Champion of the Underdog

Champion of the Underdog
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Champion of the Underdog & Cairns  Council Revisited

To be a Champion of the Underdog is perhaps most meritorious cause one can have in life.

– Rob Pyne

Local Politics

The year 2019 reminded me that there are not many employment opportunities for an ageing quadriplegic. I was no longer a political Champion of the Underdog, but an underdog myself. During 2019, I spent a lot of time hanging around my local area. Having coffee at local shops and enjoying the occasional beer. I didn’t have a car for some time, so spent time rolling around town and hanging out at the shops. It filled up my time and kept up my local profile. The next round of local council elections, coming up in March 2020, were in the back of my mind.

After New Year I decided I would run for Council again. The sitting Councillor, John Schilling, was in my eyes not the most likeable of the sitting Unity Councillors. He held very Conservative views. Having Conservative views is one thing, but that Schilling was a climate change sceptic was too much to take. While local Councils may not be “big players” in addressing climate mitigation, their role is important. Every level of government must to do their bit to combat the climate emergency.

I realised quickly that no one else would be standing against Mr Schilling. So I decided to put my own name on the ballots in Division 2 of Cairns Regional Council.

Division 2 had been let down by Bob Manning at his Conservative Unity Council. They had failed on their promises to build Edmonton a new swimming pool and a new library. Projects had gone ahead in other parts of the city, while the suburbs of Edmonton and Bentley Park had missed out.

Income inequality was increasing and it seemed to me Division 2. where so many battlers and struggling families lived was the right place for me to champion! 

Surprisingly, campaigning had a wonderfully positive impact on my state of mind. I enjoyed getting out in the community, whether I was heading down to the shops or knocking on doors. Just getting out, talking to people walking in the sunshine, and breathing the fresh air was a tonic. It was a stark contrast to the depressing time I had spent pondering all my problems during the previous year.

Socialist Alliance

While my Council election campaign invigorated me, I still felt that there was something missing. I have always found it enjoyable to be around a group of people with a similar politics and worldview. But I had been missing this sort of social space since I lost my job as an MP. Fortunately, I caught up with my good friend Sarah Hoyle, a member of Socialist Alliance (SA).

The Cairns branch of SA was a group of passionate, like-minded socialists and supporters of the Green Left news service. The local SA Convenor, Jonathan Strauss, and his partner Carla Gorton had been close comrades of mine for many years. As long-term subscriber to Green Left, I joined SA early in 2020, and I have been a member ever since. I relish catching up with my fellow SA branch members at our monthly meetings. It is wonderful to be around progressive people with an understanding of the danger capitalism poses to our planet. I enjoy discussing social justice, political and environmental issues, and the way forward, with a collective sharing approach to policy.

Back on the Campaign Trail

Door-knocking familiar streets was an enjoyable experience. However, you need to spend up big to win an election. I saw a professional photographer to get my photos for my Rob Pyne campaign sign and publicity shot.

At the March 2020 local government elections, Mayor Bob Manning received another landslide vote, and was re-elected with an increased majority. Manning had run with his Unity colleagues and two Independents on his ticket. Only one candidate not endorsed by the mayor was elected. Fortunately, that was me!

Cairns Council 2020
Cairns Council 2020

COVID-19 and 2020 on Council

By the time the new Council was sworn in in March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic was well underway. COVID-19 dominated the social and political landscape for the following twelve months, and dramatically changed my work. Much of a Councillor’s job is social – including attending public events and talking to local people at community functions. Due to the pandemic, most of the events I would normally attend were cancelled. For those I could attend, I had to be ultra-cautious. My underlying health conditions meant that for me, contracting the COVID-19 virus would almost certainly be a death sentence.

I had to accept that my role on the 2020 Council would not be as significant as my work on the first Council I was elected to, or my role as an MP. Politically, my vote was not needed to get proposals across the line, nor was I able to stop resolutions that had been approved by the majority. Nevertheless, I enjoyed having my say, supporting projects I thought would help the community, and opposing proposals that were wrong and that I could not support.

Cairns Courthouse

The 2020 Cairns Courthouse upgrade was a pet project for Mayor Manning, and one I was happy to support. The Courthouse held special memories for me, as I actually remembered the days when it operated as a Courthouse. This was the same venue I attended back in 1990, when I was a young redneck charged with drink-driving.

Cairns Courthouse born anew.
Cairns Courthouse born anew.

The Council officers responsible for the upgrade, and the contractors did a wonderful job restoring a building to its former glory. In fact, the Courthouse was restored to a state finer than I ever remembered it! The building then became the part of the Cairns Art Gallery, and is a wonderful addition to our cultural precinct.

Cairns Dining Precinct

The Cairns Dining Precinct was another worthwhile project that I supported. This minor infrastructure development gave the Esplanade an important brighten-up and refreshed the area for locals as well as tourists. I was pleased with the design and work, and satisfied with the outcome.

Blackfellows Creek

It had always grated on me that the creek at Edmonton’s northern edge was called ‘Blackfellows Creek’. A name I thought was not appropriate in an inclusive, diverse, and multicultural community.

I tabled a motion to rename Blackfellows Creek, in an effort to promote diversity and inclusion and to show respect for the Traditional Owners.

Allan and May Oliver park

Around this time traditional owners also requested that Blackfellows Creek Park – located adjacent to Blackfellows Creek in Edmonton – be renamed Allan and May Oliver Park / Bana Gindarja Park. Allan and May Oliver were good people and having known and liked all their children. I was happy to advance the matter and delighted to get the support of council.

The Human Touch

With so many major policy issues captivating the world’s attention in 2020 – everything from climate change to the Trump fiasco in the US – being back on Council did make me feel just a little bit small-town and parochial. However, work at the local scale is deeply meaningful, and some of the personal interactions I had in my role as a local Councillor proved heart-warming and satisfying.

Council provides disabled access to local park
Council provides disabled access to local park

One such story involved a young man who had experienced a spinal cord injury, just as I had so many years ago. This young man had returned to Edmonton after rehabilitation in hospital and reconnected with his two-year old daughter. He told me how the only thing he could do with his daughter was play in the park, but complained that he could not get to the local park due to accessibility issues in the park’s design. I requested help for him, and I was delighted when Council officers constructed a little pathway for wheelchair access at the local park. Sure, it was not much – but it meant a lot, and these little gestures can mean a great deal sometimes.

Small projects like this and supporting public murals to lift community spirits make being a Councillor a joy.

2021 on Council

Barr Creek Bridge

A proposal came forward to construct a pedestrian and cycle bridge, linking the beachside suburbs of Holloways and Machans Beach. I thought this was a great initiative and was happy to support it. Not only was it in great investment in these two working class suburbs, but it was also an important link in the newly emerging Northern Beaches Leisure Trail.

Barr Creek Bridge
Barr Creek Bridge

Thanks for the wonderful staff at Council and the state government, the bridge was finished on time and on budget. I still believe the sort of links save lives by keeping pedestrian and cyclists off the road. It also greatly increased interconnectivity between Machans and Holloways, to the pleasure of residents and business.

Discretionary Funds

After my experience of politics, I was not supportive of elected representatives having discretionary funds. The idea that individual politicians can access general revenue and allocate funding according to their own priorities, is just not good practice. It is open to abuse and corruption.

However, discretionary funds were available allocated to me as the Councillor for Division 2 and I had to decide where the money was to go. For the 2021 year, I allocated them to construction of the mountain bike skills park in Edmonton. 

2021-22 Budget – Southside Neglect

My passion was to turn around years of Southside neglect. In particular Bob Manning’s broken promise of a new pool for Edmonton. The township of Edmonton also needed a new library, and investment in ageing infrastructure.

When I learnt the budget not only failed to address my immediate concerns for the Southside, but failed to include allocations in budget projections over the forecast for coming years I was bitterly disappointed. I decided to completely reject the Council Budget and repudiate the financial forecasts. This was the second time I had voted against a Council Budget. With only 1 vote I could not stop a Conservative Council screwing my constituents, but I damn sure that I could refuse to be party to it!

The Radical Councillor

It has always amazes me when common-sense positions taken by socialists people are described as ‘radical’ by centrists and the right. 

In my time back on Council I was not a speed my mind on issues facing our region, our nation and the world. 

The AUKUS Alliance

In an unprecedented move, the LNP Morrison Government decided to renege on Australia’s multi-billion-dollar agreement with the French to provide us with new submarines. 

To send Australia down a nuclear pathway with these two colonial nations, with so much blood on their hands, was disgraceful

Instead, the Morrision Government reached an agreement the United States and the UK, to build new nuclear-powered submarines for Australia at a cost of over $100 billion.

At the subsequent council meeting on 22 November 2021 following motion:

That council resolves it is opposed to the new AUKUS alliance – as a step in the wrong direction when Australia, together with New Zealand, could be leading the way on peace in the region.

The motion failed 1 vote to 9. How other councillors, so familiar with funding limits on community programs could support such an incredible and unnecessary waste, all in the name of military domination and imperialism, was beyond me. 

Built Heritage

Cairns Post building
Cairns Post building

Preserving the built heritage of our city was another passion of mine. It was not shared with other Councillors to the extent I would  have liked. However, I was pleased to have the opportunity to move for the heritage listing of the Cairns Post building. While the numbers were not on my side, it was great to have the opportunity to speak for this. I hope a future council will revisit it (as often happens with progressive initiatives).

The 2021 Decline of Mr. and Mrs. Pyne

A fair amount of literature discusses the experience of ageing with a disability but doesn’t adequately capture the ‘human side.’ In April 2021, I will be 54 years of age. Statistics show that the average life expectancy for a young man who breaks his neck at the age of 23 is about 49 years, so I had already lived for several years longer than what I called my ‘disability adjusted life expectancy.’

Ageing took its toll. The biggest thing I noticed was a decline in energy. There were also issues around my bladder and bowels and other problems. For example, my bones were starting to break more easily. While these breaks were all in parts of the body I could not use anyway, they did cause difficulties for me, such as increased muscle spasm.

Rob Pyne and Jenny Pyne
Jenny Pyne and Rob Pyne

I also found I was not as intellectually quick as I have been in the past, perhaps partly the result of my experience with drug addiction and almost certainly as a consequence of ageing. However, far more concerning to me was the bad news I received in 2021, in relation to Jenny’s health. While she had lost weight, grown stronger, and was going to the gym every day, Jenny had to face the tragic news that her kidneys were failing. It had always been my intention to exit this world prior to Jenny, and her health and well-being was important to me. I had no desire to live without her.

Jenny and Rob Face Harsh Reality

As 2020 drew to a conclusion, Jenny and I faced some harsh realities about what 2021 would hold in store for us. In December, Jenny was notified that she would need to go on dialysis in the New Year. This also meant that Jenny would go on the kidney transplant list.

Jenny had cared for me – got me up and about, looked after me – every day for 30 years, and while I wasn’t worried about myself, I was worried what would happen to her.

I overheard Jenny confessing to one of my support workers that if she needed to go to Brisbane for a must-have kidney replacement, she just wouldn’t go unless she had someone she trusted to look after me. While Jenny’s commitment to me was admirable, I was equally determined that she would get the care she was entitled to. It was the least I could do to repay her for all the many years of care and love she had provided to me.

With this in mind, my support worker Maja Betts and I started training up staff who would be able to get me up and bath me every morning and get me in my wheelchair.

Shame job

Growing up in Edmonton with many Indigenous friends, I learned to use many of the same expressions. One phrase for when you are made to do something uncomfortable, like speak in front of a class or do something else awkward in front of people, is ‘shame job’ – in other words, it’s shameful to do things that you don’t really want to do, or experience things you don’t really want to go through.

Jenny’s health decline had immediate impacts. One of the most immediate was having someone come out to our house in the morning to get me up and bath me.

It is quite confronting having someone you hardly know bath you and help you with personal care in the most intimate way. It certainly was a shame job for me, a 53-year-old who had been cared for by his wife for the previous 30 years. The experience made me realise what a massive commitment Jenny had made most of her life – and how much you only notice something once it’s gone.

Hallam’s SLAPP Suit

As always, family and friends came to Jenny and my aid. But if we were looking for sympathy, the one place we certainly wouldn’t find it was from the elderly but hateful CEO of the Queensland Local Government Association, Greg Hallam. The remained keen to settle the score with me from my time in Queensland politics.

Hallam continued to pursue his defamation case against me and others. Jason Ward and Desmond O’Connor were dropped from the claim, leaving Lyn O’Connor and myself as the only defendants. In my view defamation litigation and civil actions are an abuse of power by those with money and influence.

In contrast, I felt that I was in a strong position in relation to the allegations that I had defamed Mr Hallam. However, I could not afford to fight this battle 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 Lincoln truly said this, he must have been ‘cashed up’ at the time, because most ordinary people simply do not have the money to secure the services of a barrister to represent them in a high-profile civil matter.
My only option was self-representation. I wasn’t sure how I would go, trading points of law against a Senior Counsel in court, but I assumed I would perform poorly in comparison. This meant I had to seriously consider that I would lose the action – and be up for $500 000 that I simply didn’t have.

A Bankrupt Mindset

While my lack of money meant there would be no question of me ever paying a massive damages claim (should the court award one), there could nonetheless be consequences. Any award of damages against me would result in my almost immediate bankruptcy. And the big problem with official bankruptcy is that it results in a number of statutory provisions that can really limit one’s future options.

For example, once bankrupted, you can’t run for local government office. Once you are declared bankrupt, the local government minister has no alternative but to dismiss you.

It is hard to explain how these legal actions play on one’s mind. It is a bit of torture, really – it’s certainly legal bullying. Sometimes, you don’t hear from the other party for weeks on end, and think, “Ah, they’ve decided not to pursue the matter.” You start to emotionally get on with living your life – then suddenly, you get another email or letter which takes you one more step closer to the trial. Even then, the players can pull out at the last minute, so it’s hard to know what is happening with any certainty.

By 2021, I had really stopped caring, and regarded the whole action as somewhat of a joke. I had no assets anyway. I had nothing to lose. Unfortunately, the matter took much more of an emotional toll on my 83-year-old mother.

Champion of the Underdog

The COVID-19 pandemic and my declining physical condition combined to lead me to put my political activism online. Changing the world was something I was passionate about, and always would be. Expanding into the online space, together with spending more time at home, worked well for me.

I branded my online outlets CHAMPION OF THE UNDERDOG, and before I knew it, I had gained followers across several main platforms. These sites remain:

Facebook

Twitter

Instagram

LinkedIn

YouTube

Tumblr

Pinterest

Podcast

I deeply enjoy using these platforms to discuss and promote my eco-socialist beliefs and values. The challenging part about being a truly progressive soul is that you never reach a point where you can have a definitive manifesto written in black ink, that you will not need to change. Just as the status quo moves with progress over time, truly progressive people will always encounter new issues that they have to struggle with and interpret according to their values. Guiding values remain the same, while our understanding of the world grows.

One of the issues I gained a much greater understanding of during the early part of the 21st-century was the discourse around gender. While I had significant involvement with the Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual communities in Cairns, it was an illuminating experience for me to come to know transgender and non-binary people.

Jules and a Trans Friendship

As Jenny’s health declined, new carers and support workers came into my life. One such person was a young trans friend, Jules Seabright. Jules had moved to Cairns from Ohio, USA in February 2019. This geographical journey to the polar opposite side of the world was a metaphor for the personal journey she undertook to reach the peace and happiness to which she was entitled.

At our first meeting, Jules appeared to me no different than any other healthy young 27-year-old, other than her piercing blue eyes, consistent with her intense and focussed demeanour. The more I got to know Jules, the more I felt a great solidarity with her. Jules is highly intelligent, with a strong commitment to progressive values and activism, both around social issues and the climate disaster our planet faces.

Great Company

I so enjoyed Jules company, and our discussions, that only later did I realise that Jules was transmasculine, and mid-transition at that (but considers she/her some of her preferred pronouns).

‘After introducing Jules to the fine tradition of American folk music, she had a sticker made for my wheelchair in a nod to the great Woody Guthrie. It read “This machine kills fascists.” It remains there to this day.

The more we spoke and engaged, the more I understood non-binary people and the challenges of the trans community – another chapter in the struggle and resistance of minority groups in Far North Queensland, against the hegemony of the ruling classes.

Jules Seabright and Rob Pyne: Champion of the Underdog.
Jules Seabright and Rob Pyne

My friendship with Jules and other support workers, solidarity with my Socialist Alliance comrades, and my love for Jenny and my family all reminded me that personal relationships are every bit as important as the big political issues of the day.

All Chapters:

Struggle & Resistance in the Far North

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