‘Moscow’ Mike Brunker got the nickname that would stick for life as an 18-year-old apprentice diesel fitter, when he was selected to go to the 1985 World Youth Festival in Russia.

“It was a fantastic trip and an eye opener,” he says. “Russia was just going into perestroika. There were thousands of people representing all walks of life, I was representing young workers.

“For a young kid to come out of Collinsville and go to Moscow, it was a big thing for me. When I got back I became Moscow Mike.”

Flying from Central Queensland to the USSR seems an unlikely journey for a blue-collar teenager. But then again Collinsville, a small mining town inland from Mackay, had long been known as ‘little Russia’ because of the militant left-wing politics of its coal miners.

When Brunker was growing up, the coal mines kept a list of kids in town and gave them apprenticeships when the time came. After following his father into the mines and the union ‘because that’s what we did’, his first foray into politics was running for council to oppose a plan to shut Collinsville’s council depot. He defeated it. Then when the open cut mine he worked at closed in 1997, Brunker ran for Mayor of Bowen Shire (now Whitsunday Regional Council.) He’s held the job for 15 of the last 22 years.

As a unionist and councillor, Brunker has seen firsthand how regional communities miss out when they don’t have fierce advocates. He’s had a couple of tilts at state and federal parliament, most recently contesting the LNP-held electorate of Burdekin for Labor at the Queensland state election on 31 October.

The giant seat covers Bowen on the coast then sweeps south and inland through sugar cane country and a swathe of the mining towns — Collinsville, Moranbah, Dysart, Middlemount, Clermont.

Burdekin was formed in 1949 after a boundary change split the former seat of Bowen into two. The redistribution stymied the political career of Fred Paterson, who held Bowen from 1944 to 1950 and remains the only Communist to sit in any Australian parliament. The boundaries were redrawn while Paterson was recovering from severe injuries from a police baton, carving up his support base.

Paterson’s place in history is largely forgotten beyond died-in-the-wool lefties. But Mike Brunker has a special connection. When his dad ‘Sugar’ Ray Brunker was 18, he was one of three survivors of the 1954 ‘Black Wednesday’ disaster at the Collinsville underground mine, when seven men were killed in a gas outburst.

A lawyer by profession, Fred Paterson represented Ray and the other survivors in the subsequent Royal Commission, which descended into a hostile, red-baiting blame game — with mine management blaming communist workers for sabotaging the mine and workers pointing to the hasty automation of coal haulage with no safety back-up.

So young Mike Brunker grew up hearing stories about the firebrand Paterson: son of a Gladstone pig farmer, World War 1 radical, Rhodes Scholar, lawyer, organiser, hero of migrant sugar cane farmers and thorn in the side of authorities.

He can still reel off stories of Paterson’s wit, smarts and commitment to “miners, cane farmers, any working class people.” How he used to speak to his supporters from a wharf, past the high tide mark, because the Council had banned him from speaking on public land. His quick-witted response to the local priest who questioned how he could talk about Russia when he’d never been there. “Father, you tell me: how can you talk about heaven if you’ve never been there?”

This time around, Brunker won’t be following in Paterson’s footsteps to represent his region in Brisbane. Burdekin bucked the state-wide swing towards Labor on October 31 and re-elected LNP incumbent Dale Last despite an energetic campaign from his challenger.

The politics of central Queensland’s coal belt shot to national prominence after last year’s federal election when the region was roundly credited (or blamed) for spearheading the statewide swing against Labor and delivering unexpected victory to Scott Morrison.

Left-wingers around the country, including many in my inner-Sydney milieu, called for ‘Quexit’ in disgust at voting choices north of the border. It’s hard to imagine now that a couple of generations ago the tropical coast from Mackay to Cairns was Australia’s biggest communist stronghold known as the Red North.

Political Scientist Dr Glenn Kefford from the University of Queensland says there’s little appreciation of the complexity of regional Queensland and the factors that impact political views. A vast seat like Burdekin has diverse industries like coal, farms, ports and tourism, each with their own pressures and interests and changing contexts.

Kefford says that in the absence of appreciating the region’s diversity, people often make cliched assumptions, “like this is some rerun of the Joh era and they are all National voters — that’s just not true.”

Nor is he convinced by a narrative emerging in the wake of Labor’s success in the Queensland state election that the party has found its pathway to win back the regional and outer-metropolitan seats it lost federally in 2019. “I don’t believe it,” he says. A tide of support for Annastacia Palaszczuk’s handling of Covid and sticking it to interfering southerners may have washed across the state, but the issues that bit regionally during the federal election aren’t far beneath the surface.

Federal Labor in 2019 had hoped to pick up Flynn, Dawson and Capricornia, the trio of LNP-held marginal seats that cover the Bowen Basin mining towns and the coastal centres of Gladstone, Rockhampton and Mackay. Instead, the Coalition retained them with massive double-digit swings in their favour, and added the Labor-held marginal of Herbert, covering Townsville to the north.

Mike Brunker could see the swing coming a mile off. In a region so culturally and economically tied to coal, the furore over the Adani coal mine had hit a nerve. The backlash was heading towards the ballot box like a tsunami.

“I did the prepoll and you could just feel it, we were on a flogging to nothing,” he says.

“I’ve been handing out how to votes for Labor since I was 15. We were always told, to win the Prime Ministership, you have to win seats in Queensland. But some bright spark said they were going to pick up seats in Victoria instead.

“I was sitting there on election day handing out How to Vote cards copping a hiding about coal and Adani. The saving grace is I’m a punter so I backed (Dawson LNP incumbent) George Christensen, I backed (Capricornia LNP incumbent) Michelle Landry, I backed the LNP because it was that clear they’d win.”

Not that winning a few dollars took away the pain of the federal loss for the lifelong Labor man.

“Those central Queensland seats should be red hot red,” he says. “They are working class coal mining seats and to see them still blue because of flip flopping and mixed messages and the assumption that the Labor party has walked away from its working-class roots — it certainly hurts.”

Russell Robertson was one of those Labor candidates on a flogging to nothing. ‘Robbo’ is a central Queensland coal miner like his father and grandfather before him. He was Labor’s candidate at the 2019 federal election for Capricornia, the ninety thousand square kilometre electorate covering Rockhampton and most of the coalfield towns.

He took leave from his job at BHP’s giant Goonyella Riverside open cut coal mine and uprooted his family from the inland mining town of Moranbah to Rockhampton for the months leading up to the poll.

“Heartbreaking” is how he describes the experience. Not only the result — a massive swing to the LNP incumbent, a surprised Michelle Landry who “never expected numbers like this” — but also the weeks and months before it of sitting through meetings and conference calls with ALP officials and strategists who didn’t understand his region, his industry, his people.

“I’d always put myself forward as a coal miner first,” he says. “But there were people that were in strategic positions in the party that didn’t have a clue — who didn’t understand the industry. Also, they weren’t concerned. It was delusional.”

Labor’s review into the 2019 election result stated what had been obvious to those on the ground for months: Labor can’t win federal elections without doing better in Queensland; and its messaging on coal and the Adani Carmichael project — mixed and confusing at best, hostile at worst — killed its support in coal regions.

They were just two of 60 findings. There was also Clive’s money and Bill’s unpopularity and a crowded policy platform and overconfidence. But it has become accepted wisdom inside and outside the Labor tent that a perceived lack of support for coal is kryptonite for the party when it comes to winning the regional mining seats they need to form government.

Conservative candidates in Central Queensland were keen to give that kryptonite another run when the October state election came around. ‘Save our coal jobs, put Labor last’ was the LNP mantra emblazoned across billboards and coreflutes and social media. There was even a bizarre re-enactment of the 2019 Stop Adani convoy with a Bob Brown cut-out.

In Labor circles, anger at Bob Brown’s intervention late in the federal election campaign still runs hot. Russell Robertson views Brown’s foray into the electorate he was contesting as a ‘disaster’.

“What riled people up was just the hypocrisy of the Greens,” he says. “You’re driving up in a car, which is basically solidified coal. Coming up here to tell us that how we earn a living and this industry needs to be shut down for the good of the planet, while they indulge in the benefits of our industry is a) hypocritical and b) great messaging for the conservatives.”

With coal such a hot political issue and major contributor to Australia’s economy he despairs at the lack of basic understanding about the industry, like the fact that the vast majority of Bowen Basin coal is not used to produce energy but exported for making steel.

“Our coal is all for modern living. It’s highways, cars, skyscrapers, modern phones — they are all reliant on the carbon that comes out of central Queensland coal mines.”

But while the anti-Adani campaign and Labor’s obfuscation was a lightning rod for disaffection, the road from the Red North has been long and paved with decades of change to the region’s social fabric.

The traditional staunch left-wing politics of the region’s coal towns were forged through constant battle with mining companies and governments, whether for housing or services or better working conditions, says Mike Brunker.

Back in the time when workplace laws allowed it, unionised coal miners used their industrial strength to fight for the community services and infrastructure other places took for granted — like housing for local police so their town would be safe; or clean water.

“In Collinsville, when our river would flood, you’d turn the taps on and the water was brown and dirty,” he says. “The whole town went on strike for a water treatment plant. We had to fight for everything.”

For decades, the norm was that central Queensland coal miners were (mostly) unionised and lived with their families in their local mining town. Social activities revolved around the union and the Labor party. May Day was the biggest day of the year.

Things started to change in the 1990s with a downturn in the industry. Russell Robertson spent the decade travelling from town to town — Moura, Dysart, Capella, Clermont, Emerald — working on short contracts.

When boom times returned in the 2000s, mining companies could no longer source enough labour locally and the push for non-residential workers began.

Over time, coal miners’ eight-hour shifts were replaced by 12-hour shifts. Rosters of three or four days on, then three or four days off to suit locals were replaced by seven-day rosters to suit workers flying or driving in Mackay, Cairns or Brisbane.

For most coal miners now, their week-long swing at the coal mine is spent staying in a camp on the edge of town and counting down the long shifts till they can get home to the coast.

“People aren’t looking to engage in politics or unionism, they just want to get their hours done and go home and recharge,” says Robertson. “You’ve lost that ability to come together as a community at five or six or seven at night and have a meeting or do a small amount of volunteering. It means our political voice has gradually disappeared.”

Kelly Vea Vea is a descendent of Scottish coal miners who came to Queensland looking for opportunities. They found them in Mt Mulligan in the state’s tropical North, which needed workers after the massive 1921 underground explosion killed 75 miners, taking out most of the town’s workforce and adult male population. Vea Vea is the daughter and granddaughter of coal miners and now she’s wife to one too.

Born in the early 80s in Collinsville, not long before Mike Brunker went off to Moscow, Kelly Vea Vea finished school, left for Brisbane and the wide world and never thought she’d go back to life in a regional mining town. But then her carpenter husband went to work in a coal mine: “I blame my family’s influence,” she says. Not wanting the FIFO life where her husband would be home only half the time at best — she moved with him and their three-month-old baby to Moranbah in 2007 and hasn’t looked back.

“I cried for the first few weeks… but it also felt like coming home. People move around the mining towns and now I pick up my kids with people I went to school with.”

What struck Kelly Vea Vea on her return to the coalfields was the massive toll the mining boom of the early 2000s was taking on the town. People were jammed into basic houses renting for thousands of dollars a week, roads were terrible, services were stretched and Moranbah was heaving with single men, she recalls.

Then two new mines owned by BHP were approved as 100% fly in fly out mines, meaning workers had to fly in from Cairns or Brisbane. Things had changed so much from the days local kids were guaranteed apprenticeships that locals were actually banned from applying for jobs at the coal mine a few kilometres up the road.

“What I wasn’t prepared for was the shift in obligation from the companies that were operating there,” she says. “Moranbah was a hive of activity and money, but little responsibility was taken for the impacts people were experiencing and there was a lack of cohesiveness in the community to push back.”

That shock encouraged her to become politically active and she’s just been elected for a third third term on Isaac Regional Council, where she’s Deputy Mayor. She’s also President of Moranbah’s Labor party branch.

Vea Vea is driven to make sure the region is represented in policy discussions that affect them, like renewables, automation of mining activity and infrastructure. But for a council area that produces half of Queensland’s saleable coal and trainloads of riches in royalties for the state, it is a constant battle for a seat at the government table. Similarly, it’s challenge for regional coal community voices to feel heard within the Labor party on issues that directly affect them, like coal and climate change.

“I don’t feel there’s space for us in that conversation at all, because it isn’t black and white, it isn’t simple,” she says.

“It easy for people in cities to say you should just get a well-paying job somewhere else or doing something else. But we aren’t going to diversify in the near future. If you’re saying we should shut down the industry, you are saying we need to leave our communities as well.

“Carbon emissions are an issue in the city as well. But the suggestion always seems to be that we need to give up our jobs and communities but people in the cities don’t have to change — only their plastic bags and straws.”

If the true believers are feeling jaded by the politics of coal, where does that leave the large cohort of coal region voters no longer ‘rusted on’? With party loyalty declining across the whole electorate, Dr Glenn Kefford reckons about 30 to 40 percent of voters are now up for grabs at any election.

It’s not easy to forge messages that simultaneously appeal in inner city Melbourne and Central Queensland. But Dr Kefford says the federal election shows how ignoring blue collar workers’ genuine concerns comes at a cost.

“Voters aren’t stupid … if some party or government says we are going to shut coal mining down, they’ve seen what happens in other industries when governments talk about transition.

“If you were working in Clermont or Collinsville and they talked about transitioning to other industries and jobs, would you believe what they were telling you? I wouldn’t.”

It would take much more than a state election loss to dampen the fighting spirit of Moscow Mike Brunker. He was pleased to hold his primary vote from his previous tilt in 2017 against a field of five conservative candidates.

But for Labor to win back its traditional support base in the coalfields he thinks the party needs to champion a compelling working agenda at the next federal election.

“Realistically, Labor’s going to have to win back the hearts and minds of workers. People still come up to me and say I’ve voted Labor all my life but they don’t stand for the workers any more, I’d like a dollar for every time I’ve heard that.

“I’ve got to say I’m different, I’ll give you a go — but it’s going to take a couple of elections to win them over.”