Keeping the Toowoomba carnival afloat

Photo: Macca amongst the people at the Toowoomba carnival of flowers – by Bob Wilson

So there we were at the unaccustomed early hour of 7am in Laurel Bank Park, Toowoomba, trying to catch Macca’s eye to say, “Mate, we’re here.”

Ian McNamara,* the host of Australia all Over, who sometimes plays music by our band, The Goodwills, had invited us to attend his second OB (outside broadcast) of the year.

Laurel Bank Park was pretty as a picture, thanks to a big team of gardeners and a decision by the Toowoomba Regional Council to water the town parks, despite the drought. It makes little sense to have a famous Carnival of Flowers without making some attempt to preserve the gardens.

The Toowoomba Carnival of Flowers has been going for 69 years, attracting ever-larger crowds each year to take tours of the prize-winning gardens, watch the grand parade and dine out in the city’s eclectic ‘Eat Street’. It was sentimentally appropriate that we were in Laurel Bank Park, where rumour has it we (She and Me) once had a re-affirmation of vows ceremony, cunningly disguised as a bush dance. We lived in Toowoomba in the 1980s (and my how this sprawling country town has grown).

Last weekend, we stayed with old friends at Highfields, now a satellite suburb 10 kms north-west. Our friends bought an acre of land and a house there when it was still in the bush. Now there’s a service station on the corner (and traffic lights). We drove into town to watch the Grand Parade on Saturday, parking in a secret place known only to locals. On the way we detoured up Bridge Street, past what used to be the Toowoomba Foundry, now home to the biggest Bunnings store I’ve seen for a long time. The Foundry facade on Ruthven Street has been left standing, along with remnants of the old saw-tooth factory roof, which you don’t see much of in this era of tilt-slab concrete industrial sheds.

Toowoomba has certainly become not only bigger but more multicultural since we lived there. Walking past St James Anglican Church on Russell Street, we saw many Sudanese people gathered outside. They had just returned from the funeral of the Rev James Ajak, a respected priest and community leader among Toowoomba’s large South Sudanese community. A thousand people, some who came from as far away as Western Australia, attended his funeral at the Centenary Heights State High School Assembly Hall.

Multicultural Toowoomba carnival

Multicultural groups were well represented in the grand parade of floats, bands, vintage cars and dancing schools. Our host told us an amusing story about a grand parade from years gone by when it rained relentlessly. There were two elephants on a flat-bed truck, he said, and one of them heeded nature’s call, leaving a wet pile of dung for the people following behind to negotiate.

It wasn’t really the right mental picture for a lovely Spring day with a big crowd of good-natured people enjoying the hour-long parade, led by the Toowoomba Caledonian Pipe Band. I was never very good at estimating crowds, even though I was given a few tips by Toowoomba police back in the day when I worked at The Chronicle as a general reporter and columnist.

Thousands, let’s say, drifting down Margaret Street to Queens Park where floats were lined up for inspection (and judging). Our host’s grandkids cunningly detoured Pop to sideshow alley, while we strolled hand in hand through one of our special places. If Queens Park had been watered lately, it was still thirsty, not surprising given the city has had only 70mm of rain in the past six months. Only one of those rainy days amounted to much (20.8mm). As gardeners would know, this is when you have to think about what to water and when.

Nonetheless, Laurel Bank Park, with its topiary, flower beds, scented garden, flowering peach trees and bowling green lawns was at its showcase best. We did catch Macca’s eye, as he roamed among the 600 or so people who showed up to listen to his four and a half hour live Sunday morning broadcast.

We sang a couple of songs and listened with admiration to local duo Kay Sullivan (accordion) & Peter Freeman (double bass) accompany Mimosa, a gypsy jazz duo from Terrigal, with Toowoomba trombone player Ian Craig chiming in as required. Macca sang a couple of songs and the band played along – as if they’d all had rehearsals. It was impressive.

Later I was reminded of the column I once wrote for the Toowoomba Chronicle in the 1980s. It started life prosaically as This Week with Bob Wilson and later became Friday on My Mind. We were reminiscing about the time our local folk club built a scale model of the Glenrowan Pub on the back of a truck and entered it into the grand parade with a bush ranger theme. I satirised this in one of my old columns (September 1984). Such fun to quote yourself:

“The float-building gang were having a right old bludge. There was Bluey swarming all over the back of his smash repair truck pulling ropes and lugging hay bales while the gang of nine procrastinated beneath a tree where someone had thoughtfully erected a makeshift bar, keg and 10 seven ounce glasses. Ted and Hughie arrived with their contribution to the float – a four-metre high model of the Ryebuck Shearer complete with black singlet, hand shears and a big placard which read “One out, all out”. Bluey inspected the newcomer and tapped its 44-gallon drum chest.

“Good welding job. Thing must weigh a ton.”

“He used to shear 100 sheep a day, mate,” said Molly.

Ben turned up in his bright green Ute with two sheep in the back. Hollering things like ‘Bewdy’ and ‘Have a go’, Ben carted the bewildered animals (one under each arm like Colin Meads), and plonked them on the back of the truck.

“I’ll bet we need a permit to transport live sheep on an open truck during a street parade,” said Cautious Col.

By midnight the day before the grand parade, the Ryebuck Shearer had been bolted to the back of the truck cab, a sheep chained to each of his formidable legs.

“You’re not going to leave them sheep here all night are you?” Bluey said. “They could clean up my back yard before tomorrow.

“It is tomorrow,” said Molly, “And I’m going home.”

Later, about noon, the Rybebuck Shearer was disqualified from the parade because stewards ruled that neither he nor his placard could pass safely beneath overhead power lines. Ben’s sheep (Banjo and Henry), were also pulled out of the race. Rain fell on the parade and the bloke who’d lent the hay bales said they weren’t worth a pinch of sheep now and charged them $2 a bale. Bluey’s truck got a flat tyre as he tried to turn it round in the marshalling yards. Molly started crying into her rum and coke and the barmaid from across the road came over and said anyone with pub glasses please take them back or she’d lose her job.

“I told you so,” said Col.

*Rebecca Levingston interviews Ian McNamara on South Bank’s Ferris wheel, August 2017 (log in to Facebook first).

Clarification: Last week I referred to the cost of a visitor visa to Nauru as $800. It is $8,000 for a journalist.


Multiculturalism under siege

Monument to Multiculturalism in Toronto, a sculpture by Francesco Perilli. Photo by Shaun Merritt

My plan to write something cuddly and wholesome about Multiculturalism Month in Queensland was derailed somewhat by the egregious maiden speech of crossbench Senator Fraser Anning.

One of our newest politicians, he chose his maiden speech to call for a return to the White Australia policy, suggesting that a plebiscite be held to ask Australians if they want ‘wholesale non-English speaking immigrants from the Third World and, in particular, whether they want any Muslims’.

Politicians who make incendiary speeches are often misquoted, so this is exactly what Senator Anning had to say about Muslims.

“A majority of Muslims in Australia of working age do not work and live on welfare. Muslims in New South Wales and Victoria are three times more likely than other groups to be convicted of crimes. We have black African Muslim gangs terrorising Melbourne. We have ISIS-sympathising Muslims trying to go overseas to fight for ISIS and, while all Muslims are not terrorists, certainly all terrorists these days are Muslims. So why would anyone want to bring more of them here?”

He said a lot of other things too; about countering the growing threat of China both outside and within Australia; about building coal-fired power stations to return us to the cheapest power in the world, and about (ahem) restoring personal freedoms and free speech.

The thing that outraged many, however, was his use of the words, ‘the final solution’, made infamous by the Nazis in WWII. Senator Anning seems unrepentant, amid claims the speech was deliberately structured to be controversial and raise his profile. He claims the use of the term “final solution” (the Nazi regime’s euphemism for exterminating Jewish people), was “inadvertent”. But he has not backed down, saying the outrage is coming solely from political opponents.

The counterpoint to Senator Anning’s divisive speech was a plea for consensus by the Member for Chifley, Hon Ed Husic. His response in Parliament described the experiences of his Bosnian parents, who came to Australia in the 1960s.

“My old man worked on the Snowy Mountains scheme. Dad worked with his hands and Mum stayed home to make sure we had a family that could take advantage of all the great things in this country.

“Like many kids of migrants, I carry a debt – a debt of gratitude to this country that we were able to achieve this. I went to university. I could count on one hand the numbers of folks in my family or from my Dad’s generation that got to do that. Now I get to serve in this place (Parliament) and regardless of my faith, my commitment to the community is what I’m judged on.”

Opposition leader Bill Shorten weighed in, saying  “…As leaders, as representatives of the Australian people, as servants of diverse communities in a great multicultural nation, we cannot stay silent in the face of racism.”

Even former MP John Howard condemned the tone of Anning’s speech, which is a bit rich coming from the bloke who introduced the One Australia policy in 1988, which called for an end to multiculturalism (and opposed a treaty with Aboriginal Australians).

Anning might not have read the spray in the Tweed Daily News from Australian-born journalist Charis Chong, who said that although she drinks all kinds of Australian beer and has a Weber in her backyard, “I’ll never be Australian enough”.

She talks of her negative experiences as an Asian Australia, but also her true friendships with people who don’t talk about assimilation – “they are just nice, decent people who appreciate each individual person for who they are.

“The problem with Senator Anning’s comments is that they seek to exclude people from ever being good enough to be ‘Australian’ simply because they don’t look ‘white’ or want to practice a certain religion.”

Katharine Murphy writing for The Guardian warned that the Anning speech was a sign that Australia was being caught up in global nationalist debates.

What we are witnessing in national politics is the latest manifestation of Australia’s cultural cringe. Far right political operatives, and the media voices prepared to give them succour, are importing the nationalist debates that have sprung up in the shadow of the global financial crisis.”

Murphy is correct in saying that debates about race, multiculturalism, sovereignty and immigration have flared up elsewhere because of deep resentments felt by the losers of globalisation. While Australia was not as deeply affected by the GFC, the ‘outrage consciousness’ that exists elsewhere is being imported, validated and projected here, she said.

The 2016 Census revealed a lot about the ethnic makeup of Australia. Nearly half (49%) of Australians had either been born overseas (first generation Australian) or one or both of their parents had been born overseas (second generation Australians). Of the 6.16 million overseas-born persons, nearly one in five (18%) had arrived since the start of 2012. While England and New Zealand were still the next most common countries of birth, the proportion of those born overseas who were born in China and India has increased to 8.3% and 7.4% respectively. Malaysia now appears in the top 10 countries of birth (replacing Scotland) and represents 0.6% of the Australian population. While 52.1% of Australians identify as Christians, those who listed Islam as their religion numbered 620,200 or 2.6% of the population.

One might imagine that immigrants and refugees settling in regional and rural Australia would receive a chilly reception from the stereotypical ‘rednecks’ of the bush. But Prof. Collins wrote in The Conversation that a research project on immigrants living in regional Australia a decade ago dispelled this myth, with 80% of respondents reporting a warm welcome.

“Our new research confirmed this finding, with 68% of the refugees surveyed in Queensland overall – and 81% in Toowoomba – reporting it was ‘very easy’ or ‘easy’ to make friends in Australia.”

Meanwhile, people who believe in embracing multiculturalism continue to celebrate its existence, which in Queensland is the month of August.

If you live in regional Queensland and support cultural diversity, you could look out for BEMAC’s Culture Train. (BEMAC is Queensland’s leading multicultural arts producer, presenter and artistic development organisation).The train will be making 15 whistle stops on a tour that starts today. A group of five culturally diverse musicians will present free concerts and workshops starting at Dunwich (Stradbroke Island), then on to Dalby, Chinchilla, Roma, Charleville, Longreach, Barcaldine, Emerald, Rockhampton, Gladstone, Childers, Cherbourg, Toowoomba, Ipswich and finishing at the Brisbane Multicultural Centre on August 31. The Culture Train 2018 ensemble is: Sarah Calderwood: Celtic singer-songwriter, flute & whistle player, Chong Ali: Vietnamese rapper and emcee, Marcelo Rosciano: Brazilian percussionist, Ben Kashi: Persian dulcimer and percussionist and Gertrude Benjamin: Torres-Strait Islander folk and soul singer.

Sarah, who is also musical director, said the group would be performing shows which combine songs from the group’s vastly different cultures backgrounds, with individuals performing solo work as well.

“The five of us are thrilled to not only celebrate this diversity through music and storytelling,” she told FOMM, “but to promote inclusion and bring communities together to collectively celebrate multiculturalism in regional, rural and remote communities.”