As crazy as it sounds, I yearn for Queensland's so-called bad old days.

It was an exciting time when things got done, and living standards soared. Politicians were not gutless wimps beholden to sectional interests such as trade unions.

Controversial projects were not farmed out to be reviewed by partisan "experts" who took years to make a decision.

I reckon the Queensland Revolution started in the '60s when our cities were sewered and dunnies became obsolete.

Ours was a hillbilly state run by a mulga mafia and it was transformed into an economic powerhouse, thanks largely to a team led by Syd Schubert and Leo Hielscher.

Along the way our big country town capital became a subtropical Pleasantville.

Schubert was the co-ordinator general who wisely stacked his department with main roads department engineers who knew how to move mountains - and did.

They did not see themselves as visionaries, and nor did I. They were practical problem solvers. Hielscher held the purse strings as under-treasurer, and later chairman of the Queensland Treasury Corporation.

Riding shotgun were quality blokes such as Denis Cook and John Strano.

 

 

US engineer Jim Hamm who designed Brisbane freeway system with Sir Syd Schubert (left) and Eric Finger.
US engineer Jim Hamm who designed Brisbane freeway system with Sir Syd Schubert (left) and Eric Finger.

 

 

They weeded out the flim-flam men as shysters while assessing coal, rail and tourism opportunities that would set Queenslanders on the path to prosperity.

Hielscher and Schubert were knighted for their efforts, and Strano won the Public Service Medal.

Sir Leo, 96, was in a nostalgic frame of mind when I caught up with him this week at his Yeronga home. In the '60s Brisbane stopped at Mt Gravatt and Chermside, he said.

"We had small cottage industries such as stove foundries, a shoe manufacturer, wool scours and abattoirs but not head offices, no large-scale manufacturing and no service industries of note."

There were no coal exports. The state relied on primary industries income.

Sir Leo said the upgrade of the Mount Isa railway line helped kickstart the coal industry. An aluminium industry and a tourism industry followed.

Projects generated income to service their own debt with no impact on taxpayer funds. Royalties flowed. Ports and highways were upgraded. The cattle herd grew. Hotel towers soared higher.

"We found that every time someone spent $100m on a new coal mine, someone else spent $300m in Brisbane, Townsville, Mackay and Rockhampton and so on," Sir Leo said. And there were jobs, jobs, jobs.

 

 

Sir Leo Hielscher and Sir Frank Moore. Picture: AAP image, John Gass
Sir Leo Hielscher and Sir Frank Moore. Picture: AAP image, John Gass

Brisbane became a world- class city thanks to the regions.

Compare those "bad old days" with the sorry state of Queensland now. We have a debt approaching $120bn.

Palaszczuk and former treasurer Jackie Trad blew a big hole in our triple AAA credit rating.

The Palaszczuk-Trad blunderbuss was even forced to raid superannuation funds to pay public servants' wages.

Sir Leo and his friend Sir Frank Moore, 89, have now been promoting the new Bradfield scheme they say can halt the decline of regional Queensland. It's a big vision project embraced by Deb Frecklington and the LNP, but not the ALP.

 

The Bradfield boys (from left) Sir Frank Moore, Detlef Sulzber, and Sir Leo Hielscher. Picture: Des Houghton
The Bradfield boys (from left) Sir Frank Moore, Detlef Sulzber, and Sir Leo Hielscher. Picture: Des Houghton

 

 

The knights' scheme would open vast areas of the state to high-value food and fibre production while creating renewable hydro-electric power and saving the Great Barrier Reef from polluting run-off. It's like a massive water grid with six new dams.

As usual, Annastacia Palaszczuk is dithering. She has promised "a review". This means she has kicked it into the long paddock where it will perish if Labor is re-elected.

Perhaps the vision is simply too big for Palaszczuk to get her head around.

Since I broke this story last year, Sir Leo and Sir Frank have engaged their old friend Detlef Sulzer, 78, a former chief engineer and an executive at Thiess to put meat on the bones of their plan. And he has done so magnificently.

An assured water supply through the Great Dividing Range will halt the decline in relevance in the north, central and southwest regions of Queensland.

It will water the fertile black soil plains stretching west of Charters Towers to Richmond Downs and Julia Creek and south to the Flinders River via the Thomson River to Longreach and east and south to the Warrego. A huge horticultural industry, like few on Earth, would deliver quality food for Asian markets.

 

 

Annastacia Palaszczuk is dithering, writes Des Houghton. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Dan Peled
Annastacia Palaszczuk is dithering, writes Des Houghton. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Dan Peled

A key to the scheme is the creation of Hells Gate Dam, Australia's largest with a holding capacity of 14,000 gigalitres. The water will then flow through the Great Dividing Range via an 80km tunnel into the Flinders and Thomson rivers. It's a gargantuan project that may shape Australia as a leading engineering nation. It dwarfs other election proposals.

I'm disappointed it hasn't got the attention and support it deserves.

 

 

 

 

Originally published as Why I miss Queensland's bad old days


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