Cairns Regional Councillor
All politics is local. – Thomas P. O’Neill
My contract at the University ended on 31 December 2007 and two realities of life led me to a weighty decision about my future. The first was that while we love to say “people with disabilities can do anything” there were limited opportunities for employment for me and one of them was politics. The second was a passion for the southside of Cairns, including a love for the people and a sense of fate that had positioned me here. This was where I was from and where I would stay.
Edmonton was where my heart was, where I had grown up, where I went to school and where I bought my first house. Together with Bentley Park it was where my extended family and wider networks were located. However, Fran Lindsey was the local Councillor. Fran had long been a fantastic local councillor and deserved support. Dad had often told the story of approaching Fran and personally asking her to run for the old Mulgrave Shire Council. Fran never let him down or indeed the people of Division 2, who she served with great distinction. While I did not call her to ask, I assumed (mistakenly) Fran would run for Council in 2008. I hoped to serve with her and looked forward to having her as a mentor.
Around this time another local legend, Jeff Pezzutti (the long-standing Councillor for Division 3) announced he would retire and not contest in 2008. Like a bull at a gate I announced my decision to run for his patch, which included White Rock, Forest Gardens and most of Woree and Bayview. Jeff had been a friend of the family for as long as I could remember and was someone for whom I had profound respect. He came from a cane farming family and his house was located in the heart of the division, on land now occupied by Trinity Anglican School. Ironically Fran would later announce her retirement, but my decision had been made.
My severance pay would be used to fund my campaign. The summer of 2008 was largely spent on the streets of White Rock, Forest Gardens and most of Woree and Bayview. A young German man by the name of Mike was my main support. Mike grew up on the East side prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall. We spent most mornings walking together door to door canvassing and talking to residents where we found them. It was interesting to hear Mike’s views on the world. As a plumber he had a low view of the quality of some of our trades people and it was interesting to hear of his experience of the Berlin Wall coming down. He painted East-Siders as solid hard-working folk with a strong moral code. West-siders however were not to be trusted. Mike said his experience was of people from the West Side ripping off honest East-Siders who were not savvy to the ways of capitalism. They were frequently taken advantage of by the hustling scamming West-Siders. I liked Mike, but his parochialism reminded me of a Queenslander during State of Origin time. I am sure that like Australian tradespeople, most West Germans were not all that bad.
Control of the Cairns Council had alternated between administrations that were ‘development at all costs’ and those that were pro development, but with some sense of a social conscience and commitment to the environment. In 2008 Val Shier ran as a mayoral candidate with her Cairns First team. Val and her team were in the latter category and could be categorised as a left of centre alternative to the then Kevin Byrne run Unity Team, with their development at all cost mentality.
I originally took a position in the Cairns First team as the Candidate for Division Three. I campaigned hard and made every effort to get my name out there in every forum I attended and in printing newsletters that I distributed door to door. In what I believe was a tactical error and a sign of a lack of political experience, Val took offence at my self-promotion in Division Three and insisted I should promote her as my primary focus and only refer to myself as her candidate. In my view this was a poor strategy for both of us. Why promote just a mayoral candidate when you can promote both a mayoral candidate and a councillor, using each to feed votes to the other? As I could not get her to see the logic of this and believing that my approach would be more successful, I resigned from the Cairns First team and stood as an independent. Seeing how much I had already campaigned, Cairns First did not run a candidate against me, so I was very well placed leading into the 2008 council election.
My opponent was the Deputy Mayor Terry James. Loyal Deputy to Kevin Byrne, I felt no hostility towards him. Terry was not loud or outspoken. I found him as conservative in his nature as he was in his politics.
As the election drew close, I booked the Balaclava Hotel for what I hoped would be election night celebrations. As the votes came in it became clear I was going to win. I can remember one of my supporters John Gayler a former Member for Leichhardt saying, “This is going to be an epic victory of Pyne proportions!” That made me feel proud and by the time counting had finished I had emerged with almost 60% of the primary vote, the most resounding victory of the night. While I would not be able to serve with Fran of Jeff, I was looking forward to the challenge of being a Cairns Region Councillor.
Schier Council and Swing Vote
As things turned out this council was often divided on critical issues. When divided, most frequently on one side were Councillors Lesina, Forsyth and Leu taking sides with the Mayor (who also had a casting vote) and on the other side were councillors Gregory, Cochrane,
Blake, Lanskey and Bonneau. This meant that every now and then I would be the ‘swing vote’ who could decide a matter. While many good projects and good developments were supported by all Councillors, that was rarely reported, as the media is always more likely to report where there is conflict.
I find it disappointing that people focus on what Councillor’s political beliefs are. The truth is politics is very important at the federal level, it is important at the state level, but it is not very important at local government level. For me being on Council was about getting good outcomes for the community, so my focus, having what was often a ‘swing vote’ on council was simply to get as many good outcomes to my division and the region as I could. It is worth looking at some of those projects.
CBD to Aeroglen Cycleway
One of the issues where my vote was decisive was the Cairns to CBD Aeroglen cycleway. It is hard to believe now, but around this time cycleways was seen by some as ‘greenie lefty’ idea, with Conservatives in the community not as supportive. My vote in favour of the cycleway allowed the project to proceed.
Cairns Hockey is an important sporting stakeholder that has (like many other sports) long term infrastructure plans to be progressed in stages. They also depend on a combination of funding sources, such as council and state government, to move forward with each stage.
There was no way I was going to have Cairns miss out on this worthwhile project just because the right bureaucratic boxes had not been ticked. I voted with the Conservative Councillors to get the project over the line. As always, my vote was guided by securing something good for Cairns.
Cape York House
The approval of Cape York House as a home for the AFL to educate and mentor indigenous youth from the cape was another project where I voted with the Conservative Councillors to get it over the line. Council officers had advised against approval, because it did not fit in with their town plan. They did not want to see residential usage in an industrial area.
One fact that I took into consideration was that the challenges of living in an industrial part of Bungalow would be far less than the problems these kids would face in their own communities. There was no way I would vote to deny them access to a wonderful facility and the opportunities they would have for themselves.
Closure of Portsmith Landfill
While divisions on council attract the media and often entertain onlookers, there are many more occasions where Councillors vote as one, to pass resolutions that will benefit our city. One example of such an approval was the closure of the Portsmith landfill.
The landfill had been the dumping ground for Cairns for many years. Rather than close the landfill when it reached ground level, previous Councils just kept dumping there, creating a landfill hill. Recreational fishers and environmentalists were particularly keen to have the dump closed because of concerns toxins and pollutants were leaching into Trinity Inlet and ruining the fish breeding habitat.
New Waste Water Treatment Plant
Disaster Management Unit
As part of the Australian government’s response to the Global Financial Crises (GFC) funding was made available to councils for worthwhile projects. Cairns Cairns Regional Councillors agreed that one of our important projects would be a Disaster Management Unit to be built in Woree to provide administrative, financial and operational support for disaster response.
The Local Disaster Management Group – Cairns Region (LDMG)
The Local Disaster Coordination Centre
The Queensland State Emergency Service (SES)
Throughout the year, the Unit undertakes a range of projects aimed at prevention, preparation, response and recovery from disasters for the Cairns Region.
Staff from the Disaster Management Unit work directly with communities to help support response and recovery during disasters.
The other Councillors from local pioneer stock were Cr. Paul Gregory and Cr. Kirsten Lesina. Cr. Lesina, a fifth generation Cairns resident was the youngest person ever elected to Cairns Regional Council. I found her a joy to work with. She demonstrated a strong commitment to social justice and a real understanding of the need to work and improve the environment and quality of life for local people.
There is nothing a local councillor likes more than their division receiving some funding and attention, so Cr. Lesina was more than happy with the opening of the Earlville Library in the Stockland Shopping Centre in 2008.
I was there to show support for Kirsten and because I am a great advocate for taking government service to where the people are. For me having a library at the local shopping centre every bit as appropriate as having a McDonalds or a KFC and far more beneficial to the community.
Recognising and Honouring Others
Sometimes doing good does not have a big price tag. It may just involve saying sorry or thank you. It was the right thing to do when as a Council we all voted to establish a memorial on Council grounds to honour those who tragically lost their lives in the Mount Emerald Air Crash of May 1990 (see Chapter 3). The memorial is just off Spence Street on the west side of the Council Offices, not far from a big shady fig tree.
The greatest achievement by a Cairns jockey took place when Frank Reys won the 1973 Melbourne Cup on Gala Supreme. win or his glittering career. In 2013 his brother Fred reflected, “It is disappointing because I think it is a great story for the people of Cairns.”
“Frank was very well-loved in Cairns and when he won the Melbourne Cup it was a great moment not just for our family and Frank but for the people of Cairns.”
Reys grew up in Cairns and did his apprenticeship before leaving to race professionally in Brisbane. “He won his first ever race in Gordonvale,” Reys said.
“And from there he went on to win in almost every track in Australia.”
Frank Reys died aged 51.
He remains the only known indigenous jockey to win the Melbourne Cup.
Bill Mills Park
Ben Wilson Park
Yidinji Bones Laid to Rest
Recalling my father’s friendship with Alan Oliver, as a Councillor I worked to develop my own relationship with the Yidinji people, holding a number of meetings with community leader Seith Fourmile, who later became known by the tribal name Gudju Gudju.
In the Far North, as elsewhere, there were massacres of Aborigines on frontier during the 19th century. Skeleton Creek in South Cairns marked one such massacre. Dr Timothy Bottoms’ in his book, Conspiracy of Silence, says following a massacre by European settlers there were 16 skulls placed on posts. The skulls were just part of the results of what Bottoms calls The Skeleton Creek battle (or blood bath), which he says was “the stuff of nightmares.”
In years that followed, Aboriginal remains had been sent back to British Universities and other institutions for ‘scientific analysis’.
Seith Fourmile traveled to England to collect the bones of his ancestors to bring back to Cairns. He asked me if there was a suitable place I could find for them to put the bones to rest and hold an appropriate ceremony. I was fortunate in that council owned land in the Yidinji traditional area, in Mt Sheridan, not far from Skeleton Creek. The land was on the border of the existing cemetery, down from Bundi Mundi (White Rock) which was important to the Yidinji people. My suggestion to have the remains laid to rest there met with approval from Gudju Gudju and the Yidinji people.
I then had to progress the matter through council. I was fortunate that there was one council officer who handled cemeteries and was very helpful.
I had many disagreements with Val Schier, including the way she seemed to feel obliged to adopt council officer’s reports. She did not like it when I provided scrutiny to, or criticism of such reports. However, I do believe Val had a passion for social justice and looking after vulnerable members of the community. I remember accompanying Val when she was providing some money from her Mayoral Fund to the Special Education Unit at Woree High School to enable some of the children to go away on a trip. It was a lovely gesture and certainly meant a lot to me at the time. I honestly believe if she had been more transparent as the caring person she was and acted in a less aloof manner she would have made real ‘connections’ with a lot with more people.
R.I.P. Tom Pyne
I remember getting a call from mum in October of 2007 telling me that dad had a stroke. I went straight to the hospital to see him. Mum was by his side holding his hand. It was hard to make sense of his words and he was restricted to bed unable to move. There was no change for the next few days and then he had another stroke. He was then placed on a ventilator. With his family around him dad passed away in Cairns Base Hospital at 5pm on the 30th October at the age of 76.
While our family are from the Uniting Church, the only place big enough to hold dad’s funeral was Saint Monica’s. The Catholic Bishop Foley was more than happy for it to be held there. Leaders from all the main religious faith groups attended, which reflected the high esteem in which dad was held by the community.
Joann spoke on behalf of the family with great courage and eloquence, about dad’s contribution to the community. The president of the LGAQ and good friend of dads Greg Hallam, spoke of their work together for local government in Queensland.
Dad and I will both big fans of St George Rugby League Club and it was deeply moving as the funeral ended and they played “When The Saints Go Marching In.”
2012 Election and Manning Meandering
Mayor Val Schier had a vision of Cairns as a pre-eminent Pacific rim city. A city that embraced the arts, creative and innovation and was Australia’s greenest city. I supported this vision, but I was also keen to focus on generating the jobs of tomorrow by promoting Cairns as a leader in information technology (Australia’s silicon valley) and a hub for higher education in Northern Australia.
Consistent application of a vision over an extended period of time can really impact the identity of a city. Unfortunately at the conclusion of Val’s first term in office her policies were overwhelmingly rejected by voters. Val lost office at the 2012 election in a landslide loss to Bob Manning’s Unity Team.
It was clear from soon after our first meeting I held little common ground with the new administration. It was not that the Manning council had a vision I did not agree with, it was the fact they had no vision at all for Cairns and that disturbed me.
The broadcaster Phillip Adams has likened the politics of Queensland’s Far North to that in the deep south in the United States, with social conservatism, agrarian socialism and a strong element of racism. A tragic practice the two regions had in common was slavery. Many people from the Pacific islands surrounding Australia were kidnapped and forced to work in Queensland cane fields.
To avoid use of the term “slavery” (despite so many not receiving wages), the term commonly used by the white population for enslaving islanders to work on the sugar plantations was Blackbirding. The Australian South Sea Islanders today consider their ancestors to have been the Sugar Slaves. South Sea Islanders transported to Australia worked in the development and establishment of the new Queensland sugar industry. These peoples were collectively referred to at the time as Kanakas, but prefer to be called South Sea Islanders as the word ‘kanaka’ is considered derogatory by Islander communities in the Pacific and Australia.
The expansion of sugar plantations in Australia also created market destinations for blackbirders.
The trade in Pacific Labour drew criticism from many sectors. But it was the White Australia Policy and the desire to protect jobs for white Australians that finally ended the Labour trade. In 1901 the Labour Trade formally ceased, and the Australian government took steps to deport South Sea Islanders to their home islands. This was impossible and undesirable for many and resulted in more hardships and discrimination for those who had made Queensland home.