In ‘The Birthplace Of Modern Australia’, Voters' Main Concern Is As Old As The Country Itself

Geoffrey Halland in his store. Ben Collins / Business Insider.

Hunting knives tagged with prices fill the front window of Geoffrey Halland’s shop in Tenterfield, near the border between NSW and Queensland.

There’s also a bow-and-arrow in woodland camouflage. In a cage behind the counter are rifles and shotguns next to tennis racquets and boxes of Winchester ammunition, all for sale.

The gun store doubles as a barbers. Down the back, Halland is giving Gordon, a customer of 25 years, a haircut.

This town calls itself “the birthplace of modern Australia” because of a speech delivered here in 1889 by Sir Henry Parkes in which he said: “The time is close at hand when we ought to set about creating this great national government for all Australia.” It set the ball rolling for federation, which came just 12 years later.

Like any barber shop this is chinwag central and in 2013, a week out from the federal election, the political talk in Tenterfield revolves around Australia’s oldest and now most-vexed policy question: immigration.

The abattoir up the road is staffed largely by foreign workers, and there’s not much other industry.

As its population ages, immigration policy is critical to Australia’s future prosperity — the country needs to import workers to prop up the tax base.

At the same time, many Australians are concerned about the manner in which migrants arrive to the country and this has become intertwined in the national debate with the resurgence in people smugglers taking asylum seekers to Australia by boat.

The net result has been rising concern in many parts of the community about Australia’s immigration program and here, to be blunt, the locals resent the foreign workers.

On the shelves around the two barbers’ chairs are sports trophies, deflated footballs, shaving brushes and his combs steeping in a jar of blue disinfectant.

“I’m always interested in [politics] yes, but I’m not a fanatic,” Halland, 70, says. “I’ve always been a Nationals supporter.” So has Gordon, also in his seventies.

Gordon gets a haircut here as he has done for the
past 25 years. Ben Collins / Business Insider.

More than 50 years ago, after he finished his apprenticeship, Halland moved from the NSW North Coast and began working in this store which he now owns.

One of Halland’s chairs is smaller, and has a horse head bolted to the front. Many of the children who once sat there are his adult customers.

Most Tenterfield residents don’t care about Kevin Rudd, he says, but equally they don’t care about Tony Abbott much either. They are mainly concerned with jobs and the abattoir is one of the few local opportunities.

“Half of those kids are Chinese,” says Halland. “It’s taking jobs from Australians.”

“We’ve never had a problem getting enough workers, until recently. Where are our kids going to get work?”

***

A truck full of sheep arriving at the Wallangarra abattoir.
Ben Collins / Business Insider

It’s a short drive to the abattoir. At a sign denoting “the first pub in Queensland”, you turn off the highway and cross the railroad tracks. Then head through the scrub which at this time of year is humming with cicadas.

At the slaughterhouse, a driver yells “Go on, get,” ushering sheep off a truck towards their deaths.

A staff member at the Country Fresh abattoir, who asked not to be named as he was not authorized to speak to the media, said more than half of the work force is of “an Asian background”.

“They just sit on the bench all day, waiting to get work,” he says. “An Australian guy would not do that.”

While the meat works’ management has a policy of hiring Australians before foreigners on work visas – who are mostly travelers – they are more likely to sit and wait to be called up, he explained.

Some will turn up day after day to queue until they finally get a shift.

The staff member said the foreign workers were paid the same as Australian workers.

One Taiwanese man, who only gives his name as Jessie, said that in his home country he is a qualified computer programmer. He has come to Australia to earn money to pay off his university debt.

Crossing the car park in a bright orange jacket, on his way to the meat works for a shift boning sheep carcasses, is Chi-Ching Su, 29, from Taiwan.

WallangarraChi Ching Su reporting for work. Ben Collins / Business Insider

He started work at the abattoir four months earlier, he tells Business Insider, explaining: “I needed money. I am a backpacker.”

Su says that he is on a permanent contract and works full-time but will not explain how he applied for the role.

Down the road at the Jenesson Hotel, which looks across the highway into Queensland, Jill, the bartender, says most of her patrons are angry about the foreign workers.

Many of her customers in the front bar in the evenings work at the abattoir. She says their attitude towards their overseas colleagues “depends on what sort of day the Australians have had.”

But as to why an increasing number of transient workers are fronting-up, Jill, who declined to give her last name, said this: “It’s because Australians don’t want to do that sort of work.”

Brendan Cusack, 73, has always lived in Wallangarra. He also says locals are becoming increasingly unhappy with the foreign workers, although he has found a way to benefit.

In the late 1980s he bought an abandoned abattoir on the outskirts of town. This year, he and his daughter, Loretta Smith, 41, converted it into accommodation that now houses foreign workers.

Brendan Cusack with his daughter Loretta. He converted a former abattoir into lodgings for transient workers. Ben Collins / Business Insider

It is at their place, walking distance from the Country Fresh abattoir, that many of the foreign workers stay.

“I’ve seen some of them leave in the morning, and then some come back when they don’t get work,” Cusack says.

Inside the renovated abattoir.
Ben Collins / Business Insider

Standing in front of the housing block, his daughter tells Business Insider the tenants pay $100 dollars per week to live in one of the six rooms. Each room holds eight people, though she says “we don’t intend to have them that full”.

“We’ve only been operating it since May, with the Asians. Some of them have been here since then,” Smith says. “Most of them have got work at the meat works.

“I know to get the job they just have to sit on the bench. When they first move here, when we get new ones, you’ll see them go and then they will come back.”

Smith also says some of the workers who lodge at her facility often get as little as one day of work a week.

“They are back here every other day. And they just keep trying. They want to work.

“I think that’s why the Asians are getting the job, because there are Australians who won’t do the work.”

Ben Collins is on a road trip from opposition leader Tony Abbott’s electorate of Warringah in Sydney to prime minister Kevin Rudd’s electorate of Griffith in Brisbane ahead of the federal election on September 7. He’ll be speaking to voters and business leaders about their concerns and what they hope to see happen in the coming three years.

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