Chapter. 11

Wins, Rejection and Vindication

Wins

I left the ALP because of fundamental disagreements around council corruption and the big issues of the day such as climate change. However, there can be no denying that the numbers in the parliament also played a role. As a member of the ALP I could not make a difference, but as an independent by voting with fellow Independent Billy Gordon and in some cases the two Katter Australia Party (KAP) members, I could have good legislation passed or bad legislation stopped. This happened regularly. Two such cases were North Stradbroke Island and the rights of child sexual abuse survivors.

North Stradbroke Island

My dad taught me from my youngest childhood memories through these connections with Aboriginal and tribal people that you must always protect people’s sacred status, regardless of the past.
– Steve Irwin

I have always had a passion for addressing the high levels of disadvantage suffered by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. One of my frustrations with the ALP was their repeated failure to fund programs around education, housing and employment in the Cairns West area, including one run by a local citizen of the year Todd Hartley.

In the Queensland Parliament many issues came forward that directly impacted on our first peoples. A Bill designed to stop sand mining on North Stradbroke Island and hand the land back to the Traditional Owners came to the House.

The Katter Party had decided to vote against the Bill, as had the LNP. This meant the votes of Billy Gordon and myself would determine the outcome. In support of the Bill I made the following comments:

DATE: 25/05/2016
MEMBER: Mr PYNE

Mr PYNE (Cairns—Ind) (11.23 pm): I rise to speak in favour of the North Stradbroke Island Protection and Sustainability and Other Acts Amendment Bill 2016. Sand-mining was always going to end on North Stradbroke Island. It could not go on forever. This bill has a plan to transition from mining jobs to long-term sustainable jobs. With a $28 million investment and a focus on supporting new projects, this proposal will create jobs that can last well past the end of mining.

I support a strong plan to stimulate the economic transition of Straddie. This plan will create 151 direct and ongoing jobs across tourism, education and training and business development sectors. I support the $5 million workers assistance scheme, developed after consultation with the Australian Workers Union (AWU), which will support affected workers transitioning to alternative and diverse employment opportunities through real on-the ground assistance. This will help mine workers with new employment opportunities.

In relation to sustainability, Straddie is the only place in Queensland where mining leases sit on top of a national park. It is the only place where park rangers and joint managing traditional owners cannot access a national park. This must change. Although mining only directly affects part of the island at one time, leases can cover 40 per cent. This patchwork nature also means that much of the southern part of the island cannot be accessed by land. While many on both sides of this House refuse to transition away from a ‘dig it up at all costs’ mentality, we need to stop sand-mining on North Stradbroke Island and protect our special natural places for future generations. I know that my good friend the member for Hinchinbrook and other champions of the coalmining industry in this place simply choose to ignore the—

Mr Cripps: Madam Deputy Speaker, I cannot tolerate being defamed like that and I ask the member to withdraw.

Madam DEPUTY SPEAKER (Ms Farmer): Order! Thank you for introducing some levity into the debate at this time of night.

Mr PYNE: I withdraw any imputation that I am a friend of the member for Hinchinbrook. We must transition to green jobs:

jobs of the future. Just as Adani is symbolic of this government getting it wrong, North Stradbroke Island is an example of this government getting it right. We are living in a time of unprecedented environmental crisis and catastrophic climate change. I say to all members that there are no jobs on a dead planet. Capitalism is unquestioned and treated as holy doctrine in this place. It is a doctrine based on infinite expansion through the exploitation of labour and the ransacking of nature.

There is another way guided by the knowledge and experience of Indigenous people whose economies are embedded in a classless society and in fundamental unity with nature. In relation to the traditional owners, let me say that the Quandamooka people are a proud people. They never ceded sovereignty of their land and they never signed a treaty with the colonial government. It was, is, and will always be Aboriginal land: people in this place must understand this.

When the Campbell Newman LNP government reneged on the existing undertaking with traditional owners, for the Quandamooka people it was—and I quote one traditional owner—’Just like terra nullius all over again.’ For me, tonight is about righting an historical wrong, and I for one embrace this opportunity. The wonderful thing about this bill is that it recognises the Quandamooka people’s connection with the island and it is giving native title justice to this region’s first people. That has been my overriding consideration in supporting this bill. I commend the bill to the House.

Along with the other independent, Member for Cook, Billy Gordon, I voted for the Bill, enabling it to pass. This would mean an end to sand mining and see land rights returned to the traditional owners.

Quandamooka Yoolooburrabee Aboriginal Corporation CEO Cameron Costello thanked Billy and myself and said he looked forward to seeing the island (known as Minjerribah in the local language) turned into a global eco-tourism destination. For Billy and myself the thanks and approval of Quandamooka elder Bob Anderson was particularly touching, and to have played a key role to deliver for the Quandamooka people is something we will never forget.

Quandamooka Yoolooburrabee Aboriginal Corporation CEO Cameron Costello with Rob
Quandamooka Yoolooburrabee Aboriginal Corporation CEO Cameron Costello with Rob
Survivors of Childhood Abuse

I went to law school. And I became a prosecutor. I took on a specialty that very few choose to pursue. I prosecuted child abuse and child homicide cases. Cases that were truly gut-wrenching. But standing up for those kids, being their voice for justice was the honor of a lifetime.
– Susana Martinez

Early in 2016 a gentleman called at Parliament House and asked to see me. I went downstairs and in the foyer I met Alan (not his real name). A survivor of child abuse, Alan was a GP and had the support of a number of survivor advocacy groups. The first issue he wanted addressed was the statute of limitations.

The statute of limitations meant that anyone wanting to take civil action for a wrong against them had three years from the date of that wrong to commence legal action. Many survivors were abused in their early teens (or earlier). This meant they became entitled to sue at the age of 18. However, most were reluctant to acknowledge or talk about their abuse before they reached 21 years of age. As a result, their window to take legal action had closed before they could have commenced action to hold their abuser to account.

Alan stressed to me how many lives had been harmed and how many people had resorted to drug abuse and missed so many life opportunities which financial payment through legal action could have helped to redress. Just as importantly, Alan believed that for abusing institutions, the prospect of significant financial cost would lead institutions to move more decisively to stop abuse within their doors.

I drafted a Bill, the Limitation of Actions and Other Legislation (Child Abuse Civil Proceedings) Amendment Bill 2016. Introducing the Bill to Parliament I made the following points:

MR SPEAKER, I am here today to introduce to the Parliament a Bill on a matter of great importance to our society, especially to the welfare of our most precious asset – our children. I speak in particular of the protection of children from harm, and the measures this Bill will introduce to provide, for the first time, a financial incentive for all our institutions to protect the children in their care. It is the intent of this Bill that child protection will not only be a moral imperative but will also make financial sense for institutions.

Sadly, many of our children have suffered for decades because some of our most trusted organisations have protected known sex offenders instead of children. Institutions have treated children who report abuse as more of a threat to their finances than pedophiles who they employ.

Institutions have seen appeals for help from victims as a threat rather than as an opportunity to care for human suffering. This legislation reverses this destructive dynamic.

It has been to the collective shame of our society that we have seen over the past four years, harrowing evidence presented to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

Trusted institutions in our society have too often failed our children. Children and adults have been routinely disbelieved or punished when they have tried to report abuse perpetrated by people in positions of power and trust. The legacy of these failures has been one of catastrophic damage to countless lives. Yet, until now, those harmed have not had effective access to the courts in this State.

Sadly, corporations and institutions such as schools were better off financially if they protected offenders and abandoned victimised children. Their lawyers and insurers knew that very few abused children are able to seek compensation because of strict time limits which almost all victims cannot meet.

Evidence presented to the Royal Commission shows that when a child is sexually assaulted or violently physically assaulted the associated trauma creates significant psychological barriers that prevent that child from reporting the abuse or taking legal action until decades later. One of the reasons for this delay is the innate psychological process of recovery. The delay is also compounded by the secrecy and power of the abusive institution, denial of the abuse and the delay in offering assistance with recovery.

Despite these impediments, victims must file a claim in Queensland before turning 21 years of age. If not they are too late. They are out of time. They have no right to step into a court. The abusive institution therefore evades all legal consequence for their concealment of the criminal sexual and physical assault of children. Only a handful of victims in Queensland have ever been able to seek fair compensation in this State for their suffering – to recover the costs of health care, education and economic loss – caused by abuse when they were children.

Painful as the Royal Commission’s work has been, it has yielded important and necessary recommendations for reform. These reforms will make our children safer and change the way institutions respond to victims who have the courage to report abuse.

The exposure of the scandal of institutional protection of offending has only been possible because courageous victims have given evidence. Many of these victims have received paltry amounts of compensation in the past. They were given small ex-gratia payments by institutions that denied the abuse occurred, or if the abuse did occur, the institution claims they were not liable.

This Bill, Mr Speaker, takes a significant step forward. It will allow those victims who were forced to make unfair settlements because of time limits, to have their deeds re-opened so the institution responsible is finally called to account. This is necessary because justice is not served by leaving injustices of the past in the past.

Justice requires that those victims who have courageously stepped forward to report offenders are finally vindicated and fairly compensated for the harm done to them. The harm they suffer is a combination of direct harm caused by the abuse itself and in some cases equally, or in even greater measure, harm caused by being disbelieved and turned away for decades by institutions that knew about the abuse and yet failed to protect them.

Since its inception in 2013 the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has conducted 44 Case Studies, 11 formal Issues Papers, 8 formal Research Papers, 5669 Private Sessions, has received 18 598 written submissions, and referred 1,619 matters to authorities including police. 

The Commission has heard extensive evidence of the actions of institutions to conceal crimes and the impact this has had on victims of abuse including extending emotional trauma well into their adult years and obstructing justice by denying a right of access to the court.

In 2015 the final recommendations in relation to time limits were handed down. The Redress and Civil Litigation Report recommended that civil statutory time limits should be removed as soon as possible with retrospective effect in all state and territories of Australia.

Making these recommendations into effective law in Queensland will provide justice for past, present and future victims of abuse. It will strengthen the institutions of our society by giving them a financial incentive to protect children in their care. Most importantly, it will make our children safer today and into the future.

This links with the second objective of the Bill which is to allow people who signed deeds of release to have their matters retried. In order to remove the effect of time limits from all victims equally, it is necessary to allow victims who were forced to sign unfair settlements to have them re-opened. Creating a legislated legal framework to remove past unjust settlements is essential. It must be remembered that these settlements were never the product of two equal parties negotiating on a level playing field.  

There was immense power and financial imbalance. This is why it is not enough to just remove the time limits without removing the consequences of the unjust time limits. If this is not done, then Queensland will not be compliant with the Royal Commission’s recommendations to remove all time limits to compensation for victims.

Important safeguards are incorporated into this part of the Bill. I hasten to assure honourable members of the House that this Bill will not result in a rush of litigation. Not every past case will be able to be re-opened:

  • Any cases that were tried on their merits and any judgements given or settlements made for reasons other than the application of time limits, will not be able to be re-opened.
  • Any cases that were brought in time (and in which time limits were therefore not a factor) will not be able to be re-opened.

I also hasten to assure honourable members of the House that damages costs will be manageable for defendants. Any cases that are reopened and in which a judge awards a greater damages quantum, will take into account the amount of any previous settlement or judgement.

The third objective is to amend the Civil Proceedings Act 2011 to prevent an institution from having civil proceedings stayed on the basis of the passage of time.

The changes fulfill the carefully-considered recommendations of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. The provisions are measured and considered and do not over reach. These reforms do not diminish the responsibility upon claimants to prove their claims to the civil standard of proof.

Victims of child abuse deserve greater certainty. The Royal Commission recommends that all states and territories of Australia should act immediately. This reflects the Commission’s recognition that victims have carried the burden of the damage caused by child abuse for far too long already. Victims deserve autonomy and to have equal rights of self determination as to whether they prefer to litigate or to participate in any Redress Scheme.

The cost of implementing the reforms is a necessary step for offenders and institutions to accept responsibility for their failures in the past and the tragic human toll of their previous decisions and actions. The cost of litigation quantums for institutions will be manageable through the preservation of the institution’s insurance policies as a result of this Bill.

However, the moral imperative of this law reform justifies the cost. Importantly, the cost should diminish over time as institutions implement child protection policies such as staff screening and mandatory reporting, thus decreasing the risk of abuse of children in their care.

Greater investment in child protection will become an investment in greater safety for our children, and in providing more prompt, caring responses to any future reports of child abuse.

Improved reporting and caring responses should result, in time, in lower insurance premiums for personal injury insurance cover. An institution will likely not be liable where they have acted promptly upon the reporting of abuse.

Most importantly, prompt institutional responses to incidents of child abuse will prevent subsequent abuse of large numbers of children. This further reduces an institution’s liability. This will effectively reduce the heavy toll of human suffering and create a safer society for our children as well as reduced liability and financial cost to institutions.

This scenario of prompt reporting, responsive care for the victims and timely arrest and judicial processes together create the best possible hope of full recovery for victims and prevents further abuse and minimizes the financial cost to institutions and restores stakeholder trust.

Consider the comparison of this scenario with the experience of abuse victims of the past few decades who were not believed, were punished for reporting, and who watched as their offenders were protected, promoted and publicly lauded.

This private members’ Bill is not an attack on our institutions – it is a means for them to take responsibility for the past and to begin rebuilding trust with stakeholders and the public.

This Bill was an opportunity for Queensland to lead the nation on important reforms for child protection and equity of access to justice for victims of abuse.

The intense media attention given to this issue resulted in the ALP bringing forward their own Bill. However, their Bill failed to remove the limitations for non-institutional victims and did not give the court power to quash existing deeds of agreement which had been signed by the survivor under duress (under most previous agreements the statute of limitation had expired leaving survivors without an alternative cause of action).

I was delighted when the LNP sought amendments removing the limitations for non-institutional victims and allowing for courts to review whether previous settlements could be reopened. Both amendments passed. I was elated that the new legislation reflected my position.

Alan and fellow survivor Kelvin Johnston were in the parliament to celebrate this historic win for survivors. The support of the LNP leader Tim Nicholls proved crucial. I did not have agree with Tim on many issues, but he did the right thing on this occasion. I can’t help but wonder if it’s because many LNP politicians had attended private schools and had known of such abuse.

While working in this space, it came to my attention that ‘ministers of religion’ were not bound by mandatory reporting under the Child Protection Act. I found this shocking and was determined to move a bill to make reporting of child abuse (or even suspected child abuse’) mandatory for ministers of religion. This meant taking on the confessional and arguing ancient religious practice should not be allowed to put the welfare of children at risk.

In speaking to my Mandatory Reporting Bill I said it was high time religious representatives were subjected to the same rule of law as all of the other groups who worked with children in schools. The Bill passed the first reading, but before it returned the Premier had called the 2017 Queensland election.

Religion focus of new abuse rules

Stalker-Gate

In politics, nothing happens by accident. If it happens, you can bet it was planned that way.
– Franklin D. Roosevelt

Everyone makes mistakes and the coverage of my time as an MP certainly had a few errors, but by-in-large most of the media outlets were fair. The two exceptions were Rupert Murdoch’s Newscorp outlets, the Cairns Post and the Courier Mail. The most obvious example of the Newscorp bias, occurred as a result of what I called ‘stalker-gate’.

On Tuesday 5th of September 2017 I had a call from the reception at Parliament House letting me know that a Mr Khalesirad would like to see me. Prior to this day I had never met Mr Khalesirad. There was no appointment in my diary for him, but I made time for him, as I would have for anyone.

Parliamentary Security freely admitted Mr Khalesirad into the public gallery without question, prior to his being signed in to the annex by me, two hours later. Like myself, security had no reason to refuse his admission.

I later learned that Mr. Khalesirad had been a critic of the government, in a part time role as a citizen blogger. On a number of occasions Mr. Khalesirad raised serious concerns regarding Hutchinson Builders and the Member for Keppel, Mrs. Lauga and her husband. The result had been a war of words between the ALP and Mr. Khalesirad, who had (unbeknownst to me) been called many things by the ALP including:

  • a ‘stalker’, by the member for Keppel and her ALP Parliamentary colleagues.
  • a ‘dirty little grub’, by former ALP Minister Rob Schwarten.

While I was meeting with Mr. Khalesirad, the ALP wrote to the Speaker saying I had let Khalesirad into Parliament specifically to “intimidate the Member for Keppel, Brittany Lauga.”

The ALP leaked their letter to the media before I had a clue what was going on. At no time had I been approached about the Member for Keppel’s concerns. Rather than contacting me with concerns regarding Mr Khalesirad’s presence (enabling a quick response), there was a letter written to The Speaker and contact made with the media. The first person to contact me in person to discuss this matter was Anthony Templeton from the Courier Mail, who (unlike myself) had been well briefed on the Khalesirad/Lauga allegations. The politics of all this was played out (very publicly) with myself the clear loser.

Whistleblower/Blogger Petros Khalesirad
Whistleblower/Blogger Petros Khalesirad

The next day The Cairns Post and the Courier Mail led with front page articles accusing me of having let a stalker into Parliament House to stalk a pregnant MP. It was a bad look in anyone’s language.

My response was to accuse the Palaszczuk Government of a ‘set up’ to avoid exposing Ms Lauga to further scrutiny. I also pointed out that Mr. Khalesirad was let into Parliament’s public gallery by security over two hours before I even knew he was visiting.

No politicians like scrutiny and we would prefer our critics to go away, however we sign up to the job knowing that there will be criticism that we will be exposing ourselves too. There was a clear agenda here to turn the focus away from Ms. Lauga and place it on Mr Khalesirad, to make Mr Khalesirad the issue. My innocent involvement allowed the ALP to get two for the price of one by making their opponents ‘the news’”.

The ALP did not want to discuss the Lauga’s dealings with Hutchinsons builders or her failure to provide proper disclosure pursuant to section 15(4) Integrity Services Act. Lauga then claimed her financial situation regarding the overrun of her matrimonial home was cleared and disclosed to the Parliament. In truth, stalker-gate was nothing more than a political stunt to remove the spotlight from these matters. Damaging me was just a side benefit for them.

Ask yourself, “If you were in fear of your life from a stalker and you discovered that he was in the building, would you ring the police or security OR write a letter to the speaker and contact the media. The pen may be mightier than the sword but I’d prefer the police if the situation was so dire. The only conclusion I could draw was that this was all a political set up.

Ms. Lauga had Mr Khalesirad charged as a stalker. The matter went before a judge, but Premier Palaszczuk called an election just prior to Mr Khalesirad’s legal team could cross examine Ms. Lauga’s evidence. That was something the ALP was keen to avoid! After all, it could have emerged that Mr Khalesirad, a former Young Queenslander of the Year, was not a stalker after all. That would have been extremely embarrassing in the lead up to an election.

Rejection

Surround yourself with really good people. I think that’s an important thing. Because the people you surround yourself are a reflection of you.
– Aaron Rodgers

You cannot properly do your job of representing constituents if you are a party MP. If you are a party MP you will vote when you are told, how you are told, and even the questions you ask in Parliament will be written for you by others. Only an independent can really ask the questions you want to be asked, and vote the way you would like them to vote.

By the time the 2017 State election had been announced it really was a matter of standing up as an Independent against the two major parties with just a few good people around me.

My lack of resources and organised support was noticeable. This was also the case for others running at the state level. In Brisbane there were some decent people standing as Independents, including Hetty Johnson (the founder and CEO of Bravehearts), Mick Kosenko and Rick Flori.

Mick Kosenko, an internationally renowned tattooist, had fallen victim to anti-association law introduced by the Newman Government. The laws provided that when two or more people from the same motorcycle club gathered together it was a criminal offence. As a result, Mick’s business suffered and meant that (as a member of a club) he could be arrested if the next customer to walk through the door was also a club member. Mick was very popular in the community and nominated for the seat of Pine Rivers.

Rick Flori was a former cop and much celebrated whistle blower. He came to fame by releasing video footage of a member of the public being assaulted by police. I was also happy to support Trevor Palmer who stood for Woodridge and Amy MacMahon, who was the Greens candidate in South Brisbane. They were my fellow David’s taking on the establishment Goliath.

In Cairns there was no institutionalised support for my re-election campaign, but I did have a group of loyal supporters who were there when I needed them. People who could see through the major parties and wanted justice and fairness, and an MP who would represent local people and not a political party. People like Susan Prince, Lizi Prince, Simon Perry, Anthony Too, Paul Spray, Margaret Pestorius, Donna Mullaly, Steve Brech, Mick Russell, Marcela Brassett, John Pratt, Tayte Dalziel, Banyar Paing, Jonathan Straus, Carla Gorton, Sarah Hoyle, Renee Lees, Sandra McGuiness, Harrison George, The Dimara family and so many others. Sue Price (a friend from the Socialist Alliance) flew from Sydney for the week of the election to lend her support. I will never forget those people who helped.

With Campaign Supporters in 2017
With Campaign Supporters in 2017

While we had campaigned valiantly, as polling day approached, we were victims of two targeted attacks that really damaged the campaign. The first was what is known in politics as a ‘shit sheet’ which was distributed. It repeated the false claim Petros Khalesirad was a stalker and implied I knew this and let him into parliament to intimidate a pregnant female MP. It was as nasty as it was politically damaging.

The other attack came from the extremist religious group ‘Cherish Life’ who rang everyone in the electorate and told them that I supported 9-month abortions. It was a ludicrous lie about a fictitious procedure (the only procedure that occurs at 9 months is child-birth). I hoped people would see how ridiculous such a claim was.

Despite the difficulties with the campaign I did received strong support from the environmental movement and the local arts community. My friends in the arts sector helped me produce a couple slick campaign videos. It was a shame I did not have more funds to put them on free-to-air television.

It is almost impossible for an Independent to get elected in the Queensland Parliament. Where it does happen, it is a result of our preferential system. It happens when an independent can garner enough votes to get ahead of one of the major party candidates. The success of an Independent is nearly always dependent on one of the major party candidates polling poorly. My big problem was the fact my LNP opponent Sam Marino was well liked by some sections of the community and had campaigned with great determination and energy. As he was going to get the votes of people who always vote LNP, my greatest fear was that I would not be able to get ahead of Sam to harvest his preferences. This fear was proved correct.

The evening of Saturday 25 November was a sombre one, as we gathered at the Balaclava Hotel to watch the votes come in. Party membership provides a political meal-ticket for MPs. The rational part of my brain had already told me there was little chance of victory, having handed back my ALP membership two years earlier. However, when I was on the campaign trail talking with the people, my hopes increased.

Cairns Election Tally Sheet 2017 State Election
Cairns Election Tally Sheet 2017 State Election

I managed to out-poll The Greens and One Nation, but when their preferences were distributed, I was only on 26.6 per cent of the vote, 10 per cent behind the major party candidates. I was gone!

The Independent candidates in Brisbane were all defeated as well. They were all people of great merit and integrity, so for me to see them all defeated by party politicians was nothing short of soul destroying.

Something not many people realise is that when a Member of Parliament loses their job, their staff lose theirs as well. I had two full-time positions with Paul and Anthony working four days a week and Simon and Terri chipping in with a day each. Now that I had lost my job they would be gone as well. In my mind I had let them down.

I also felt I had let down the cause for people with disabilities. Never at any point from the time I was elected to state parliament in 2015 through to the 2017 election campaign had I made any reference to my disability. I felt this would be inappropriate and was sure my opponents would accuse me of using it as a crutch. However, secretly one of my great fears was that should I fail to be re-elected, it would be taken as evidence that a person with a profound disability was not up to serving as an MP, quite simply we were not up to the job. I had failed these people as well.

Down and out in Mount Sheridan

The following 12 months were one of the lowest periods of my life. I was physically, financially and emotionally a wreck. I found it so hard to cope with socialising, that I became a recluse, not leaving the house for weeks on end.

The fact I had been campaigning so hard removed my focus away from looking after my health, so it was only after the election I discovered I had a pressure sore on my backside (which can be quite dangerous for quadriplegics) and I had started sweating profusely for no apparent reason. I had also developed a chronic pain in my neck. On top of this there were a couple of elective medical procedures that I had put on hold for ages which needed attention.

It was fortunate for me that those important to me rallied around, especially my sister Joann who helped me financially and along with the rest of my family, picked me up when I was down.  The financial impact of not having an MP salary, was a bit like ‘back to the future’, as I had experienced long periods without a lot of money in the past.

The transition from being financially independent, to being back in the Centrelink disability system was very time-consuming. Indeed, much of the first six months of 2018 was spent ordering and obtaining a new wheelchair, jumping through all the hoops for Centrelink (to get back on the Disability Support Pension) and negotiating access to the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS).

In typically sensitive fashion, the Cairns Post published an article under the heading “Pyne to go on Dole”. The heading suggested it was a conscious decision of mine to go on Centrelink payments. As usual that was wrong (it was not unemployment benefits – but the Disability Support Pension).

I would be interested to know what options for mainstream employment the Cairns Post thought would be available to a C5 quadriplegic, but as a Newscorp publication, kicking people when they are down is a normal part of their fare.

As we moved into 2018, there was nothing I wanted to do more than leave Queensland politics behind me. However, early in my Annus Horribilus a gentleman arrived unannounced at my front door. All he had to say was, “these papers are for you”. I had been served with a pile of legal documents alleging I had defamed the President of the Local Government Association of Queensland (LGAQ)[1] Mr. Greg Hallam who was claiming damages of $500 000.00.

Initially Mr. Hallam claimed $2.25 million from four people over Facebook posts, some of which allegedly defamed him by likening him to Star Wars character Jabba the Hutt. He filed a claim in the District Court in Brisbane alleging anti-corruption campaigners Jason Ward, Lyn O’Connor, her husband Desmond O’Connor and myself had defamed him. It was claimed the defamation occurred in posts on public and closed Facebook pages.

The claim alleged Lyn O’Connor or her husband made posts under a false name. This post depicted a creature whose body bore a striking resemblance to the well-known popular fictional character from the Star Wars movie franchise, Jabba the Hutt. The claim alleged that the head depicted a passable likeness to Mr Hallam.

While I may not have changed the world in politics, it kept me very busy trying to make a difference. Now I felt so helpless and during this time, I actually went into an extended period of depression. There was every reason to be depressed. Australian politics was like watching a train wreck. Internationally, we were witnessing the toxic politics around Brexit in the UK and Donald Trump in the US just being Donald Trump. That was depressing.

For a person with a disability such as mine employment in the mainstream economy is fairly rare but I did not want to be on a disability support pension for the rest of my life. I had the option of running for public office again, however bankruptcy would compromise both these possibilities. As a result of the situation I was in, I felt I could not move forward with anything. I felt I was in a state of limbo.

As the defamation matter dragged on it began to impact negatively on my mental health. Things were that bad that had I not been married to Jenny I would have considered taking my life.  Her support and my love for family kept me going.

Looking back there was a fair bit of self-pity involved as well. It was too easy for me to use the legal action hanging over my head as a reason not to move forward. After all there were people with cancer diagnoses and all sorts of problems who managed to get on with their lives and keep going. Realising this gave me the kick up the backside which I needed to at least try to build new opportunities.

For me the idea of the wheels falling off was more than just a metaphor. Travelling down Anderson Street in Cairns one day I watched with horror when I turned into a side street only to see one of my wheels rolling ahead of me all on its own.

Doing the face plant into the pavement is intimidating when you are a quadriplegic, but thankfully my friend Anthony Too was with me and his quick thinking kept me upright. It was an analogy for what was happening with my life. Good friends are so important.

Around this time another good friend, Ailsa Rayner, came back into my life. Ailsa began assisting me as a support worker under the NDIS. On top of her support work, Ailsa had extensive mental health experience. I found her counsel very useful in developing a more positive outlook and getting myself back on track.

The wheels falling off in Anderson Street.
The wheels falling off in Anderson Street.

Vindication

The three issues that ended my career in state politics were:

  • The allegation I allowed a stalker to intimidate a female MP
  • The accusation I slandered Councils with false claims of corruption
  • My focus on climate change and opposition to Adani

Vindication is an interesting concept to me. Let us say a batsman playing cricket is given out and on returning to the grandstand his mates agree he did not nick the ball. The fact he should not have been given out doesn’t really matter, because at the end of the day the umpire is always right. Vindication holds little satisfaction, whether you are a batsman or a failed politician.

In December 2017 the court threw out the unlawful stalking charges against political blogger Petros Khalesirad. Rockhampton Magistrate Cameron Press said Mr Khalesirad had no case to answer. He ruled that “the weight of evidence was not strong enough to prove a stalking charge.” Reflecting on whether a jury could believe Lauga’s case to the required standard concluded, “I cannot conclude that a reasonable jury even taking the evidence at its highest could and that the charge was proved beyond reasonable doubt,” he said.

In court, Mr Khalesirad’s lawyers argued the charges were concocted to pressure him into dropping an investigation of fraud allegations against Ms Lauga’s husband. “Democracy’s an important thing in Australia under a representative government,” Mr Khalesirad said outside court. “I think we have a right to ask questions about government decisions, indeed policy decisions, about members of parliament. I think it’s everyone’s obligation to do that.”

Much of the court hearings centred around an incident involving Ms Lauga’s husband, which Mr Khalesirad was investigating. The allegation that Petros Khalesirad was a stalker was thrown out of court and he was found not guilty in December of 2017. He was a concerned citizen who wanted to meet with an MP who would listen to him and was never a threat to anyone.

During 2018 we saw significant action on local government corruption, resulting in further mayors being charged with fraud and corruption, vindicating my actions as an MP. This included the sacking of the Ipswich Council which further gave credence to the document I had tabled in Parliament called “Ipswich Inc”. I was contacted by journalists from Fairfax and the Queensland Times who said that I must feel good to be vindicated. I told them I was happy justice had been done, but vindication was over-rated.

On Climate Change, vindication will come when we are that far ‘past the point of no return’ that it will be cold comfort indeed. While Cairns may have above the average in terms of the number of ‘climate sceptics’ per head of population, there is no doubt climate change will be devastating for our city.

The tragedy is climate change is already affecting people with salt water intrusion of water supplies and tropical islands gradually descending into the water as sea levels rise, and not to mention the more devastating natural disasters, yet so many continue to live in denial.

My position on so many issues was winning acceptance. However, the pending legal action Greg Hallam had initiated made it hard for me to move forward. It was a bit like having the proverbial Sword of Damocles hanging over my head. It did get me down.

Fortunately I remembered what I had known for years, you have to stand up to those in power. Like that little Jones boy, you can’t afford to back down, so you just keep swinging. It doesn’t matter if you win or lose, what matters when your back is against the wall is that you fight as hard as you can. All you have to know is three words, “Never give up!”

Struggle & Resistance in the Far North

[1] The LGAQ is a private company owned by Queensland’s 77 councils. It runs procurement, executive employment, call centre and insurance services used by councils in Queensland and NSW. It had income of more than A$70 million in 2018.

The Fight for the Underdog