A road sign to Middlemount, Moranbah and Dysart.
A road sign to Middlemount, Moranbah and Dysart.

Little town with a big heart and prospects

IT'S 7am on a Monday morning in Moranbah and a man is cutting the grass along the path outside the Black Nugget Hotel near the town square, guiding the motorised edger with some precision, and appearing utterly absorbed in his work.

There's nothing remarkable about this scene, but I'm suddenly captivated by it for several minutes, and the reason is that, when I was born in 1963, that hotel wasn't there.

Neither was the town square nor the KFC or the Subway, or the massive Community Workers Club in Mills Ave, where you can buy delicious wagyu rump steaks.

There were no McDonald's or Coles in "Moranbah Fair'' or lines of brick homes with backyard pools selling for $400,000, or even a cemetery where many who were born, lived and died in Moranbah are buried.

 

Moranbah, just under 200km southwest of Mackay, is a powerful symbol of Queensland's vigour and energy, and, occasionally, we should congratulate ourselves for our industry and resourcefulness. Only four other new sizeable towns have materialised on this continent since the '70s and two of those are really just suburbs of bigger centre - Joondalup in Perth and Palmerston in Darwin.

Former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce has made the accurate observation that, unlike the Americans, Australians seem to shrink back from the interior. Early European settlers, Joyce said, staggered across the Blue Mountains at the start of the 19th century before getting to Bathurst, and calling it a day.

But Queensland does not have just a lively interior. It actually created an entire new town starting in 1969.

Fifty years after it sprang to life among the rocks and brahman bulls, and seven years into a serious mining downturn, Moranbah looks remarkably healthy.

Glowing green from recent rains. it's even sporting a skyline as the Oaks Hotel complex tentatively ventures three stories upward.

The Black Nugget Hotel, Moranbah.
The Black Nugget Hotel, Moranbah.

Somewhere back in time, I'm thinking 1973 or 1974, I was in the back of an HT Holden that my father was driving, with my cousin Dennis in the front passenger set.

We lived deep in the Pioneer Valley behind Mackay, and were headed to Moranbah to deposit "Din'', a qualified boiler maker then in his 20s, at the Goonyella Mine to start work, and I head my father say:

"Dinny, is it true? Are you going to get $200 a week out here?''

Din nodded happily in the affirmative, and my father gazed at his nephew with some affection, his faced creased in the broad smile that often appeared when he saw one of his tribe doing well in the world.

And me, domiciled in the back seat with a knowledge of economics limited to the unhappy reality that a Cadbury chocolate block was often out of reach at 22¢, tried and failed to comprehend the enormity of that $200 figure and its extraordinary purchasing power.

That wage was then about 25 per cent higher that the average Australian wage, which doesn't seem extraordinarily generous.

The Moranbah Gas Project (MGP) coal seam gas processing plant in the Bowen Basin. Picture: Simon Green
The Moranbah Gas Project (MGP) coal seam gas processing plant in the Bowen Basin. Picture: Simon Green

But in 1974, the average cost of a house in Brisbane was about $17,500, and the cost of a loaf of bread 25¢.

There have been thousands of Dins in the past half century who have taken advantage of mining industry wages to enlarge the Queensland economy. My cousin bought his own sugar cane farm outside Bundaberg.

Others stayed put and helped develop Moranbah, and surrounding towns such as Dysart and Middlemount, their expenditure rippling out to Mackay, Rockhampton, Bowen and Emerald - a mining and agricultural miracle in its own right.

Mayor Isaac Regional Council Cr Anne Baker (pink shirt) with Adani Renewables CEO Dr Jennifer Purdie at the Rugby Run solar project near Moranbah in central Queensland.
Mayor Isaac Regional Council Cr Anne Baker (pink shirt) with Adani Renewables CEO Dr Jennifer Purdie at the Rugby Run solar project near Moranbah in central Queensland.

Moranbah may rely on coal mining, yet an absence of coal won't necessarily destroy Moranbah.

The International Energy Agency's December report shows global coal consumption actually rose last year, but there's little doubt that coal will decline in the long term.

Moranbah's population hovers at 9000 people and has changed little between the 2011 and 2016 census. It's not yet at that critical mass where a local economy starts feeding on itself, making the possibility of becoming a ghost town remote. But the future is a foreign land; the human animal endlessly creative.

A railroad was a chief reason for the creation of Chicago, but take it away today and Chicago won't disappear with it. It might sound like a long shot, and the cynics might laugh, but it's quite possible that in a century, the Black Nugget becomes the equivalent of Chicago's historic Schaller's Pump tavern, a nostalgic place for tourists to visit in the midst of a vast, wealthy, inland metropolis.

michael.madigan@news.com.au



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