Last week, Family First’s candidate for Leichhardt, Ben Jacobsen, demanded that the Liberal’s Charlie MacKillop reveal whether or not she was a lesbian, arguing that voters had the right to know what "values" candidates would be representing.
Southerners who heard this and bothered to locate the seat on a map may have assumed that he was making a safe bid for a large and obvious redneck vote. But recent changes in tropical Queensland have worked to further compound long-held misconceptions about life and social attitudes in the "Deep North".
A couple of facts should complicate any assessment of the weight of Jacobsen’s remarks, especially if it includes the idea that he may have been guided by a sound strategy for winning the seat.
First, by the end of the day on which he had told the Courier Mail that voters had a right to know of a candidate "who you’re batting for", his own party had hung him out to dry. They forced him to apologise for "the hurt and offence" he had caused, and to stress that his comments "[did] not reflect the views of Family First." For a party whose only turns in the campaign limelight have been damaging, the decision to publicly rebuke their candidate would not have been taken lightly. It could only have been made after a calculation that it would be worse to leave his suggestions on the record.
For those who think that any problems would have largely consisted in allowing an unprovoked attack on the Liberals – whose preferences Family First badly need – it pays to consider the second complicating factor: the record of the retiring member for Leichhardt, Warren Entsch.
Entsch is the blokiest of blokes. Some would see the former crocodile-trapper alongside Bob Katter, the Independent member for neighbouring Kennedy, as an exemplar of a slightly outmoded frontier machismo that goes down well in the sticks.
But Entsch has been a consistent, outspoken advocate for the legal rights of couples in same-sex partnerships. In 2006 he introduced a Private Members' bill that aimed to ensure that same-sex partners were not legally discriminated against. He didn’t quite argue for gay marriage, but certainly put it to the Parliament that in matters of pensions, superannuation and inheritance, same-sex partners should receive the same deal as heterosexual couples.
He has undoubtedly been sincere in this advocacy, but he’s no fool. He knows – as do locals – that most of his seat’s population is concentrated in coastal areas like Cairns, Port Douglas and Cooktown that are dependent upon Southern and International tourism. There is also a sizeable and growing niche market in "gay-friendly" resorts and tours. Local politicians and businesspeople know what a regional reputation for homophobia would do for all that. Efforts in the other direction are all to the good, in that they may change perceptions and bring in more dollars to an industry that’s ever-so-slightly off the boil.
It’s worth noting, too, how much tropical Queensland has changed in recent years. Many of the narratives about the state’s growth have centred on the South East corner, but cities like Cairns and Townsville have expanded substantially between the two most recent censuses, and almost entirely by means of immigration. Both cities have population growth rates above the State average, but have birth rates that are actually decreasing. According to census data, just over 35 per cent of Leichhardt’s population were living in a different local statistical area before the 2001 census; in Herbert it’s just over 45 per cent, which is extraordinary even if we take into account the number of migrants Townsville's army base accounts for.
For Family First, the awkward truth here is that a growing number of business owners and badly-needed professionals in North Queensland are themselves gay and lesbian people who have relocated north for a better lifestyle and new opportunities. A significant proportion of the remaining migrants are affluent sea - and tree -changers, whose investments are nicely appreciating the value of local real estate and contributing to the development of a larger, more complex economy. Their politics and mores are oftentimes those of the "Rudd wets" who are troubling the Liberal’s chances in inner-urban seats. It’s not just that Jacobsen might alienate these incomers: among voters in the tropics, pragmatism about regional development trumps prejudice every time.
Volatility, political complexity and opportunism – for good or ill – are not new up north. Unlike the eastern seaboard capitals, northern cities were founded by free settlers with money on their minds, and built by free labour which was determined to claim a share of the region’s prosperity. A pro-development, pro-growth streak runs deep on both sides of politics, and outspoken moral crusaders who stand in the way have always been apt to receive a chorus of raspberries.
Social stratifications like those around race are also more complex than we might think. Henry Reynolds' classic history of our tropical regions, North of Capricorn, points out that Northern Australia was multicultural before the fact, with, for example, significant Pacific Islander, Chinese and Japanese populations being employed by local landowners and businessmen, and living and working alongside white and indigenous people. This was before the curtain fell on immigration after the White Australia policy was essentially imposed from the South, over the objections of local capitalists. The belief driving calls for immigration, which persists strongly in some quarters, was that North Queensland’s growth was being inhibited by underpopulation.