 and 2010 it hit places like Townsville hard.  The scary thing is its worse today, a lot worse.

Look at this graph.  It tracks unemployment and youth unemployment here in the Townsville region over the last 10 years.

Unemployment during the GFC peaked at 8.7 per cent. It’s now 11.2 per cent.

We can thank Clive Palmer for some of that, and the end of the mining boom and the LNG boom.

In places like Rockhampton, Gladstone and Mackay you see the same thing.  This is Mackay:

And this is Gladstone and Rocky:    


Up north in Cairns it’s youth unemployment in particular that has sky rocketed.  It’s gone from 8 percent 10 years ago to 26 percent today.  It’s more than tripled.  It’s also more than double what it was at the height of the GFC.

In all of these places, from Rocky right through to Cairns, average wages are also lower today than they were five years ago[5].

This is important.  It’s not just people who can’t find a job that are feeling the pinch.  It’s people with jobs as well.

The same thing is not happening in Brisbane.  Wages are up and unemployment is down.  This is the graph for Brisbane:


This is what helps explain the re-emergence of One Nation.

In many parts of Australia – particularly in the regions – people feel like they are standing still or going backwards. 

House prices are down and unemployment is up.  If they do have a job they are probably being paid less than they were a few years ago and they are worried if they are going to have a job tomorrow. 

A lot of people working part time want to work more hours but just can’t get it[6].

They are stressed, anxious, worried and angry. 

Everything seems unfair; like it’s rigged against them.  And in desperation they are voting for someone else, or something else – in the hope something will change.

You see the same thing overseas.

In the UK last year the poms voted to leave the European Union.  But they didn’t all vote to Brexit.  London voted to stay.  It was the regional cities that voted to leave. 

In London – just like Brisbane – unemployment is lower today than it was 10 years ago.  But in places like the North East, like Newcastle and Sunderland and Durham unemployment is worse. 

Coal mines have shut, thousands have lost their jobs in the oil and gas industry and skilled steel and car manufacturers have laid off hundreds of workers. These are the sort of places that voted to Brexit.

The same thing happened in the US.

Unemployment is a lot lower now than it was during the GFC, but most Americans are still earning less today than they were when Lehmann Brothers collapsed eight and a half years ago.

And the pain hasn’t been evenly felt.  In places like Manhattan the median household income is 18 percent higher than it was10 years ago[7].  But in places like Detroit, Michigan it’s 10 percent lower[8].

You see the same problem in Ohio and Wisconsin – part of what’s called the Rust Belt of America.

And guess what?  These are the places that voted for Trump.

Actually they didn’t vote for Trump.  They didn’t vote at all.  These are States that voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012.  Last year a lot of white working class Democrat voters in these States decided to not vote at all or vote for a third party.  And that’s what tipped the balance and made Donald Trump the President of the United States[9].

The point is this – we are not one nation where everyone has the same opportunities.  Life is very different depending on where you live. 

That divide is only getting bigger and politicians ignore it at their peril. 



I know I have painted a fairly depressing picture.  Let me even the score a bit.

I was here in Townville in October last year when Sun Metals announced their plan to expand the refinery. If that comes off it will mean about 100 permanent local jobs.

The Adani project will be an even bigger boon for Townville and the whole region.  It will create thousands of jobs. A lot of them based here.

I spoke to the Mayor of Townsville Jenny Hill a couple of days ago. She said it has given the town a real sense of optimism.

When construction of the stadium kicks off it will be a massive job generator.  The key of course is making sure that the head contractor subcontracts to local companies and tradies here in town.

The $1.6 billion dollar port expansion will create about 100 construction jobs. Yesterday’s Tigerair announcement is more good news.

A few weeks ago BHP also announced that they were recruiting another 270 people here in Townsville and up and down the coast to work at the Peak Downs and Saraji mines in the Bowen Basin.

The rise of Asia and three billion middle class consumers on our doorstep by 2030 who want the same things we want also presents an enormous opportunity for north Queensland famers, for tourism and for our local universities.

The State Government are also doing some great things. They have put about $5 billion into more than 80 infrastructure projects in North Queensland that will create a lot of local jobs – like the upgrade of the Townsville to Mt Isa rail line.

Tuesday’s announcement of $200 million for Regional Queensland Councils for 723 shovel ready projects is a great example of a government not mucking around. The program was announced late last year. Councils had a month to develop plans and the money will roll out soon – creating almost 6,000 jobs.

The contrast between this and the way the Turnbull Government operates couldn’t be more stark. They are good at talking.  They talk a lot about infrastructure.  Roads and dams.  But not a lot has been delivered.

Just before Christmas last year they announced a big inquiry to find out where the hardest hit regions are in Australia.

This is the front page of The Australian from 14 December last year:

You don’t have to be Nostradamus to work that out. I have just done it.  What’s more important is what they are going to do about it.  Hopefully they will start building some infrastructure.  But as I said before their record so far is not great.

Last year they released this: the Australian Infrastructure Plan, Infrastructure Priority List.

This is the Government’s big infrastructure plan for the country – and there are no high priority projects north of Rockhampton.

Two years ago the Government announced this, the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility:

The NAIF is a great initiative.  That $5 billion can potentially have a very big impact right across Northern Australia.  But almost 2 years on and still not one cent has been allocated.

The cost of energy is a major issue here. So is the availability of water. Townsville is on Level 3 restrictions. A lot of work is going on, but it has to led to action.

The Federal Government has also created a fair bit of stress recently for farmers near Rockhampton and Charters Towers who were told that Defence was going to compulsorily acquire their land so the Singapore military could train on it.  It was only a big public campaign that has stopped that.

But its projects like the NBN where regional Queensland is really being ripped off.

There are some lucky places that have got the real NBN – optic fibre all the way to your home or business.  A lot of Cairns has it.  In Mackay the south side of the Pioneer River has it.

But if you don’t have it now the chances are you are not going to get it.  You will get the second rate copper version instead.

The impact of that will be very real. 

Last month the Australian Medical Association warned that health services in rural and regional Australia could fall further behind city services unless doctors and patients have access to affordable and fast broadband[10].

They surveyed their members and the top priority by far for rural and regional GPs was faster broadband.

This is an area where the two major parties fundamentally disagree.  The government thinks copper is good enough.  We don’t.

It is also an area where an election makes a big difference.  We only lost the last election by a couple of seats.  If we had won:

  • 38,000 more homes and businesses in the seat of Leichhardt would have got fibre instead of copper;
  • 26,410 more homes and businesses here in the seat of Herbert would have got fibre instead of copper;
  • 12,000 more homes and businesses in the seat of Dawson would have got fibre instead of copper – including the other half of Mackay.
  • 16,000 more homes and businesses in the seat of Flynn would have got fibre instead of copper.

So don’t let anyone tell you that elections don’t matter.  They certainly did last year for people who live in Central and Northern Queensland.

The current debate we are having in Parliament about whether we should cut payments to families and pensioners will also have a big impact here.

The Government wants to cut payments to single pensioners by $365 a year and couples by $ 550 a year.  That is money out of the pockets of more than 12,000 pensioners here in Herbert and almost 90,000 pensioners across Central and Northern Queensland.

The cuts to families will mean a family with two kids on $65,000 a year will lose about $750 dollars a year.  There are a lot of families affected by these cuts here in electorate of Herbert – over 10,000.

These aren’t rich families.  This is money that is spent not saved.  It’s money that is spent in local shops that employ local people.  So these cuts will put even more pressure on local unemployment.

Right across Central and Northern Queensland almost 70,000 families will have their family payments cut.

These are the sort of people doing it toughest, and the sort of people thinking about voting for One Nation.  The irony is, if these cuts do get through Parliament it will only be because of One Nation. 

Today they made it clear they think the only problem with this is they don’t go far enough. 

They pretend to be different, but in Canberra they are just another version of the Liberal Party.  So far they have voted with the Government 80 percent of the time.

There is one other thing the Federal Government could do something about and that’s 457 visas.

These are visas designed to bring in overseas workers to fill gaps in our workforce.  In boom times they should go up and in tough times they should go down. 

Last year Adani announced that they won’t employ any 457 workers on their Carmichael mine project[11].  That’s great news.  Given the unemployment rate here in Townsville and right across the region we should be doing everything we can to employ and train up local people, not bringing in people from overseas.

Unemployment here is now 11.2 percent.  It’s higher here in Townsville than it’s been at any time since the Great Depression and yet we have still got more than 500 jobs in the Townsville region done by overseas workers.  

It’s an obvious area where something has to be done.  The Government has done nothing here.  In fact they have tried to make it easier to bring in workers from overseas.

In the TPP, the trade agreement that Donald Trump killed off a few weeks ago, the Turnbull Government had agreed to remove labour market testing before workers can come to Australia from Brunei, Canada, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru and Vietnam.

That’s just crazy.  Before workers come from overseas, companies should have to check and see if there is an Australian who can do that job first.  That’s what labour market testing is.  It’s not protectionism, it’s just common sense.  Particularly given the given the current unemployment rate here in north Queensland.



If we win the next Federal election we have said we will make a number of changes to the current 457 visa system. 

We will require employers to advertise jobs in Australia for at least four weeks (instead of one) before they can look for workers overseas and we will require companies that employ multiple 457 visa workers to develop a plan to train up local workers to fill these jobs down the track[12].

This brings me to the issue of skills.

If we are going to close this gaping hole in opportunity and unemployment and the standard of living that’s opened up between our big cities and the regions, this is a big part of how we do it.

If you go to all the different parts of Australia where unemployment is high you will usually find one thing in common.  In most of those places high school completion rates are lower than the national average.  There is a direct link between percentage of kids that finish school and the unemployment rate.  It’s why Gonski is so important. 

Most of the jobs we will do in the decades ahead will require you to have finished school and gone on and got a trade or a degree.

At the moment TAFE is going backwards.  Over the past three-and-a-half years Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull have cut almost $3 billion from skills and training, and the Government is planning to cut a further half a billion from TAFE this year. If we win the next election we will boost funding for TAFE.

There are 128,000 fewer people doing apprenticeships today than there were four years ago. It’s extraordinary.

In the last year alone the number of young people starting apprenticeships has dropped by 8.9 per cent and the number completing apprenticeships has dropped by over 16 per cent.

Here in Townsville there are about 1,200 fewer apprentices than there were four years ago. It’s the same story right across Central and North Queensland.

If we win the next election we will ensure that one in 10 jobs on Commonwealth funded infrastructure projects are apprenticeships.

This is just the start.  Over the next 12 months we will be developing our policies to take to the next election.  A lot of that work will happen on the ground here.

The Government might think it can get all the answers from the Productivity Commission, but we want to get them here, from the people who live here.



Those two love birds that met here in Townsville 75 years ago didn’t stay.

When he got better Jack convinced his girlfriend from Rocky to come back with him to Sydney.

He left the army for a while and set up an upholstery business.

That didn’t work out and so he re-joined the Army and served for another 37 years – including a tour of duty in Vietnam.

He passed away 20 years ago.  But we have still got the shrapnel that was pulled out of him here in Townsville at home.

In October last year I became a dad for the first time.  He was three weeks early.  I was in Darwin when his mum went into labour and I had to rush to get back to Sydney. 

There are not many flights between Darwin and Sydney.  My wife went into labour at about 2pm.  The next flight out of Darwin was 1am.  I got to the hospital at 6.30am.  Little Jack was born an hour and a half later.

We named him after his great grandfather.

He will grow up hopefully in a much safer time than his namesake, but there are still plenty of challenges.  I have focused on just a few of them today.

We can tackle all of these challenges. But just like 75 years ago it’s going to take a lot of hard work and determination by the people who live here. And just like 75 years ago it requires a Federal Government that gets it and provides the leadership and resources to get the job done.


[1]Productivity and geography: Presentation to Productivity Commission Conference, Grattan Institute: John Daley 4 January 2017

[2] “Why your house earns more than you” Aidan Devine and Miles Godfrey, The Daily Telegraph, 18 February 2017.

[3]‘Tough Job on the Horizon’ Daryl Passmore, Courier Mail, P1/2. 13 February 2017.

[4] Tough Job on the Horizon’ Daryl Passmore, Courier Mail, P1/2. 13 February 2017.

[5] State of the Regions Report 2016-17, National Economics/Australian Local Government Association (ALGA) 19 June 2016.

[6] ‘Divide between rich and poor increasing’, The Sydney Morning Herald, P5, 06 February 2017.



[9] ‘The Myth of the Rust Belt Revolt’ Konstantin Kilibarda and Daria Roithmayr, Slate. 12 December 2016

[10] “Better Access to High Speed Broadband for Rural and Remote Health Care – 2016”, Australian Medical Association (AMA) 10 January 2017,

[11]  ‘Adani to officially announce Townsville as hub for Carmichael mine operations in the North’, Kieran Rooney, Townsville Bulletin, 06 December 2016.

[12] Speech “PRIVATE MEMBERS BUSINESS – PUTTING LOCAL WORKERS FIRST” Bill Shorten, House of Representatives, Parliament of Australia, Monday, 28 November 2016.