A Moderate Council

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A Moderate Council – Cairns Council Revisited

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

– Rob Pyne

Local Politics

Champion of the Underdog Rob Pyne returns to Cairns Regional Council during a difficult time as Covid-19 strikes and turmoil reigns.

The year 2019 reminded me that there are not many employment opportunities for an ageing quadriplegic. During 2019, I spent a lot of time hanging around my local area, having coffee at local shops and enjoying the occasional beer. I did not have a car for a long period, so I 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 quickly realised 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.

Broken Promises

Division 2 had been let down by Bob Manning and 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 political 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.

On the Campaign Trail as Champion of the Underdog

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.

Cairns Council 2020
Cairns Council 2020

At the March 2020 local government elections, Mayor Bob Manning received another landslide vote. He 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!

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 Name prompts Champion of the Underdog

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.

Miraculously, my resolution was passed. Further consultation then occurred with Gudju Gudju Fourmile and the traditional owners. They suggested the previous and more appropriate Yidinji name of Gindarja Creek (meaning Cassowary Creek) be reinstated.

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.

Champion of the Underdog – 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. I was delighted when Council officers constructed a little pathway for wheelchair access at the local park. Sure, it was not much – but these little projects 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 to the wonderful staff at Council and the state government, the bridge was finished on time and on budget. I know this sort of pedestrian and cycle link save lives. They keep pedestrian and cyclists off the road. They also connect communities. In this case the bridge increased interconnectivity between Machans and Holloways, to the pleasure of residents and business.

Discretionary Funds for Champion of the Underdog

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 allocated to Division 2 . So 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.

I learnt the budget not only failed to address my immediate concerns for the Southside. Worse, it 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. However, I was damn sure that I could refuse to be party to it!

The Radical Councillor

It has always amazed 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 afraid to speak my mind on issues facing our region, our nation and the world. 

Champion of the Underdog Calls for Welfare Reform

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. 

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

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

At the subsequent council meeting on 22 November 2021 I moved the 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).

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 as “CHAMPION OF THE UNDERDOG”. Subsequently, I gained followers across several main platforms. These sites remain:

Facebook

Champion of the Underdog

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 truly progressive is that you never reach a point where you have a final manifesto written in black ink. Just as the status quo moves over time, truly progressive people will always move forward as they encounter new issues and research. You have to struggle with and interpret new issues and information according to your values. Progressive values remain the same, but policies change, as our understanding of the world grows. This contrasts with Conservatives, some of who resort to a 2 000 year old text to justify outdated ideas.

Supporting LGBTIQ People

One of the issues I gained a much greater understanding of during this time was the discourse around sex and 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 more transgender and non-binary people.

Trans people continue to suffer from bigotry and discrimination. In my view you must champion trans people, if you want to be a Champion of the Underdog!

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 a personal journey. That is the transition journey Jules undertook to reach peace and happiness.

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 facing our planet.

Great Company for Champion of the Underdog

I so enjoyed Jules company, and our discussions, that only later did I realise that Jules was trans-masculine, and mid-transition. After introducing Jules to the fine tradition of American folk music, Jules 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. Woodie was the quintessential Champion of the Underdog so I was honoured indeed.

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 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.

Hallam’s SLAPP Suit

Jenny and I had had a tough year or two. However, if we were looking for sympathy, the one place we would not find, it was from the ageing but hateful CEO of the Queensland Local Government Association, Greg Hallam.

Hallam and the LGAQ remained keen to settle a score with me from my time in Queensland politics. Up against a Corporation, it was a case of ‘Champion of the Underdog’ becomes underdog. My chances did not look good.

They Try to Break any Champion of the Underdog

Hallam continued to pursue his defamation case against me and others. He had dropped Jason Ward and Desmond O’Connor from the claim. This left 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 allegations 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 credited with the quote, “He who represents himself has a fool for a client.” If Lincoln truly must have been ‘cashed up’ at the time. 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. I assumed I would perform poorly in comparison. So I had to seriously consider that I would lose the action. I could be up for $500 000 that I simply didn’t have.

A Bankrupt Mindset

My lack of money meant there would be no question of me ever paying a massive damages claim. However, there would be consequences.

Any award of damages against me would result in my almost immediate bankruptcy. The big problem with official bankruptcy is that it results in a number of statutory provisions that can hurt. For example, once bankrupted, you can’t run for local government office. The local government minister has no alternative but to dismiss you once you are declared bankrupt.

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. Hence you 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. Still the plaintiff can pull out at the last minute. So it’s hard to know what is happening with any certainty.

By the end of 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.

Borders Opened

Since the beginning of the Covid-19 outbreak, the Queensland Government had maintained strong border laws. This allowed them to prevent widespread outbreaks in Queensland. Any time Covid came in, they manage to isolate it.

However, by December 2021, Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk simply had enough. She caved into pressure from the tourism and business community. She opened the borders. As a result of this decision and the new omicron variant, Covid would sweep Queensland for the first time.

As a person with limited lung capacity, I knew the dangerous position I was in. However, I was more concerned for other people in the community with underlying conditions. As always, it was the most vulnerable people in the community who I felt should have been put first.

The year 2022 did not look as if it would be kind to me, but it sure did look interesting.

All Chapters:

Struggle & Resistance in the Far North

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