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Booklet: ‘Queensland: The Tropical Wonderland’, c.1960s. Image: © UQ Centre for the Government of Queensland

In 1894, a Brisbane doctor named Thomas Pennington Lucas published a two-volume dystopian novel titled The Curse and its Cure. In the first instalment, fatefully titled The Ruins of Brisbane in the Year 2000, Lucas imagines that Queensland has fallen victim to capitalist greed and moral decay after suffering defeat in a civil war with New South Wales. Perhaps Lucas, who claimed to have premonitions, saw what we now know as the State of Origin: at the turn of the millennium, the mighty Blues whitewashed the Maroons, with a record-breaking overall score of 104 to 42 – the biggest gap, to date, in Origin history.

In Lucas’ vision of the year 2000, Queensland’s sugar industry has collapsed, the police force is defunct, and an unprecedented flood has washed away the city. Lucas’ protagonist, while sailing unaccompanied down the river, observes, ‘Everything is so desolate. No sign of cultivation meets the eye. No houses are to be seen. Nature rules in primitive sway.’ The city, now overrun by lantana and mosquitoes, lies in swampy ruin. ‘Neither science nor art flourished in Brisbane,’ Lucas concludes. ‘Such was Queensland in all her national executive: rottenness and corruption.’ Certainly, this was a bleak prognosis from Dr Lucas – a futurist and the inventor of Lucas’ Papaw Ointment.

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Fast forward 100 years to 1982.

It’s October, and in Darwin Lindy Chamberlain is sentenced to life in prison for the murder of her daughter, Azaria. Further south, in Queensland, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, already the state’s longest-serving premier, is at home in Kingaroy, preparing to run for a fifth consecutive term. In Brisbane, the Commonwealth Games are winding down after a winning bid six years earlier. (In fact, Brisbane ‘won’ by default after its competitors withdrew.) In the wake of the Games – which are naturally considered The Best Games Ever – Bjelke-Petersen backs another bid, this one without public consultation and with national opposition: Expo 88.

Expo, which is popularly embraced as Brisbane’s coming-of-age, is branded as the biggest event of Australia’s Bicentenary. By 1984, the event will have a catchy theme song, ‘Together We’ll Show the World‘, as well as a beloved mascot: a furry yellow platypus designed by Disney and oddly resembling a distant cousin of Donald Duck. On Opening Day, as the Queen arrives at River Stage, 100,000 visitors will pass through the Expo gates. ‘I am told that you like to call your state the Sunshine State,’ Her Majesty will say in her address, ‘but I prefer to think of it by its original name: Queen’s Land.’ By the time Expo is over, Brisbane will have welcomed over 18 million visitors to South Bank – more than the entire population of Australia at the time.

So, how did Brisbane, the Cinderella city, win a world exposition over her richer and more powerful step-sisters, Melbourne and Sydney?

As Jackie Ryan explains in her important 2018 book, We’ll Show the World: Expo 88, there were a number of contributing social, political, and economic factors, some abstract, some more tangible, but all of them complex. Indeed, from a marketing perspective, one of the most interesting aspects of Expo was the way that Queensland’s tourism authorities promoted (and exploited) the state’s cultural identity to both locals and visitors alike.

In 1982, before the Games began, and in the midst of the state’s push for the world fair, the Brisbane City Council released a series of ‘civic engagement’ campaigns. In one such promotion, Shine On Brisbane, the Council commissioned a short TV commercial that was designed to evoke a sense of pride in the city and turn residents into local ambassadors. In the clip, which is enhanced with special effects, such as fade and wipe transitions, a montage plays of Brisbane residents, laughing around a barbeque, while a woman sings, ‘Shine on, Brisbane! Face each day with a smile! Everyone will enjoy us and love our friendly style.’ Around this time, Channel 0 (which would later become Channel 10) launched its ‘Hello Brisbane’ campaign. In one advert, the camera pans over Moreton Bay, while the voiceover urges locals to ‘set their sails in the breeze’ and celebrate ‘the good life’ with family and friends.

One of the most interesting aspects of Expo was the way that Queensland’s tourism authorities promoted (and exploited) the state’s cultural identity to both locals and visitors alike.

Interestingly, in Britain, at the same time as these campaigns ran, the 19th series of Doctor Who was going to air. In the serial, Castrovalva, the good Doctor is caught in a space-time warp when his arch-nemesis, the Master, creates Castrovalva: a city that literally collapses on itself. The Doctor, weak and exhausted from his regeneration, asks his companions, Nyssa and Tegan, to take him to the Zero Room to recover. Here, a baffled Tegan enquires as to the nature of the room, and Nyssa explains that it’s a negative interface – an isolated space, cut off from the rest of the universe. Tegan, played by Australian actress Janet Fielding, remarks that a negative space is an apt description for her hometown. ‘The Doctor should’ve told me that’s what he wanted,’ she says, ‘I could’ve shown him Brisbane.’

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What’s interesting about these early campaigns is that they promote Queensland as the Sunshine State, and in doing so, inadvertently highlight the discrepancy between Queensland’s self-promotion and its self-representation in literature and television. Of course, Doctor Who and Doctor Lucas were never acquainted; they lived on separate continents, more than half a century apart. Yet they both depict Brisbane as a dark and backward place rather than the subtropical Paradise it poses as in marketing campaigns. This incongruity between Queensland’s literary identity and its functionality as a liveable place is compounded by the state’s tourism agenda and its fascination – one might say obsession – with catchy slogans. In fact, a closer look at the state’s changing brand reveals that Queensland is not the Sunshine State or the Smart State – if anything, Queensland is the Slogan State.

Queensland Tourism poster, c.1935, artist Percy Trompf. Image © National Gallery of Australia , reproduced under Fair Dealing provisions.

‘Go North for Warmth’

In the 1930s, the Queensland Tourist Bureau commissioned a series of posters that used the weather to lure interstate holiday makers to the north. These posters beckoned tourists to forgo the cold and follow the sun, and marked a move away from earlier campaigns that encouraged mainlanders to escape to cooler locations such as Tasmania: ‘The Sanatorium of the South’.

One such poster, ‘Off to the North for Warmth’, invites travellers from the drizzly southern states to shed their raincoats and dry off in balmy Queensland. The artist, Percy Trompf, depicts a pair of penguins, with matching suitcases, migrating north along ‘The Sunshine Route’ to Brisbane before reaching Gympie, Mackay, and eventually Cairns. The catchphrase, ‘The Tropics at Your Door’, was often used in tourism ephemera, and Trompf’s trademark style – sharp imagery and bold colour – was especially popular during the Depression, both at home and abroad. (In fact, an original print of the poster recently sold for US$3,000 – double its asking price – at an auction in New York.) In the 1930s, similar versions of the ‘Go North for Warmth’ slogan included ‘The Beaches are Calling!’, ‘Come up to Coolness!’ and ‘Queensland: For Surf and Sun’.

When the poster went to print, Queensland was certainly very warm. Parts of the state were in the grip of drought, a phenomenon that at the time was regarded as an act of God, or a kind of supernatural retribution, rather than a routine part of the Australian climate.

On 12 December 1938, the front page of the Courier-Mail read, ‘Hottest Day for Ten Years: Heat Wave Over Queensland’. (The other leading stories were ‘Roofs Fly in Gale’, ‘Fury of Cyclonic Blow’, and ‘Pope Attacked by Asthma’.) In the feature about the weather, the 40-degree temperatures in Brisbane were attributed to a scorching westerly wind and ‘a pitiless sun’. The heat wave was enough to spark grass fires in Archerfield and burst at least two industrial thermometers in Cloncurry. Small birds dropped dead in the bush and other animals took refuge from the heat under houses. Electrical fans, designed to keep refrigerators cool, malfunctioned, and local shops sold out of fizzy drinks and ice-cream. ‘It has been the hottest spell for years,’ the article concludes. ‘Tonight, the weather is just bearable.’ The story is appended with a list of heat records for Brisbane in December.

That January, 420 Australians died of heat-related illness.

In the local press, Queensland was portrayed as a place of climate risk and climate variability. Yet the government, in its public relations, continued to promote the state as a place of unclouded stability and calm. In fact, as early as the 1920s, some politicians denied the presence of drought altogether: a move that seemed to be guided by misplaced patriotism, an unwillingness to acknowledge any sort of weakness in the Great Southern Land.

In the local press, Queensland was a place of climate risk and climate variability. Yet the government continued to promote the state as a place of unclouded stability and calm.

In 1921, Sir Henry Gullett, Australia’s Superintendent of Immigration, had publicly advocated for a national ban on the word ‘drought’ out of fear that it would deter immigration. That June, in the Sydney Morning Herald, Gullett was quoted as saying, ‘Many thousands of Australians go abroad every year on business or pleasure. The Commonwealth Immigration Office appeals to every one of them to embark with the resolve that he will on all possible occasions speak well of Australia. Let none of them speak evil. Such words as “drought” and “strike” and “rabbit” should be thrown overboard as the vessels put to sea.’

In literature, presumably to Gullett’s distaste, the state was also represented as a land of droughts and flooding rains. Between 1928 and 1949, Victor Kennedy published three anthologies of poems about life in north Queensland: Farthest North, Light of Earth, and Cyclone. In one of his better-known poems, The North Again, he shares his fear of Queensland’s weather and its ‘wild, death-driven spite’. He describes the fierce winds that unlock bolted gates and the cyclone frenzies that seem to wait at sea to strike: ‘It’s well, this terror in the hearts out here / The creeks are in flood tonight.’

Judith Wright also captures in her work the destructive force of the weather, in particular the climate extremes that beset the so-called Sunshine State. In Drought Year, the burned and embered land is incompatible with life: the creek has dried up and turned to sand, and the animals have died. The grinning skull, the classic symbol of drought, is a merciless reminder of the suffering that accompanies life under a harsh and punishing sun. Wright says, ‘I saw the eel wither where he curled / in the last blood-drop of a spent world. I heard the bone whisper in the hide / of the big red horse that lay where he died.’

In Flood Year, the poet shifts her focus to the violence of flood, again reminding us that in a land of binaries, it is not only the heat that can wreak havoc but also the rain. In the poem, the narrator is walking along the beach one evening when she finds the hand of a dead child. The child, whose identity is unknown, has drowned in a flash flood. The thick hurtling waters have swallowed her whole and returned an unsavoury part: ‘a frail bleached clench of fingers dried by wind – the dead child’s hand.’

Janette Turner Hospital, in a candid moment, would later write, ‘In Melbourne and Sydney, where water restrictions were at last lifted to everyone’s immense relief, people read of the floods in Queensland and shook their heads. If it’s not one thing, it’s another, they said.’ Naturally, these dark and disturbing images clashed with Queensland’s persistent self-promotion as a carefree land of surf and sun. For obvious reasons, the harsher realities of the state, as a drought-stricken and flood-ridden place, were not the kind of images that Tourism Queensland wanted to share with sightseers from the south.

Queensland Tourism poster, c.1976, artist David Fowler. Image: Queensland State Archives, Flickr (PD)

‘Join the Queue for Queensland’

By the 1960s, the Queensland Government had switched its attention from domestic tourism to immigration. The rise of jet travel, combined with a national labour shortage, meant that restrictions on non-European immigration were finally relaxed.

By 1971, one in three Australians was either a postwar migrant or the child of a migrant. By 1972, Whitlam’s government had promised to methodically remove racial discrimination from the country’s immigration statutes. One year later, Al Grassby, the Minister for Immigration, announced the legal end of the White Australia Policy. ‘It is dead,’ he said. ‘Give me a shovel and I will bury it.’

Grassby, who was born in Brisbane to an Irish mother and a Spanish father, is remembered today as the Father of Multiculturalism. In 1973, he formally introduced the term to our political lexicon in his historic speech, ‘A Multi-Cultural Society for the Future’. In his speech, and in a strange coincidence, Grassby, like Lucas, imagines Australian life in the year 2000. However, unlike Lucas’ grim portrait of crime and violence, Grassby’s vision is one of shining hope: a future in which diversity and equal opportunity are national values. ‘It is obvious that on present trends, no one group in our society by the year 2000 will be able to exercise any inalienable claim to permanent dominance over all the others,’ Grassby says. ‘This will not only be a matter of justice and human dignity, as it is today, but by then will be a simple matter of numbers and percentages.’

Grassby was right, of course. When the clock struck midnight on 1 January, 2000, Australia was by all accounts a multicultural nation. In Queensland, at the start of the second millennium, one-sixth of the population was born overseas. Today, almost a quarter of Queenslanders are born abroad, with the top five overseas countries of birth China, England, India, South Africa, and New Zealand. In fact, most Kiwis who cross the ditch in their jandals settle in the Sunshine State (which perhaps explains why the best fish and chips in Brisbane are from That Little Kiwi Place).

In the 1960s, the Land of the Long White Cloud was one of the first countries that the Tourist Bureau targeted in their new plan to sell Queensland to emigrants. One brochure, produced by the Premier’s Department, features a crystal ball with a map of Queensland and the slogan, ‘Queensland: Land of Opportunity’, accompanied by the words, ‘Unlimited Scope for Industry and Investment!’. A similar booklet, ‘Queensland: The Tropical Wonderland’, showcases the state as a place of timeless charm and grandeur. The pamphlet, which was published in Melbourne, includes colour photos of the Mount Isa mines, the Kuranda Railway Station, and Townsville Hospital. The state’s flora and fauna are also on display. On one page, a rosy-cheeked woman with soft curls shows off a paw paw. ‘The paw paw,’ the caption reads. ‘Just one of the many luscious tropical fruits that grow in profusion in this rich State.’

In literary circles, however, Queensland writers such as Jessica Anderson and Thea Astley were starting to recognise their state as something of a cultural joke. In her well-known essay, Being a Queenslander, Astley describes Queensland as the subject of a kind of national racism, a cultural antithesis in which the state was either dismissed as the punchline of a joke or mocked as a tropical cliché. At the same time, Astley herself concedes that Queensland is a place of contrasts, and that home, paradoxically, is the place that ‘one must be able to laugh at with love as well as weep over’. Funnily, she concludes that Queenslanders are a bunch of ‘oddballs’, and that it is our short-sightedness, caused by both the blinding heat of the sun and the blinding distance between us, that makes us especially strange.

Astley herself concedes that Queensland is a place of contrasts, and that home, paradoxically, is the place that ‘one must be able to laugh at with love as well as weep over’.

Her theory, however peculiar, may be more than anecdotal.

As Astley’s essay went to print, the sociologist John Ray began investigating the relationship between climate and conservatism in Australia. In 1982, using electoral information and a survey of his own design, Ray found that people from warmer climates, such as Brisbane, are more conservative than people from cooler climates, such as Sydney and Melbourne. In his findings, Ray suggests that ‘the enervating effect of a warmer climate makes the motivation and dedication needed for undertaking higher levels of education harder to sustain’. Even Dante, Malouf’s protagonist in Johnno, describes Brisbane as a ‘huge shanty-town’: a place ‘where nothing happened, and where nothing ever would happen, because it had no soul. A place where poetry could never occur.’

Remarkably, in 1976, the same year that Astley penned her essay and a year after Johnno was published, the Tourist Bureau produced another piece of marketing propaganda: a poster with the slogan, ‘Join the Queue for Queensland’.

As fate would have it, 1976 was the same year that the first wave of ‘boat people’ arrived in Australia from Vietnam. The five men on board that initial vessel, two brothers and three friends, travelled 3,500 kilometres on a leaky wooden boat, with nothing but a compass and a torn page from a school atlas as their map. When the men docked in Darwin Harbour, they borrowed ten cents from a local fisherman and used a public phone to call Immigration. They were granted refugee status and permanent residency, and within four days, they had secured work as labourers. Tragically, two of the five were killed in a car crash in Brisbane, just months before they were to be reunited with family. The Sunshine State, it seemed, was not so bright for all. ‘It’s all in the antitheses,’ Astley says. ‘The contrasts. The contradictions.’

Of course, under Bjelke-Petersen, the state was not only sold to prospective immigrants but to overseas developers. In this time of unfettered development, many Queenslanders complained that their state had been physically – and perhaps even metaphorically – oversold. In true Queensland fashion, the obvious response to this problem was to create another slogan. In 1977, the Queensland Labor Party produced a bumper sticker with the catchphrase, ‘See Queensland first before Joh sells it.’ The bumper sticker was popular with locals, but in November, in an election that was described as extremely volatile, the Coalition was re-elected with Joh at the helm and Expo on the horizon.

‘The Smart State’

In 1998, ten years on from Expo, newly-elected premier Peter Beattie announced a new mantra for Queensland: ‘The Smart State’. The Smart State strategy, part of Beattie’s key agenda, signalled a move away from the popular branding that underpinned the self-perpetuating myth of the Sunshine State. ‘Our aim,’ Beattie declared, ‘is to develop Queensland as an Asia-Pacific hub for the new industries of the 21st century – industries such as biotechnology, nanotechnology, and communication technology.’ Under Beattie’s leadership, Queensland was no longer simply a lifestyle destination; now, it was a place of new ideas and innovations, new jobs and partnerships, and new creative enterprises and collaborations.

Queensland 'The Smart State' licence plates. Image: 'Cynren', Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Queensland, it seemed, was growing up.

With a renewed trademark, and a bold and progressive vision, the state now sold itself as the Cornucopia of the Commonwealth, the pinnacle of modern life.

Naturally, the first thing that had to change was the number plates.

Regardless of the way that Queenslanders perceive themselves, the story of Queensland, like all good stories, will always be an amalgamation of fact and fiction.

In 2001, during a sitting of Parliament, Beattie announced that he would be replacing the slogan on licence plates with ‘The Smart State’ instead of the usual ‘Sunshine State’. ‘Being a Smart State is about doing things smarter,’ Beattie said. ‘Queensland has much more to offer than sunshine.’ In a gross underestimate of both his people’s aversion to change, and their nostalgia for a Queensland past, Beattie planned to make the new ‘slogan plates’ mandatory. However, after protests from local tourism operators and outcry from the public, Beattie was forced to compromise. The new plates remained compulsory for government vehicles, but motorists were offered a choice: the Smart State or the Sunshine State. The fact that Queensland couldn’t be both was emblematic of a broader cultural problem: the long-standing failure of marketing campaigns to integrate Queensland’s natural attractions (its golden beaches and warm weather) with its built environment (its theatres, museums, and art galleries). Queenslanders, it seemed, were reluctant to embrace their state as one that now traded in knowledge products and information services rather than bananas and bikinis. In 2012, the Smart State plates were eventually cancelled when it was revealed that only 10 per cent of Queenslanders had opted for the ‘smart’ option.

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What, then, do we make of a place that at different times in history has been ascribed so many diverse, even conflicting, labels? How do we reconcile the sunshine with the rain, the paradisal with the purgatorial? Is it even possible?

Turner Hospital, in her short story, ‘The Second Coming of Come-by-Chance’, raises the same question: ‘One has to ask oneself: does Queensland actually exist? And one has to conclude: I think not.’

Regardless of the way that Queenslanders perceive themselves, the story of Queensland, like all good stories, will always be an amalgamation of fact and fiction: a faction, if you like. For some, the state will forever remain the Sunshine State, even as it floods in Tully. For others, Queensland will still be the Smart State, despite government spending trends and funding cuts that are anything but clever. ‘Can-Do Campbell’ Newman’s decision to bury the Premier’s Literary Awards, for example, was not the most intelligent move in a state that has a strong history of protest, especially against political interference and repression – the independent literary award that rose from the ashes, for many years without a cent of government funding, has arguably proven superior to its predecessor.

Yet at the same time as Queensland strives to be taken seriously, it will continue to undermine its achievements with its usual irony and depreciation. Brisbane’s tongue-in-cheek ‘Brisvegas’ and ‘Brisneyland’ nicknames encapsulate the city’s awkward self-consciousness. Even in recent years, when the Brisbane City Council published their annual anthology of local stories, One Book, Many Brisbanes, some local academics dubbed the collection, One Book, Many Disappointments.

It seems, then, that as the state continues to remake itself, its fetish for slogans is unlikely to change. What remains to be seen, however, is whether the Slogan State will, in a moment of metacognition, acknowledge its obsession with words, for once and for all.