Cairns and Tropical Gardening with Rob Pyne

My Cairns

My Cairns Council Return

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My Cairns Council is Your Cairns Council. Council belongs to all of us. It belongs to the people.

– Rob Pyne

My Cairns Qld

Despite being on the outer politically, as a true blue local I never felt I did not have a stake in things, after all, even when the dreaded Unity Team has the numbers, it is my Cairns too. This was the case as Jenny and I experienced difficult times and Covid-19 came and went.

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.

Upon my exit from state parliament, I had enough money to buy a new wheelchair accessible car. It was a Kia Carnival with rear ramp access. However, I had to wait many months from purchasing the car to getting the modifications done in Sydney and having the car sent back to Cairns. I had already sold my own car to a family that needed a disability accessible vehicle for their daughter.

As I did not have a car for a long period, I spent time rolling around town and hanging out at the local 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.

In the 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 the fact that Schilling was a sceptic of anthropogenic climate change was too much for me to take.

While local Councils may not be “big players” in addressing climate mitigation, their role is important. Every level of government must do their bit to combat the climate emergency. So I decided to put my own name on the ballots in Division 2 of Cairns Regional Council. I hoped the people of Cairns would elect a more moderate council.

Broken Promises from Cairns Unity

I beleived 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 live, was the right place for me to champion. However, wherever I looked I could see the gap between the rich and the poor increasing. Much of central and west Cairns was also struggling, with more residents living in poverty.

Personally, I had overcome my electoral loss and the periods of depression that followed. 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.

Simply getting out, talking to people, walking in the sunshine, and breathing the fresh air proved a real 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. The local SA Convenor, Jonathan Strauss, and his partner Carla Gorton had been comrades of mine for many years and I was a long-term subscriber to Green Left.

Consequently, I joined SA early in 2020, and I have been a member ever since. 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.

My Cairns Qld

Door-knocking familiar streets I grew up around was an enjoyable experience. However, you need to spend money to win an election. I saw a professional photographer to get a publicity shot for my campaign signs and online promotion, and I was back into the cut-and-thrust of local politics.

Rob Pyne
Rob Pyne

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!

The people of Cairns elected the following Council in 2020:

  • Division 1. Brett Moller
  • Division 2. Rob Pyne
  • Division 3. Cathy Zeiger
  • Division 4. Terry James
  • Division 5. Amy Eden
  • Division 6. Kristy Vallely
  • Division 7. Max O’Halloran
  • Division 8. Rhonda Coglin
  • Division 9. Brett Olds
  • Mayor: Bob Manning

COVID-19 and 2020/21 on My Cairns Council

By the time the new Council was sworn in, the COVID-19 pandemic was well underway. COVID-19 dominated the social and political landscape for the following twelve months, and dramatically changed the nature of 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. With her kidneys failing, Jenny was vulnerable as well.

I feared my role on the new Council would not be as significant as my work on the first Council I was elected to, or my role as an MP. Voting is always about the numbers and the Unity Team had the numbers. 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.

However, the Unity Team did not always vote as a block. So I was able to have my say, supporting projects I thought would help the community, and opposing proposals that were wrong and that I could not support.

Moderate Council 2020
Council 2020

2021-22 Budget – The Edmonton Pool and Growing Inequality

My passion was to turn around neglect of our poorer suburbs. In particular I had campaigned on 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 2021/22 budget failed to address my immediate concerns for the Edmonton pool and my wider concerns of neglect is the inner-city and west-Cairns.

The cost of the Edmonton Pool was just over 9 Million, of which the state government had granted 3 Million. However, all other Councillors opposed allocating the additional 6 Million from Council funds to build the pool.

Worse, Council also failed to include the Edmonton Pool in budget projections 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 other Councillors screwing my constituents. However, I was damn sure that I would refuse to be party to it!

My Cairns App

One of the interesting aspect of Council I learnt about was the My Cairns App. It is marketed my Council as the “The app for everyday life in Cairns. Check out events and activities, get bin night reminders, snap and send to report a problem to Council, and more!”

Supporting Good Projects

Cairns Courthouse

The 2020 Cairns Courthouse upgrade was a pet project for Mayor Manning. However, it was an initiative all Councillors were 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.

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

Cairns courthouse
Cairns Courthouse

Barr Creek Bridge

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

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 saves lives by keeping pedestrian and cyclists off the road. They also connect communities. Indeed the Barr Creek bridge increased interconnectivity between Machans and Holloways, to the pleasure of residents and local businesses.

Barr Creek Bridge
Barr Creek Bridge

Cairns Council

My Council delivers Cairns Dining Precinct

The Cairns Dining Precinct was another worthwhile project that I supported. This 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.

However, the project did leave a ‘sour aftertaste’ for me personally, when I found out the 3 Million that had been granted to the Edmonton pool had been re-allocated to the Esplanade. I can’t say for sure why state government agreed to the re-allocation.

However, I believe the fact there was a state election at the time and the seat of Cairns was more marginal than Mulgrave may have had something to do with it. Spending the money in the Cairns electorate would have shored up Micheal Healy’s vote at just the right time.

A Moderate Council and a 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.

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.

park access for disabled
Park Access for Disabled

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

Discretionary Funds for Champion of the Underdog on a Moderate Council

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. The following year it was spent on an accessible change room for the cricket club based at Walker Road in Edmonton.

Opposing Inequality and Imperialism

It has always amazed me when common-sense positions taken by socialists 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. 

Call for Welfare Reform

Australia had reached record levels of wealth inequality and income inequality. A situation that is unsustainable and morally indefensible. Newstart recipients had to survive on less than $40 a day and neither the government or the opposition supported increasing it.

The Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) ran a national advocacy action to reduce poverty and inequality. The campaign was called ‘Raise the Rate’. It was a campaign I wholeheartedly supported.

Moderate Council and 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 $500 billion to be spent over 30 years.

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 September 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

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.

My Cairns Council rejects heritage listing
My Cairns Council rejects heritage listing

Blackfellows Creek Name prompts action by moderate council

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, 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 other traditional owners. They suggested the previous and more appropriate Yidinji name Bana Gindarja (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 with strong links to Council and the community. I knew and respected all their children, so I was happy to advance the matter and delighted to get the support of council.

Moderate Council Names Park
Moderate Council Names Park

My Cairns Council adopts Climate Plan

I did not agree with other Councillors on many issues. However, I was delighted when Council committed to achieving net zero emissions by 2030 and moving to 100% renewable energy.

On Wednesday the 23rd of March 2022, Council adopted the Cairns Climate Change Strategy 2030 to guide Council’s climate actions for the next decade.  The Strategy also supported the community to progress towards Queensland’s emissions reductions target of 30% below 2005 levels by 2030 and net zero emissions by 2050.

Mayor Bob Manning accurately observed that Cairns was particularly vulnerable to the potential impacts of climate change. He said, “A tidal wave of evidence is mounting that climate change is already impacting the environment – global temperatures are rising, glaciers have shrunk, and plant and animal habitats have shifted.”

“In the past 22 years, we have experienced our warmest 20 years on record. Australian average temperatures are now 1.44C higher than when national records began in 1910.

“As the guardians of two World Heritage-listed natural environments – the Great Barrier Reef and Wet Tropics Rainforest – it is our responsibility to do all we can to protect these assets and our lifestyle.”

Council Votes for Climate Plan

Climate action had long been associated with left activism in Australia. In adopting a strategy to cut emissions, moving to renewable energy, and mitigating and adapting to the impacts of climate change, my colleagues were helping me to exit stage left.

I was bemused that my conservative colleagues on Council were supporting such strong action on climate. Nevertheless, I was delighted! It meant that environmental considerations would be embedded in Council’s governance, leadership and decision making, to support a Smart Green Economy. It seemed to me most of my fellow Councillors were starting to ‘get it’.

By 2022 the wider Cairns community was also starting to ‘get it’. Extensive consultation was undertaken in developing the Strategy with engagement with more than 2,300 people. These people, included technical experts, industry representatives, climate action advocates, community members, Traditional Custodians, youth representatives and researchers.

The Cairns Climate Change Strategy 2030 reinforced that Council recognised the important role it has in preserving the natural environment. This included supporting the community to make greener choices, and assisting in mitigating the effects of climate change.

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.

Content on my interests and passions were eventually distilled down and articulated on the following websites:

Cairns and tropical gardening: https://www.robpyne.com.au/

Disability Life: https://disabilitylife.info/

Socialist Australia: https://socialistaustralia.org/

Survive Climate Change: https://survive-climate-change.com/

I branded my social media outlets “Champion of the Underdog“. Subsequently, I gained followers across several main platforms. These are Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube and Tumblr. I even created my own 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 move forward. While progressive values remain, policies must change, as our understanding of the world grows.

This contrasts with Conservative (and even some moderates), who often refer to 2000 year old scripture to justify their outdated ideas and beliefs. Whether Christian, Muslim, Buddhist or Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, ancient script should not impede the sensible functioning of a modern democracy.

Supporting LGBTIQ People

One of the issues I gained a much greater understanding of during this time was the discourse around sexuality 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!

My Cairns has a Place for Trans Folk

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 while on a Moderate Council

I so enjoyed Jules’s 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. Their battle was yet another chapter in the struggle and resistance of minority groups in Far North Queensland. A struggle against bigotry, discrimination and the hegemony of the ruling class.

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.

Jules Seabright and Rob Pyne
Jules Seabright and Rob Pyne

Hallam SLAPP interrupts moderate council

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 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 the underdog. My chances did not look good.

They Try to Break Champion of the Underdog

Hallam continued to pursue his defamation case against me and others. He had dropped corruption campaigner 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 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 credited with the quote, “He who represents himself has a fool for a client.” If so Lincoln truly believed this, he must have been ‘cashed up’, 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. 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 on a My Cairns Council

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 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 was tortuous really – certainly it was 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.

My Cairns as 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 managed 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. It was the most vulnerable people in the community who were among the 7 Million who died across the globe. Fortunately, unlike so many who died, I had the advantage of being double vaccinated.

The year 2022 did not look as if it would be kind to me, but it sure did look interesting. I still hoped to complete my term on our moderate council. However, before I could, LGAQ defamation litigation placed me in the middle of my very own courtroom drama.

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