23 June 2018

The Barber and the Bicyclist, two tales of Darwin

Two businesses side by side, standout in their ramshackle single stories dwarfed by new high rise blocks on the Darwin skyline, writes Brian Byrne. The dirt car parks on either side wait for somebody to build on them, and presumably also on the businesses.

The barber is happy to talk to a stranger with a funny accent. "It's still frontier up here," David Heinz says as he finishes with his current client. He's just offered me a beer and is surprised at an Irishman turning down alcohol at eleven in the morning. "Trouble is, people don't stay."

That's part of why, he says, the local economy is only operating at 60 percent of its potential. On average, people who come to Darwin only stay four and a half years. "The next group stays for around twelve. Then you have the old Darwiners, but they mostly live outside."

The city is capital of Australia's Northern Territory. The Territory has a Parliament (above), and a Supreme Court and other trappings of a state, all in very impressive and expensive buildings. But NT is not a state within the Australia Commonwealth federation. With an elected Legislative Assembly, it's a bit like Northern Ireland or Scotland in the UK, and restricted in what it can legislate for. The MLAs sit for just 31 days a year, their full-time role mostly spent in pressing the flesh in their home constituencies. With 25 members for a population of less than 230,000, that's easy. But essential because it doesn't take too many votes to either keep you in or dump you.

David lights a cigarette, waiting for another customer. "We get too many 'educated' people from the south coming to tell us how we're not doing things right." That's a dig both at the civil service which is a big chunk of the Darwin economy, and the short cycle stayers of which many of these are a part. "I'm here 24 years, I get someone here for two years saying I don't know anything? They're just climbing, you know? They won't be staying around."

A man comes in with his two children, the boy for a trim. David stubs his cigarette. "A Number two, I guess?" he says after a brief appraisal. The father agrees. "See you in a while." He takes his daughter in tow to somewhere else.

Wrapping a paper collar around the youngster's neck, David keeps talking — "there's a lot of opportunity up here for young people, if they're willing to give it a go". And willing to stay, was the unspoken extra. He didn't specify the opportunity, but talked generally about agriculture, the biggest earner in the Territory.

He clips and snips. "Women run things up here." They do, half the membership of the Territory's Legislative Assembly are women, including the current Speaker, Kezia Purick. She has the distinction of having two periods of office in the same parliament timeframe. She was dumped from her role by one vote while out of the country by her party, the Country Liberals. Then, on a secret ballot when she returned, she was relected Speaker by one — obviously turned — vote. She now sits as an Independent. The CLs, for a long time the dominant party here, lost out badly to Labour in the last election. Kezia Purick was relected Speaker by the new Labour majority.

"Women are good" — David continues his work on the Number Two — "at pointing at things." He doesn't advance any clarification, and I haven't the time in invest in a haircut to gather one. It doesn't sound positive, but he hasn't made it sound negative, either.

There's nothing slick and gleaming about Deadly Treadlies next door. Brian Dalliston is seated in the centre of a sea of apparently dumped and aged bicycles. Not that he appears to be concerned about them as he peruses a catalogue.

"I don't want to be in the picture," he says after agreeing to let me take a photograph, which 'lots of others do'. It really is special, a relic in bicycle shop terms. The empty chair in the picture above is the throne for his kingdom of many wheels.

Brian is 63 years old. He has spent some 55 of those in Darwin — 'not all together'. His background is in bicycle racing, mostly in the Territory. "I went to uni in Melbourne and did some racing down there, but it was too cold and I came up here." I can't get from him whether that was a 'coming back' for an original Darwiner, but it may be likely.

"We used to be easygoing up here, but it's all changing. Mostly for the worse." He's not impressed by the influx of civil servants either. And the bicycle business has changed too. "Too many supermarkets selling bicycles ..." But he has his own loyal following, partly from his racing days. "I get business from the bush people too. I do bicycle workshops with them."

He is passionate about making cycling safer and better in the Territory. Last year he was at the forefront of an ongoing push to have a dedicated 100km cycle path built from Darwin to the town of Bachelor. Part of the path, on an old railway line, already exists as far as Howard's Spring. Extending it 'would boost tourism' and make the ride between the towns safe, he says.

Brian may not be a big talker. But anecdotally he is respected in both the population cohort that has been there long enough to know him, and amongst cyclists who know a passionate peer when they see one.

Possibly he should have been a politician? Well, there's a Brian Dalliston who ran for for the Territory's LA in 1987, in a breakaway party from the Country Liberals. He performed well, but didn't get elected, though his votes helped put in one member.

That might be him. But he's not talking to strangers with funny accents. Still, as somebody who also ran for public office more than four decades ago, and didn't quite make it, I can appreciate that he may well feel that he is the luckiest unsuccessful candidate of his time.