Party politics is a game of Team A versus Team B. Each team has a turn in opposition, before they have their turn in government. Ambitious people on each side use their team to advance their career goals. However, sooner or later MPs will have to make a decision whether to cast a vote for their party, or their region. Party MP’s choose their party. This leaves regions like Far North Queensland out of sight, out of mind and subject to systemic neglect. A very small number of politicians do choose their region, which usually results in a loss of pre-selection and defeat. While few take this noble road, I agree with respected sociologist and public intellectual, DaShanne Stokes, who wrote, “We owe our loyalty to each other and to our children’s children, not to party politics.”
At the 2015 State election the people of Far North Queensland voted ALP and rejected the LNP Newman Government and their campaign for privatisation and austerity, electing ALP members in Mulgrave, Barron River, Cook and myself as the ALP Member for Cairns.
The win was overwhelming! I was confident I would win Cairns and was well and truly prepared to be an ALP member in opposition. However, not in my wildest dreams did I believe the ALP would win government. The question was could I defend the ALP in Government? I would give it a go, but the party had to do the right thing by Far North Queensland.
Free Ride as a Party MP
Essentially the day-to-day work of a party MP is a con on the community. This is the case because the only thing a member of Parliament has control over is their vote. However, once you join a political party you don’t even have that! I had sacrificed my vote to the party organisation. I had lost the power to exercise my vote. I could not even ask questions in the parliament. Questions are prepared, written down and put in front of MPs as if they were five years old.
It is hard to see how politicians can justify getting paid when they are doing something that could adequately be done by a five-year-old. To compensate for their useless existence, Ministers in the Cabinet will contact local MPs when a departmental project is ready to be announced and pretend the MP had a role in it. If an MP is well behaved, they may even get their name on a plaque.
Decisions I would make over coming months would ensure that my career in politics would not be a long one. Decisions that were made for all the right reasons, but nevertheless made me powerful enemies.
One thing could not be taken away from me was what I had achieved in being the first person with a disability elected to state parliament. My wife Jenny and others with similar disabilities knew how hard this had been and how much we had sacrificed as a consequence of my spinal cord injury.
Some opponents had openly mocked me in relation to my disability and used it against me politically. However, while others saw my disability as a weakness or something to ridicule, it made me rightly proud of what I had achieved.
A Bolt from the Blue
Sometimes truth hits you in the face with one great almighty slap. During one sitting of the Queensland Parliament in 2015 an ALP Member was speaking about all that was bad in Queensland and admonishing the former LNP government over asset sales, neglect of public housing and the disadvantage of Indigenous Queenslanders. I could not have agreed more with every word he said. This again reminded me of a quote by DaShanne Stokes who wrote, “Blind party loyalty will be our downfall. We must follow the truth wherever it leads.”
However, in reply an LNP member responded by pointing out that the ALP was far more responsible for the state of affairs than the LNP, after all the Queensland ALP had been in power for 26 of the last 30 years! It hit me like a slap in the face. He was right. There was no better example than asset sales. Former ALP Governments had sold so many assets, everything from the State Government Insurance Office (SGIO), a string of ports (including the Cairns International Airport), QR Freight Assets to Forest Plantations. The ALP had already implemented many policies they criticised the LNP for advocating at the election.
Clearly the major parties were just as bad as each other, not just in terms of policy but in terms of behaviour. I heard LNP representatives criticise female ALP members over their attire and ALP members described LNP representatives in the most insulting ways.
I also saw Premier Palaszczuk distance herself from members of her own team when it suited her. This included Billy Gordon and the Police Minister Joann Miller, who was forced to resign after she fell out with Paul Pisasale and powerbrokers in the Queensland Police Union. Miller should have been backed, not sacked! Joann never received so much as a ‘how are you’ call from any of her Cabinet Colleagues. These people had no decency.
Around this time Cairns based Senator Jan McLucas was knifed by many of my colleagues (after decades of loyal service) and the only reason I was given was that more people lived on the Sunshine Coast, where her replacement would be based. I knew there was bullying in politics to get what you want, but this was a slap in the face for the Far North? Was that enough to cause me to resign from the ALP? No, but it certainly got me thinking.
The Sugar Bill and Puppet Politics
Late in 2015 legislation came to Parliament concerning regulation in the sugar industry. At issue was who would have the greater say in the marketing of sugar, the big sugar milling companies or cane-growers themselves. The Bill was referred to by parliamentarians simply as ‘The Sugar Bill’. On the side of cane growers was the Katter’s Australia Party (KAP) and the Liberal National Party (LNP) which at that point was led by an ex-National and a sheep farmer, Lawrence Springborg (as opposed to an inner city liberal).
The ALP favoured the big milling companies at the expense of farmers’. To my shame I voted with the ALP, despite the presence of some northern cane growers in the public gallery.
I remember when voting for the bill and thinking of the cane growers in the gallery and the children from cane farming communities I went to school with. I thought of my Year 7 teacher Tom Murray and my dad’s late sister and brother-in-law, Ethel and Frank Hunt and the sugar farm they had in Mena Creek outside Innisfail.
Thinking of how I had just voted made me feel sick to my stomach. I really felt I had done the wrong thing, what’s more I knew if I didn’t leave the Labor Party I would get used to doing the wrong thing over and over again. I had seen people who had become part of the party and done the wrong thing for years. I didn’t want to be like the machine and I wanted to do what was right!
Jarrod Bleijie was a member of the LNP opposition who I never really had much time for. He was arrogant and had been the Attorney General in the Campbell Newman government, so I didn’t support him or the policies he stood for.
However, one sitting day Bleijie spoke emotionally and in detail about a coronal inquiry into the deaths of 11 people in a fire in Slacks Creek in 2011. The deceased were from the Pacific Islander community and it was a truly tragic event that shook the state.
As a former attorney general Bleijie knew Parliamentary process and I was very surprised when the ALP advised me they were voting against the Bill. While they argued Bleijie’s Bill was somehow legally deficient, I was later taken into the confidence of an ALP member who said “It’s just the way things are done, we can’t possibly let his bill get up. That would be a win for him.”
The ALP then introduced a Bill implementing recommendations from the inquest mirroring Bleijie’s Bill. It included a requirement that new houses are fitted with photovoltaic fire alarms to prevent tragedies like this happening again. It had the same effect as Bleijie’s Bill.
This approach by the government was adopted time and time again. Whenever the opposition or the crossbench put forward legislative reforms for the good of the state, they will be voted down by the government. The government would then bring forward their own legislation on the matter, which would be passed for the parliament. The message was “the government must always win. Nobody else.”
Make no mistake, were the LNP in government they would do exactly the same thing. I found this ‘Team A versus Team B’ win at all costs political game playing childish in the extreme. Indeed I recall Bleijie himself coming into Queensland Parliament with a stuffed rat on his shoulder in a jibe at the then Police Minister who had used a gun to shoot a rat in his residence.
The behaviour in Parliament showed me that game playing and political point-scoring was more important to the major parties than many of the serious issues facing my constituents and people across the Far North.
Party Concerns Mount
It had only been 12 months for me to realise that the Palaszczuk Government was a ‘do nothing government’ that was not interested in progressive reforms to benefit either the most vulnerable in the community, or for the community as a whole. They simply want to make themselves a ‘small as possible target’ and retain political office for as long as possible.
Most people do not understand this, but you cannot do your job as a local Member if you are a member for the ALP or LNP. This is because your vote is permanently bound in ‘Faustian pact’ (https://bit.ly/2Oa4VLQ) that prevents you standing up for your electorate.
For example you may represent an area that has sugar cane farmers. However, if your party moves legislation that harms them, then you must vote for it.
Nor as a Party MP can you ask hard questions in parliament on behalf of their constituents. To be a good member I had to ask questions like, “why are waiting lists so long in Cairns?”
On top of this there were areas of policy the Queensland Government adopted I could not ever consciously support. Most importantly I did not see coal as a part of Queensland’s future, either economically, socially or environmentally. I also opposed the fracking undertaken by the Coal Seam Gas (CSG) industry. Mining certainly has a role to play in Queensland’s economy, however, it is vital our government protects our most valuable asset, our water. CSG hurts our farmers, our food production, and our health.
My other concern was the lack of transparency and accountability in Queensland politics. Just some of the local government reforms I fought for were) Real time reporting of campaign donations; b) Banning of Campaign donations from property developers to Local Government candidates; and c) Restoring independence to the CEO by reducing Executive overreach by Mayors.
ALP Fails Cairns
On top of all my concerns with the ALP and a broken system that failed to deliver results, the neglect of west Cairns was the straw that broke the camel’s back. That final push to resign from the ALP was their failure to deliver here in Cairns.
For twelve months I had been pushing for funding for programs for disengaged Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Cairns West. The Smallbone Report had revealed serious issues, including sexual violence and abuse. It identified more funding was needed in response to the shocking social challenges we faced in West Cairns.
The Not-for-profit ‘Choice’ was well placed to provide services to many deprived and disengaged people. Real programs with quantifiable outcomes that would reduce crime and unemployment. Yet every time Choice applied they were knocked back.
Community advocates Todd Hartley and Terry O’Shane were furious at the failure of the Palaszczuk Government to invest. Resigning from the ALP was the right thing to do and it allowed me to more openly criticise the government on this issue and go public in my support of the call for funding.
Queensland politics has a strong history of party discipline and punishes those who breach loyalty to the party. However, I decided to put my city before my party and to work as an independent member for Cairns. I remained committed to progressive values. The ALP has never had a complete mortgage on these values, and after a lifetime of commitment and a degree in history and politics, I did not need party officials to interpret those values for me.
On top of the systemic neglect of disadvantaged people in West Cairns other local frustrations were and unacceptably long waiting lists for many surgical procedures and the failure to invest in the ‘Cairns – Global City’ initiative to promote the arts, multicultural community radio and innovation to create employment opportunities.
Free to take on Issues and Put Cairns First
As an Independent I was free to represent policies that the ALP should stand for, such as collective bargaining, protecting public assets and working for social justice. My action in leaving the ALP was not a vote of no confidence in the Queensland Government. I was not seeking to bring down the government. However I did want to do my job properly and that meant speaking out and moving legislation and voting for the region on all issues.
The state election delivered numbers in the house which meant that every vote mattered. I was defending my right to vote according to my conscience on matters of conviction. Putting Cairns first meant speaking out, but party membership had made me ‘keep quiet’ in relation to neglect of the Far North. No more!
In saying no to ‘business as usual’ I was fully aware of the political price. I was prepared to sacrifice my position in a safe Labor seat so I could deliver better outcomes for Cairns and sleep better at night by knowing I have voted with my conscience. I could vote as I had on Cairns Regional Council, for what was best for Cairns.
Most local ALP branch members could not see the Palaszczuk Government was not interested in making Queensland a fairer, more equitable state. They raged against me rather than the government. I am confident that in the fullness of time people will come to see what I saw so early on.
Other Reference Material and Pictures