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James Cook University

James Cook University did not have a campus in Cairns when I completed high school in 1984. My poor grades would not have given me access to university anyway. For me and many others, the opening of James Cook University in Cairns represented a great opportunity. I was hoping that study at university would give me opportunities to gain employment. However, it was my obsession with politics and public policy, and their capacity to make the world a better place, that truly fascinated me. The words of Nelson Mandela resonated with me when he said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

Our new home in Kewarra Beach was much more suited to the needs of a wheelchair user. The house provided me with even better access than our home in Bentley Park. Jenny and I had experienced some minor access impediments in Bentley and remedied them in Kewarra. Almost as importantly, the new location, in a flat sub-division off Poolwood Close, allowed me to get out of the house and push down nearby streets, even with only 50 per-cent arm function. My daily outings with Tia were a joy, as we investigated our new surroundings. At first, I could barely get 50 metres before my arms would wear out. Before too long I could make it to the end of Koonya Close and was looking for newer streets to challenge. I really valued my daily outings and they became a regular part of my life, as I enjoyed getting out of the office and down the street at least once every day.

University life was stimulating and offered intellectual opportunities I had never experienced.  For the first time James Cook University in Cairns had its own Campus. There was a new atmosphere, and for the first time a real campus environment existed.

James Cook University

History and Politics

The main areas I was studying were history and politics. Both subjects were fulfilling and motivated me to engage in wider reading and new areas of study. Dr. Dawn May and Dr. Doug Hunt were wonderful lecturers and always had their doors open to students.

I developed a detailed knowledge of labour history and the evolution of the trade union movement from Dr. Hunt. It was interesting to look at this history from the turn of the Century through to the infamous split of the 1950’s. This study gave me a much greater understanding of industrial relations  and contemporary Australian politics.

James Cook University also offered the study of history from other perspectives. This helped me understand that the history I had known had all been the history written by ‘winners’, by those in positions of power who were able to have their voices heard. It was fascinating to learn history from different perspectives, including the the perspective of women and that of Aboriginal people.

It was during this time I became a passionate advocate of the rights of Indigenous Australians. Learning the stories of the great Aboriginal warriors who had so bravely defended their home lands before losing their lives. Pamulway and Jundamara being two of the most notable leaders to resist the white invaders. Imagine my shock when I learned that more Aboriginal people had died in defence of Tasmania than the total of Australians killed in the Gallipoli campaign.

Phillip Adams
Phillip Adams

I read a number of books by progressive historians such as Henry Reynolds. I also became a great fan of one of the greatest minds this country has produced, Phillip Adams. It was a pleasure to strike up a correspondence with Adams. His articles and his programme on Radio National provided me with inspiration and an intellectual alternative to the corporate controlled mass media, with its infotainment masquerading as current affairs.

Equally satisfying were subjects such as anthropology and sociology. They really gave me a deeper and broader understanding of people and the world. It is the cause of great sadness to me that such subjects are not widely taught, and we no longer appreciate learning for learning’s sake. How much better we would be placed, if we had a  fully informed and well educated population.

I went on to complete a Bachelor of Arts with an Honours degree. Postgraduate study did not interest me.  The humanities had lost the excitement and fascination it had held for me during my undergraduate years.  I needed to find work and to focus any study towards making me more competitive as a prospective employee.

During the final year of my BA I was approached to run for President of the Student Association. It was something I was passionate about and it was a paid position.  I decided to throw my hat in the ring.

Cairns Campus Student Association

In standing for President I outlined to students why I was nominating and what I wanted to achieve, and my nomination was placed on the notice board. The date of nominations expired with mine as the only one received. For the first time since my accident I had a full-time position as President of the Cairns Campus Student Association. This was to take a year out of my life but also provide me with opportunities that I had not experienced.

The President of the Association in 1995 was a woman named Michelle Hollywood. Michelle was in the Socialist Left faction of the ALP (a branch no longer in existence). During her time as President Michelle’s main campaign was to protect the hill-slopes around the university from development.

When the state government originally provided funding towards the University, it was on the understanding that the foothills surrounding the campus would be developed and funding from land sale be used to pay back the government.

The campaign attracted strong community support and we all lobbied Council (not so hard when your Dad is the Mayor).
It was great news when we heard the campaign had been successful, with council determining in their plan that the land would not be developed!

I don’t think the state government was worried and more importantly an important natural resource was kept for James Cook University, the university that would become known for its specialty of study in areas of tropical excellence.

When I took over the President’s office, there was a string of photographs at the bottom of the noticeboard, showing all the hills surrounding the campus. I made sure I left them there and put the words Hollywood Hills above them. I did this to provide a reminder that when we are fighting for the people against those in power, every now and then, just once in a while, we have a win!

During the year that I was President I faced many challenges. It was a red-letter year for students with the ultra-conservative Howard government making many regressive changes to higher education. The education Minister Amanda Vanstone announced the Government’s plans which included for the first time ever the introduction of full fee-paying places for undergraduate degrees at Australian Universities, dramatic increases in the Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS) and the lowering of the HECS threshold. We responded with many interesting campaigns during the year including rallies.

The Cairns Campus Student Association had a great little committee. Joy Jenkins was the manager and did a great job running the day to day activities of the CCSA. Peter Ryle took on the Secretary role and we introduced some new initiatives to put the CCSA on a more commercial footing. Mark Williams from Kuranda, Jodie Duignan and many other students made wonderful contributions to the CCSA.

In June I went to Perth as a James Cook University representative at the National Education Conference, also as a delegate of our Labor club to the meeting of the National Organisation of Labor Students (NOLS). I was impressed by the professional nature many of the larger Student Unions conducted against the Howard Government and their attacks on higher education.

Jenny and IVF

Jenny made an amazing contribution during our time at Kewarra Beach. She successfully applied for a job at the Redlynch Day Care Centre and for the years we were there she was employed by St. John’s. She looked after babies and toddlers at the centre. Caring, and looking after me, while working was an amazing achievement.

To add more stress to Jenny’s life, it was at this time that we had decided to enter the IVF program. Jenny wanted children and so did I. A friend from Princess Alexandra Hospital recommended an IVF specialist in Wickham Terrace in Brisbane who had some good results working with people with a spinal cord injury so we engaged his services.

The IVF program was an emotional roller-coaster, giving you hope of having a child only to see you disappointed. Three times we participated and felt the excitement only to be disappointed. Then at the start of 1997 all our dreams came true when the test came back positive. Jenny was pregnant with our first child.


At the end of 1996 my one-year term as president reached its conclusion. By this time, I had completed my Bachelor of Arts degree at James Cook University. While I was happy with my B.A., I was still conscious that it might not give me the equalising factor I needed to access the workplace. The truth is, when the choice is between an able-bodied person or a quadriplegic, the able bodied person will get the job. I felt I would continue to miss out, unless I could point to something that gave me an edge over the competition. With this in mind I enrolled to study law (externally) through QUT.

In my mind, a law degree had replaced what an arts degree used to provide. It may not necessarily get you a job in the law, but would serve as a multipurpose degree, that would help you get into most workplaces.

Studying law involved significant amounts of reading. I don’t believe I have a legal brain, so I was not quick to interpret the principle or ratio decidendi of a case and apply it to a new set of facts. While some subjects were fascinating and made time fly, others were a chore to complete.

The truth is having a disability like quadriplegia makes everything harder. I have not been afraid of asking for special consideration to even the tables or create a bit of equity (where the situation called for it)..  This was the case in the early naughties when I was battling my way through law and had to visit Brisbane for an assessment on contract law.

I asked for extra time and assistance on my contract law assessment because I felt I needed that just to get this subject completed. I had no doubt that upon arrival any lecturer would have sympathy and make consideration for the fact I was in a wheelchair and no longer have use of my hands. Imagine my surprise when I arrive to find the lecturer was also a quadriplegic! A QUT lecturer Des Butler.

Des Butler being presented with a teaching award,
Des Butler being presented with a teaching award,

The surprise has stayed with me to this day.  I still remember Des Butler, as a man of great intellect and a razor sharp mind who despite his disability contributed greatly to the law faculty of QUT. As a student he had my respect  and as a person with a disability I knew what he had had to overcome and just how great his achievements were.

Regional Disability Liaison Officer

Towards the end of 1997 I began to look for employment. With Jenny about to give up work, and a baby on the way, all my instincts told me that I must find work to provide for my family. In July an advertisement appeared for a Regional Disability Liaison Officer (RDLO) for the TAFE and higher education sectors. The position was to be based at James Cook University. Upon receiving the selection criteria, I felt confident that I could prepare one hell of an application for the position. My wealth of experience with disability groups and my year as President of a student union, combined with my Bachelor of Arts degree, was bound to give me a good chance at the position, worth 40 thousand a year (quite a good salary for the time).

I sent my resume off with high hopes. A good friend of mine, Louise Yates, a paraplegic living in Townsville had also applied for the position. Louise was quite a talented woman, who had during the early eighties played a role in a highly successful Australian television drama, “Cop Shop”. Some may remember her as “Sarge’s daughter’. Not surprisingly, Louise and I were granted interviews for the position, which was advertised in Townsville as well as in Cairns.

When I drove to the interview at James Cook University I was more nervous than I had been in years. I was wearing a long sleeve shirt for the first time in as long as I could remember. The interview was by Teleconference. I arrived early and was well positioned in front of the monitor prior to the start. Having been experienced in public speaking both in political situations I knew one wrong word can cause a great deal of damage. I could tell whether I had performed well.  In this case I felt sure I must have blitzed the opposition. Jenny arrived early and heard the last part of the interview. The head of the selection panel thanked me for putting forward my case in such an “articulate and intelligent manner”. As Jenny and I left the building for lunch I could not of have felt more in control of life.

When I heard that I had missed out on the job it was quite a blow. I rang Louise who told me she had also missed out. The successful applicant had been able-bodied woman from Townsville. I was advised she had more experience working with people with disabilities than I had been able to demonstrate. I could not contain my anger. Thinking of how many hours I had given of myself on a voluntary basis to serve other people with disabilities. I felt none of this work had been recognized. This was not the end of the story though.

Goodbye Kewarra and Hello Katie

The year 1998 arrived, and Jenny and I decided that our 5 years at Kewarra Beach should come to an end. My parents were becoming elderly and I was conscious that I wanted to keep our connections with them alive’ especially with their first grandchild on the way. We decided to move back to the southside. Jenny’s mother and brother were living there as well, so re-locating made sense. We purchased a block of land in the suburb that would be known as Mount Sheridan.

For Jenny and I family was a very strong priority and we wanted to be around loved ones. However, when one of you in a marriage is a quadriplegic, there are practical considerations as well. We knew that when Jenny had given birth, it would be a bit like having two children in the house. It may not be politically correct to say so, but we both knew there would be times when I was unwell or needed to be driven to the doctor for medical treatment and needed Jenny’s help. There would also be times when Katie needed Jenny. So having extended family to help with support was essential in the days before the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS).

Moving house is always a financial and personal burden for someone with a significant disability. Despite this I was excited about our move back to south Cairns. This would mean having a new mortgage and no job, but more positively, a new accessible house and a new life, with the birth of our child imminent.


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