It was early in my Annus Horribilus of 2018 that 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) Mr. Greg Hallam and claiming damages of $500 000.00.
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.
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 occured 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 bears 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 bore a passable likeness to Mr Hallam in appearance.
Stuck in Limbo
As we moved into 2018, there was nothing I wanted to do more than leave Queensland politics behind me. However, the pending legal action made it hard for me to move forward. It was a bit like having the proverbial Sword of Damocles hanging over your head.
Jason Ward and Desmond O’Connor were later dropped from the claim, leaving Lyn O’Connor and myself as the only defendants.
I felt that I was in a strong position in relation to the allegation I had defamed Mr Hallam. However, who can afford to fight these matters in court? To engage a barrister in such a high-profile action would cost $100 000 per week.
Abraham Lincoln is often credited with the quote “He who represents himself has a fool for a client.” If it was Lincoln who said it, he must have been ‘cashed up’ at the time, because most ordinary people simply do not have the cash to employ the services of a Barrister to represent them in a high profile civil matter.
My only alternative would be self-representation in court. I was not sure how I would go trading points of law against a Senior Counsel in court, but I assumed I would perform very poorly in comparison. This meant I had to seriously consider I would lose such an action and be up for $500 000.00 that I did not have.
A Bankrupt Mindset
While my lack of wealth meant there would be no question of me ever paying a massive claim (should the court award one) there would nonetheless be consequences. Any award of damages against me would result in my almost immediate bankruptcy. The big problem with bankruptcy is that there are a number of statutory provisions that can really limit your future options.
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. Two options I had were either running for public office again or starting a small business. 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.
The Wheels Falling Off
While I may not have changed the world in politics, it kept me very busy trying to make a difference. Now I felt so passive watching the news and it was such a depressing experience. 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, with the LNP dominated by factional infighting, leading to another Prime Minister being stabbed in the back. Internationally, we were witnessing the toxic politics around Brexit in the UK and watching Donald Trump in the US just being Donald Trump (that was depressing enough). In March of 2019, the Christchurch massacre was just soul destroying. I remember crying every night watching the television news. That a person could do this to other human beings was just so appalling.
As the defamation matter dragged on and on that matter also began to impact negatively on my mental health. Things were that bad that had I not been married to Jenny and had her support I am sure 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 are people with cancer diagnosis and all sorts of problems who manage to get on with life and keep going. Realising this helped to give me the kick up the backside 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 acquired extensive mental health experience and I found her counsel very useful in developing a more positive outlook and getting myself back on track.
The Way Forward
When I lost my job as member for Cairns, 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. While there may not be many options in mainstream appointment, I was determined to keep busy.
Mid 2019 saw me complete my autobiography “Rob Pyne: A Far Northern Life” and develop a website “Wheelchair Access Cities” to outline travel opportunities for people with disabilities in cities around the world.
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. I remembered what I had known for all these years, you have to stand up to those in power and if you lose, well you lose. All that matters is those crucial three words. Never give up!
Other Reference Material and Pictures