Donna Stewart is a flamboyant farmer’s wife and grandmother who is reinvigorating her patch of country Queensland – one town at a time.
Story By Sally Nicol
Newly elected Balonne Shire mayor Donna Stewart is about to give an inspirational speech to 264 young school students in St George, south-west Queensland. Indigenous leader Chris Lamb steps forward and introduces her as “the greatest mayor in the world”. Her vivacious pink-lipsticked smile flashes in response. Later she says, “It nearly brings a tear to your eye and then you think, ‘Oh, the weight that is on my shoulders to succeed here. I hope they don’t think I can work miracles’.” But that is exactly what everyone thinks.
In a landslide victory on March 15, 2008, Donna was voted in as mayor of 31,119 square kilometres of drought-decimated land. The outlying centres of Bollon, Dirranbandi and Thallon support the main town of St George. The Balonne, Maranoa, Culgoa, Narran, Moonie and Barwon rivers flow through the area but the once water-rich region is now bone dry. Officially, 600 people have left St George since the drought began. Donna is confident another 200 could be added to that number. “It shows how vulnerable the region is to the lack of water,” she says.
The owner of a local hardware store, Graham Wippell, says business is slow. “Cotton went down and St George went with it,” he says. He shakes his head. “St George is in a hole and it’s going to be tough to turn it around.” But like so many others, he has invested his hope in Donna. “She’s got a big job ahead of her,” he says. “A massive job. But she’ll do it.”
Donna has done it before in the neighbouring shire of Warroo where the town of Surat was suffering from the rural decline that has killed so many small country towns. Donna grew up in Surat and her parents, John and Mary Butler, owned the local pub. She met her husband, Henry, while working in the district on her grandmother’s property “Beardie”.
Donna’s car had broken down in the bottom of a gully when Henry came around the corner in a truck with no brakes. He crashed off the road into the scrub to avoid a collision. When he leaned against the driver’s window to see if Donna was all right, all she could see were his rippling biceps, honed from days of fencing and yard building. “I thought, ‘Here’s a very strong-looking young man’,” she says.
At 17, Donna married the 26-year-old Henry and moved down the road to his property “Wycombe”. She faced opposition from his working dogs who abandoned the sheep yards when she first ventured in. “Henry was in a real quandary and finally said, ‘Look, I’m going to have to ask you to get out of the yards because the dogs won’t work with you’.” Donna’s engaging laugh rings out. “The dogs were jealous of me because I was getting Henry’s attention.”
This story excerpt is from Issue #60
Outback Magazine: Aug/Sept 2008