Monday, 21 December 2009


We’ve been living in this city for twelve years now – the longest we’ve ever stayed in one place.

My bride and I have lived in eleven different homes during our thirty-two years of marriage, and our four kids have attended a grand total of twelve schools. It was to slow down this rate of change that we settled in Toowoomba.

Places we lived in included Mount Gravatt, Petrie, Townsville (Kirwan and Rowes Bay), and Mount Isa (Sunset).

As it is, my eldest actually attended four different schools, but our youngest only two, because we had stopped moving by the time she was old enough for school. All of them attended both state and private schools.

I don’t think the moving around did any of them any harm. My dad was a bush principal, and I also attended a range of different schools, both public and private all over the state. My kids have done the same.

Toowoomba, we found, is different.

After Mt Isa and Townsville, settling in Toowoomba felt a bit like time-travel (backwards). The Northern towns and cities had a completely different atmosphere. There was a rapid turnover of people, and few remained long enough to develop a sense of entitlement.

I first encountered this sense of entitlement at work, when I tried to introduce a few (small) changes. The resistance was amazing. I learned quickly that it paid to hasten slowly.

An interesting example of this was a suggestion I made that we could take a class of kids on an excursion to Longreach. We had a school bus – I had a licence to drive it, and had developed a lot of strong contacts in Longreach in my time working out there. Longreach has a lot of interesting educational venues (Stockman’s Hall of Fame, Qantas Museum etc). The Principal of the Longreach School of Distance Education at the time offered the school facilities for free lodging.

My teachers simply refused to cooperate, so I let the idea go. I discovered later that of a staff of about thirty, less than five had actually travelled West of Dalby (90kms down the road). There was a belief that if you went too far West there was a strong possibility that you would fall off the edge of the map. Longreach was simply incomphrehensible.

Last week, a teacher retired from a suburban Toowoomba primary school. The write-up in the local rag (Toowoomba Chronicle) pointed out that that she had worked on the same class in this school for forty-two years!

Only in Toowoomba.

Perhaps the best way of describing the culture is to recount an incident that happened in my second year here (1997).

At about eight in the morning I received a phone call from one of my teachers who had been involved in a prang on his way to work. He’d phoned to say that he was OK to come to work and teach, but his car was badly damaged and undriveable.

I offered to collect him (the accident was a few blocks from school) and drove to the intersection where he was waiting. It had been a pretty nasty incident, and one of the people in the other car had been injured. Fuel was also leaking from one of the cars.

This meant that the Police, Ambos and Fire and Rescue were all attending, so there was a fair bit of congestion at the intersection. I elected to park away from the corner to avoid all this, and pulled up in front of a house about a hundred metres up.

I was immediately confronted by a middle-aged woman in night attire and slippers, who angrily demanded to know why I had parked in front of her house. I explained the situation, and once she understood that there was a bit of excitement happening, she stopped abusing me and took off at a gallop towards the accident. A number of things were apparent – she had little better to do than abuse people she didn’t know who parked on a public road in front of her house, but was always ready to be distracted by a little bit of drama.

Once this mindset is clear, understanding Toowoomba becomes easy. The editor of the local paper understands it very well, and sells lots of newsprint covered with stories about lost dogs and minor accidents.

You can draw a line down Ruthven Street (the main drag) and this neatly separates old Toowoomba from new Toowoomba. East of the line is new (and generally of a higher socio-economic standing) and West of it is old. Attitudes about most things are strongly conservative irrespective of socio-economic circumstances, although Toowoomba North is a Labor seat. Toowoomba was the heartland of the Labor split in the fifties, and some of the old DLP views persist to this day. The recent sad story of abuse at a local Catholic primary school could only have happened here.

Only in Toowoomba could a pressure group called “Citizens Against Drinking Sewage” be formed and exert enough influence to put the kibosh on a scheme which would have saved Toowoomba residents a fortune in water rates.

Having said that, it is a great place to live. Most costs (except water) are low, it’s usually a little cooler that the coast because of its elevation, and it has more schools per square kilo than just about anywhere else in Queensland (with the possible exception of Charters Towers).

It’s also a convenient stepping off place to destinations South and West, avoiding the congestion of the area around Brisbane and Ipswich.

There are even some half-decent restaurants, but I still have to drive to Brisbane (or Charleville) for Vietnamese dosh. You can get good Thai tucker at the Hot Basil Thai Cottage and Pandan Delight.

Hugh White - Without America

Hugh White is always provocative, and doesn't pull any punches when it comes to criticising current defence policy. In 1995, he was appo...