Nobody likes being rejected, but nothing could be more sobering than being rejected by a whole city. You cannot help but feel a range of emotions following such rejection. Perhaps author Jennifer Salaiz put it best when she said, “Was I bitter? Absolutely. Hurt? You bet your sweet ass I was hurt. Who doesn’t feel a part of their heart break at rejection. You ask yourself every question you can think of, what, why, how come, and then your sadness turns to anger. That’s my favorite part. It drives me, feeds me, and makes one hell of a story.”
The evening of Saturday, 25 November 2017 was a sombre one as we assembled 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 you are on the campaign trail talking with people, it always increases your hopes.
The Cairns Post ran a poll saying I would come last of all the candidates. That was consistent with their negative coverage of anything relating to me. In reality I managed to out-poll The Greens and One Nation on the primary vote, but when their preferences were distributed I was only on 26.6 per cent. That was almost 10 per cent behind the major party candidates. I was gone!
My performance had been the strongest of any Independent candidate in the Far North in living memory. However, there was no use telling me that. I felt I had let down my staff and other people with disabilities.
It was over a year before I could reflect on the figures and see it as a real achievement that I had convinced more than 1 in 4 Cairns residents to prefer an Independent over the major parties. With the deck so heavily stacked against me, it really was an achievement.
After I became an Independent, for the first time Cairns and Far North Queensland had a local representative who could really represent them in parliament.
If there was a Bill before Parliament, local people could come and see me and tell me how they wanted me to vote (on their behalf) and I could vote accordingly. It was real representational democracy.
I was also able to move legislation in the house and put Bills before Parliament (as I did on several occasions) as directed by my constituents. This more direct representation of a region was desperately needed in North Queensland.
This form of democratic representation was an experiment, because it is something party MPs cannot provide. They are instructed how to vote by the party based in Brisbane, not by locals. I really wanted this experiment to be successful.
In a way it did not matter what happened to me personally. My concern was that if we failed other politicians would never take the same risk of bucking the party system. They would be very reluctant to question party rule if that meant they were going to end up unemployed.
If we succeeded, we were optimistic that the ancient concept of ‘representational democracy’ might catch on!
Something not many people realise is 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 I had lost my job they would be gone as well. In my mind I had let them down.
Never at any point from the time I was elected to state parliament, through the term or during 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 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 is not up to the rigours of Queensland politics. My failure opened the door to the proposition we are not up to the job.
Vindication on a number of fronts during this time provided me with a little satisfaction. However any reminder of my experiences in Queensland politics was a bitter pill to swallow. I could relate to the words of American civil rights activist Pauli Murray who said, “In not a single one of these little campaigns was I victorious. In other words, in each case, I personally failed, but I have lived to see the thesis upon which I was operating vindicated. And what I very often say is that I’ve lived to see my lost causes found.”
The issues that finished me in Queensland Politics were:
• The false stalker allegation that I intimidated a female MP.
• That allegation I slandered Councils with my claims of corruption.
• My support of a woman’s right to choose; and
• My focus on climate change and opposition to Adani.
Stalker Lies Debunked
The allegation that Petros Khalesirad was a stalker was thrown out of court. He was found not guilty in court in Rockhampton in December of 2017. The truth is he was a concerned citizen who wanted to meet in Parliament with an MP who would listen to him. He was never a threat to anyone. I was well and truly set up by my political opponents and I never received an apology.
Council Corruption Proven
In 2018 we saw action on local government corruption resulting in further mayors being charged with fraud and corruption vindicating my position on this matter. This included the sacking of the Ipswich Council which further gave credence to the document I had tabled in Parliament called “Ipswich Inc”.
Former Mayor Pisasale was charged with numerous offences by the Crime and Corruption Commission (CCC). His replacement as Mayor, Councillor Andrew Antoniolli was subsequently charged by the CCC with seven counts of fraud. On top of this the former CEO at the time of the corrupt behaviour was sentenced to 5 years in jail.
I was contacted by journalists from Fairfax and the Queensland Times who said that I must feel good to be vindicated. I replied sarcastically, “yes mate, I’m the happiest ex-politician on Centrelink benefits”. We both laughed, but were left wondering why my actions had not been greeted with more acclaim, and not met with such disdain.
A Woman’s Right to Choose
While I had suffered the backlash from the religious extremists who were opposed to anyone accessing abortion I knew that over time this was an issue where reform would come. It just needed politicians brave enough to stand up for women’s right to have control over their own bodies.
Attorney General D’ath and the Deputy Premier Jackie Trad kept their public commitment to have abortion removed from the Criminal Code. The law was changed in Queensland following a conscience vote by MPs on 17 October 2019. The state joined other jurisdictions in recognising the procedure must be handled as a health matter, not as a criminal matter. A matter that is best dealt with between a woman and her doctor.
Climate Change and Adani
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 that climate change is already affecting people with salt water intrusion into water supplies in the Torres Strait and many pacific islands. Many tropical islands are indeed gradually descending into the water as sea levels rise. This is not to mention that the more devastating natural disasters we are experiencing around the world are resulting in increased loss of life. Climate change is not just a problem for the future, it is our biggest problem right now!
I was and remain convinced that cities like Cairns will become ground zero for the impact of climate change. We will suffer a triple whammy. Firstly, we are a low-lying city, making us very vulnerable to sea level rise and inundation. Secondly, tropical cyclones will become much more intense, causing significantly greater damage and loss of life. Thirdly we will experience massive coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef and the impact on our tourism industry will be devastating. I found it unbelievable that so many civic leaders just stuck their head in the ground when we could have made a real difference, at a time when we could have done something about it.
Feelings of vindication of self-satisfaction do not go far. I had hoped for new opportunities outside of politics, but little did I know I was about to enter a difficult period that would last for more than a year.
The following twelve months was among the lowest periods of my life. I was physically, financially and emotionally a wreck. I found it so hard to cope with socialising, becoming a recluse and not leaving the house in Mount Sheridan for weeks on end.
The fact I had been campaigning so hard towards the end of 2017 removed my focus away from looking after my health. It was only after the election that 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 elective medical procedures that I had put on hold for ages.
As time drifted, from 2017 into early 2018 I also had to face the prospect that I may never work again. Before becoming a Councillor on Cairns Regional Council I had worked as a Regional Disability Liaison Officer based at James Cook University. It was a great job, but in Cairns jobs like that come around literally once in a lifetime.
It was fortunate for me that those important to me rallied around, especially my sister Joanne who help me financially and 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 before that I had never had a lot of money anyway. The loss of identity was much harder to cope with.
One frustrating and time-consuming chore was the interviews and paperwork required to transition from an independent wage back into the Centrelink disability system. Much of the first six months of 2018 was spent on this and obtaining a new wheelchair and continence aids. There was a lot of jumping through hoops to get back on the Disability Support Pension and negotiate access to the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS).
All of the issues I had been dealing with were manageable. However, the straw that broke the camel’s back was a Court action launched against me that was completely unexpected. Getting kicked when you are down is not a lot of fun and for the second time in my life I struggled to come to terms with a situation I had completely no control over. The situation would almost break me and saw me spend all of 2018 and the first half of 2019 in a virtual state of purgatory.
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