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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

'Tis amazing what causes one to have little trips down Memory Lane. This week it has been the Mayor of Mount Isa in North West Queensland, John Molony.

Early this year, my old mate Molony (National Party) defeated my other old mate Ron McCulloch (Australian Labor Party) in the race for the Mayor's job in Mount Isa. Now to all of those who live in places like New South Wales and Victoria who put up with weak, namby-pamby local governments who leave their local councillors to elect their mayors for one year terms: forget it. Queensland (as does the Northern Territory - clearly something about the North) directly elects its mayors.

Ron had been mayor for something like eighteen years - a popular Irishman. John had been on the Mount Isa City Council for years and years and then took off further north and west to Burke Shire up on the Gulf of Carpentaria where he became what used to be called Shire Chairman. Now Mount Isa City Council claims - or used to - to be the biggest city in the world in area because it extends across to Camooweal and the Queensland-Northern Territory border. This sure is a contrast to Burke Shire because, as I recall it, Burke Shire does not contain one bitumen road.

Anyways, John is back in The Isa. Well, I don't suppose he ever really left. Just that, now, he's the mayor. Runs the place you could say. John owns a western men's outfitting store. John was selling western gear to stockmen before he ever had a Mount Isa store. His business life began as a hawker selling clothes and stuff from station to station in north west Queensland and the Barkly side of the NT. So he knows the Barkly Tableland and the Gulf from go to whoa.

Now let's get things straight. If you are a bloke with the lifeblood of northwest Queensland flowing in your veins; you are a paid up member or supporter of the Queensland National Party; you own a cattle property; and you make your living from people who live and work on, in and around cattle properties it is possible - but not all that likely - that you are a reconstructed, sensitive new age guy. However, those four adjectives have never applied to me mate Molony even at his best.

You see, dear Reader, in the long ago in that place accessed by a trip down Memory Lane, I used to know John and his wife Heather. It was in the late 70s to mid 80s when I was employed by the Mount Isa City Council to manage the Mount Isa Public Library, then part of the North Western Regional Library Service. The Library was situated directly opposite John's menswear store in West Street. I served on committees with him and our relationship was always co-operative and cordial.

However, I remember one night where the unreconstructed John came to the forefront. It was the night of Mardi Gras which launches Mount Isa's biggest event of the year - the Mount Isa Rodeo. We (the Dear Departed Dearly Beloved -DDDB - and Miss Eagle) were in the street outside Boydie's pub and got into conversation with John. Now, back then as now, Miss Eagle was never short of a word or an opinion. In the course of the conversation, John looked past Miss Eagle to the DDDB and said to him - How do you handle her? Miss E, not showing her inward consternation and not waiting for the DDDB to reply, piped up with a large and glowing smile - Because he's a real man. 'Nuff said.

Now maybe John can't provide a lot of intellectual stuff to the wider political debate. Perhaps - and it really is difficult - it is difficult to get anyone's attention when you are way across the Great Dividing Range and the sunlit plains extended in far-flung Mount Isa. Perhaps, he's been following the example of and taking lessons from that well-known noise from the northwest, Bob Katter Jr. Perhaps, it is just that it's rodeo time and all those lonely, boozing ringers in town provoked Molony's grey cells into gear.

But this time he's been and gone and done it. He's got himself not only national publicity, but international publicity. What else is going to happen when you talk about an isolated mining town, a shortage of nubile women, and an invitation to ugly women?

Everyone is now buying into the debate about his comments - including Catherine Deveny. But the local women are holding their own well - as they always have. I can proudly make that statement since I founded what is, arguably, the only home-grown feminist organisation Mount Isa had - the Union for Western Women. Time alone will tell whether the old adage about any publicity being good publicity will prove true in this matter.

Last night, the women of Mount Isa gathered outside the Civic Centre (right next to the Mount Isa Public Library) and demonstrated their displeasure. BTW, Molony and I once organised a celebration for Australia's win in the America's Cup in that very space. We made it a fundraiser for our Bi-Centennial Committee and we packed in a couple of thousand Mount Isans. The jollities included soap-sudding the civic fountain. Kev Ashworth, Town Clerk at the time, said that, in his view, it was the best use the fountain had ever been put to. We had a good time that night, didn't we John?

And, in the end, that is the point. Mount Isa is unique. It is great. It is a place of great experiences and great times.

My nine years in Mount Isa were probably the best years of my whole life - unreconstructed men and all! I don't pretend that Mount Isa now is the same as Mount Isa then. Remote towns are transient towns - but, as demonstrated by John, some things stay the same.

I commend Mount Isa to everyone - male, female, ugly, beautiful or just plain interesting - but with one proviso. It is tough living in an isolated community in a forbidding climate and geography. It is not for everyone. Cracks in relationships can become gaping chasms. The education of kids has to be considered. There is the question of relationships with the First Australians. While the DDDB and I loved it - my children's memories are of the harshness. For them as they look back, their memories (and this saddens me) are bleak.

Perhaps some of us have longing for green grass and urban environments in our hearts - and others, like me, bless the sunlit plains extended.

The town Mount Isa Mines built (please note that fly in-fly out mining does not bring the socially constructive elements of somewhere like Mount Isa to the human community and landscape) is the result of generations of hard work since 1924. There have been deaths, occupational hazards, blood, sweat, lead, tears, strikes and a state of emergency. Men have mined, women have battled, children have thrived and cultures have lived together well. Those of us who have lived and shared the Mount Isa experience know that we have been part of something very, very special. Long live Mount Isa!

When you can do nothing else: bear witness.