Cairns and Tropical Gardening with Rob Pyne

Conservative Cairns Council

Conservative Cairns Council

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Conservative Cairns goes to the Polls

Hate and Misogyny in the Air

As the 2012 local government elections approached, I was worried about my electoral prospects and feared a Conservative Cairns would elect a Team Unity Council.

Criticism of Council had focused almost 100% on Mayor Val Schier. However, as a progressive councillor, I knew I would receive my fair share of electoral pain. The hatred of Val was quite unfair, but I knew this sort of thing could be part and parcel of politics. After all, the Mayor becomes the public face of the council.

However, inside Council, there were the conservative Cairns councillors who opposed Val and wanted to see her defeated. There were also some disloyal staff members with conservative connections who intentionally undermined her.

What is a Conservative Council?

A Conservative Council is a Council where a majority of the members hold Conservative political beliefs.

Misinformation Reigns

The Deputy Mayor and others in the media who opposed the Cairns Entertainment Precinct had damaged public perception of the project. People repeatedly lied about the project. It eventually became the focal point of discontent.

Meanwhile, the misogynistic campaigns from a number of elderly and bitter white men in the community continued. Moreover, talk back radio and the tabloid Cairns Post never gave Mayor Val a chance. They spewed hatred at every opportunity.

Cairns Regional Council: Opponents Emerge

The various forces of discontent coalesced as the election drew closer. Two opposition teams prepared to reap the benefits of this discontent. First, Deputy Mayor Cochrane formed her team early on to run against the mayor. The second was the Unity Team, a re-incarnation of the team which had governed Cairns for eight years prior to 2008 under Kevin Byrne.

It was clear to me that Val did not have a chance, but she decided to run again anyway. She must have thought she had a chance, given her professional conduct in office. However, media coverage always trumps performance in office and I saw she would lose well in advance.

The left-leaning divisional candidates had no interest in joining a team under Val. As a result, Val re-contested her position as an independent. Running for Mayor on your own, without a team behind you, is a mammoth task – even if you are popular. I have never seen such a strategy succeed, especially not in the Cairns region. You cannot win without the support of a team.

Women Attacked

The Prime Minister at the time was Julia Gillard, and Tony Abbott was attacking her at every opportunity. Some Abbott supporters pretended gender was not a part of their attack, but the reality was otherwise. To demonstrate this hatred Abbott supporter Alan Jones from Radio 2GB, suggested that Gillard be put into a chaff bag and chucked into the ocean. Such was the level of malice towards female leaders.

At a polling booth at Bayview Heights, I saw angry, elderly white men walking in to vote – often with their wives following dutifully behind them – all determined to get rid of our first ever female Mayor.

Misogynistic Climate for Conservative Council
Misogynistic Climate for Conservative Council

It was clear that Bob Manning’s Unity Team was the most popular with voters. My opponent in Division 3 was a likeable gentleman by the name of Ian Hodge. He had door-knocked the whole area and was going to be very hard to beat.

Tanya and Leigh

As an experienced political figure in the city, I did my best to support two other independent candidates, Leigh Dall’Osto in Division 2 and Tanya Brooks-Cooper in Division 8.

Both women were highly capable and would have made excellent Councillors. However, it was a very misogynistic time. Indeed looking back it is hard to believe how anti-woman the sentiment in the community was. It was another sign of an increasingly conservative Cairns.

Demographics of Cairns

Like many regional Queensland cities, Cairns has an ageing population. Young people when they finish school often move to live in southern Capitals, either Brisbane, Sydney or Melbourne.

This is especially the case if they are interested in the arts and culture, are members of the LGBTQI community or have a progressive view of the world. There they manage to find inclusive communities that are welcoming to them. Most of these young people never return to Cairns. 

Consequently, the average age in Cairns is approximately 10 years older than Townsville. However, it is well known that older people are more likely to vote conservative. This has resulted in a swing to the right in Cairns politics, which has certainly made it harder for progressive candidates to get elected.

Conservative Cairns Council

On the night of the election, it only took a few minutes to work out that Mayor Val had been slaughtered at the polls and Bob Manning would be the next Mayor of Cairns.

Early in the night, it appeared the result of the race in Division 3 of Cairns Regional Council would be close. The first polling booth was counted and the vote split almost evenly. However, the first booth had been from quite a wealthy part of the area.

When the vote started to come in from lower-income neighbourhoods, particularly with higher Indigenous populations, I moved ahead. I ended up winning relatively comfortably.

I was happy that people could see where my heart was. As a local Councillor, I had always supported the battlers in the suburbs of White Rock and Woree. I cared greatly for those doing it tough, particularly our first people. I loved championing the cause of the underdog; those who nearly always lack a voice in government.

Unity Dominate Conservative Cairns Council

My friend Leigh Dall’Osto lost in Division 2 and Tanya Brooks-Cooper lost in Division 8, despite a frustratingly close count. However, thankfully the former Douglas Shire area re-elected Julia Leu.

Julia and I were therefore the only progressive councillors elected. Consequently, this made it clear the Unity Team had the numbers. They had the Mayor and 7 of the 10 Divisional Councillors. As a result, I had to accept that I would not play as significant a role now as I had on the Val Schier Council.

However, my greatest fear was for the future of the city-shaping Cairns Entertainment Precinct. Bob Manning had campaigned against it. However, I maintained the hope that once he saw the benefits it offered Cairns, he would support the project.

I was proud of the achievements of the Cairns Regional Council of 2008 to 2012 and the work I had done in my local community.

The Manning Conservative Council

A fresh election saw the people elect the following Cairns Councillors in 2012:

  • Division 1. Steve Brain
  • Division 2. John Schilling
  • Division 3. Rob Pyne
  • Division 4. Terry James
  • Division 5. Ritchie Bates
  • Division 6. Linda Cooper
  • Division 7. Max O’Halloran
  • Division 8. Jesse Richardson
  • Division 9. Greg Fennell
  • Division 10. Julia Leu
  • Mayor: Bob Manning

The only two progressives elected were myself (Independent Labor) and Julia Leu (Independent Green).

When there were divisions on the Manning Council, the vote would always split 8 – 2. Julia Leu and myself on one side and the Conservative Councillors on the other. Division usually occurred around issues of inappropriate development, the environment and protecting our unique tropical lifestyle. Julia and I saw eye-to-eye on many things, whereas the new Councillors had a different perspective.

Social and Environmental Scorecard

The Schier administration had introduced a social and environmental assessment scorecard (the scorecard) for every agenda item that came before Cairns Regional Council. This assessment involved reporting on the projected impact of each agenda item, considering issues such as climate change (fossil fuel emissions) and any contribution to social sustainability in Cairns.

The scorecard was simply one of a number of factors a Councillor could consider when voting on an agenda item. So when a new Councillor proposed that the scorecard be removed from Council reports (when considering Council agenda items,) it signalled a real value statement by the new conservative Council.

A resolution removing the ‘social environmental score card’ was passed by Council, despite opposition from Cr. Julia Leu and myself. The removal of the scorecard marked a real step backwards for sustainability.

Conservative Cairns Mayor Manning
Conservative Cairns Mayor Manning

Conservative Cairns Council Rejects Balloon Ban

I was distressed by the fact that balloons kill marine life and do so much damage to the environment, so I was happy to move a balloon ban for public areas that Council controlled. I could not believe it when conservative Councillors killed my reform. 

Death of the Entertainment Precinct

The coordinator of the Cairns Entertainment Precinct project was a woman by the name of Linda Cardew. Small in stature, but huge in capability, she was an amazing champion of her project.

Not long after the election, Linda made a presentation to Bob Manning and the new Council, outlining the business case for the Cairns Entertainment Precinct, including the fact that the capital funding was overwhelmingly coming from state and federal government. 

After seeing a presentation that could be described as compelling, it was clear the project was beneficial in every way including the triple bottom line. The Mayor said, “You might want to go away and think about what you said and come back with a different presentation next week”. To her credit, Linda came back next week with the exact same presentation. I admired her courage and commitment.

Linda Cardew
Linda Cardew

The Vote

When the Cairns Entertainment Precinct vote came to new Conservative Cairns Council, the Council Officer advice to proceed was defeated. Only Councillors Cooper, Leu and Pyne supported the project.

Bob Manning’s two most loyal and conservative Councillors, Terry James and John Schilling then put a motion to kill off the project. Council passed the motion 7:3 and that was the end of the Cairns Entertainment Precinct. Within a few weeks, CEO Lynn Russell and Linda Cardew had left council for good. 

While the decision to kill off the Cairns Entertainment Precinct destroyed careers within Council, the greatest cost was to the city itself. This major piece of infrastructure would have shaped the face of Cairns. Tragically, council abandoned the project. Millions in funding was lost forever.

The defeat of this project also saw an end to other associated infrastructure, such as the Grafton Street Car Park, the White’s Shed restoration and the beautification project The Greening of Grafton. It was devastating and there was no one to blame for the Cairns Entertainment Precinct fiasco but Bob Manning’s Unity Team.

Cairns Entertainment Precinct
Cairns Entertainment Precinct

Lyn Russell and the Separation of Power

The Val Schier Council appointed Lyn Russell as CEO. Consequently, she became Cairns Council’s first ever female CEO. I fully supported this appointment.  Indeed her appointment received a unanimous vote from Councillors.

Lyn was a former CEO of Thuringowa City near Townsville and came to Cairns from Wagga Wagga City Council where she had been General Manager since March 2008.

Conservative Council - Lyn Russell
Conservative Council – Lyn Russell

The appointment followed a two month long nation wide search for a new CEO which attracted over forty applicants from all states of Australia as well as New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States.

The CEO of a Council is often more important than even the Mayor! They are ‘in charge’ in terms of directing staff and controlling the executive arm of the organisation. They stop politics having an unhealthy influence in the day to day running of Council. 

When Council failed to act on the advice of Linda Cardew and Lyn Russell (on the continuation of the Cairns Entertainment Precinct), it was not a good sign for Lyn’s future as CEO. It was not long before her contract was terminated by Bob Manning and his Conservative Cairns Council.

Lyn’s departure was another blow. We had lost one of the best public administrators in local government. Lyn was a strong person, so I was deeply concerned that council staff would no longer be protected and thus subject to political interference. 

De-Amalgamation

During my first five years as a Councillor, the only issue I recall having disagreed with Julia Leu on was her crusade for the de-amalgamation of Cairns Regional Council. Julia had campaigned since 2008 for Cairns Regional Council to be de-amalgamated into its former constituent parts, a Cairns Council and a Douglas Shire Council.

Julia and other de-amalgamation campaigners were successful in convincing the LNP Newman Government to hold a de-amalgamation referendum. The poll was held on 9 March 2013, and  a majority of electors from the former Douglas Shire (57.61%) voted in favour of de-amalgamation.

For me, it was a disappointing result and I know there will be a price to pay down the track for Douglas Shire residents. They will find it hard to replace much needed infrastructure without the significantly greater rates base, that was available to them during the period 2008 to 2014.

Julia Leu experienced political victory in championing the Douglas Shire’s journey back to independence. Indeed she was subsequently elected the first Mayor of the reinstated Douglas Shire. 

Rob Pyne and Julia Leu
Rob Pyne and Julia Leu

The Lone Progressive on a Conservative Council

It is hard to explain what it is like being the only progressive on a conservative Cairns council. I find more honesty in a robust approach to politics. However, it is an unusual feeling to be in a room where you are strongly opposed to the remainder of the council, and none of them want you to be successful. So you really are on your own!

However as had been the case for more than 20 years, there was one person I knew would always be by my side, Jenny Pyne!

Jenny Pyne and Rob Pyne
Jenny Pyne and Rob Pyne

Spectacled Flying Fox

Cairns City was the home of one of the few remaining colonies of Spectacled Flying-Fox (pteropus conspicillatus). The endangered animal gets its name from the pale yellow or straw-coloured fur around its eyes, which give it a bespectacled appearance. 

Mayor Manning chose eliminating the flying fox from the city area as one of his major priorities. Unsurprisingly, I had a different view and was keen to raise my voice in support of the spectacled flying fox.

It was a sad indictment on the local community that the Mayor had popular support for his campaign. I was ridiculed from several quarters, including the local newspaper, who labelled me as Batman.

I believed these animals were an asset to our city. For me it was not just a matter of protecting an important native mammal species. I also believed that having the flying fox in the city was a benefit for tourism. There was never an afternoon you did not see numerous tourists filming the bats mass exodus from the CBD. 

Alas, this was another battle I lost. But who knows? White people have only lived in Cairns for 150 years or so. Maybe one day the bats will come back to reclaim a habitat that is rightfully theirs. 

Rob Pyne as Batman
Rob Pyne as Batman

Money Trumps Bats on Conservative Cairns Council

Ironically, it was some big operators in the tourism industry that wanted the bats moved out of the CBD. One of the things I disliked about my time on council, was the use of political influence in this way.

Council forced the bats out. However, they ended up in suburban areas. The poor people that lived in these suburbs just put up with them, lacking in the political influence to do much else.

The cost of moving them on was enormous. As the flying foxes are an endangered species, Council had all sorts of red tape and bureaucratic processes to go through, just to have approval to move them. Then came the massive task of employing staff to do this on a daily basis again.

The lunacy of seeing council staff or contractors walking around the CBD at 5 am in the morning, bashing pool noodles together was apparent to me, if not the Conservative Councillors. 

This ongoing re-location project was an extremely expensive waste of money. It was conducted to placate vested interests, to the detriment of an endangered species. 

Conservative Council

A Sad State of Affairs

I knew it was time for a change as we entered the second half of 2014. The lack of positive projects by an extremely conservative council left me uninspired. I was not happy with bickering with the mayor over everything from who deserved credit for the Lake Street extension, to his expensive plans to eliminate the city’s Spectacled Flying Fox colony.

I was not a fan of the Mayor or his Unity Team. However, it was clear that most of the damage being done to our city was by the Premier, Campbell Newman.

The Newman Government was elected in 2012. It was the worst Queensland Government I had known. Their slash and burn policies saw cuts to public health and education, hurting those who needed these services the most. So I wanted to work to hold Newman and the LNP accountable. Consequently, the best way I could do this was by running for Cairns in the State Parliament with Queensland Labor.

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