Speech at St John's Cathedral: Can we stop the Queen's Wharf Mega-Casino?


December 5, 2016

Now, perhaps more than ever before, the short-term financial interests of multinational corporations are dictating how our city evolves and develops. We’ve seen this with the private construction boom – which is not improving housing affordability for people on low incomes, we’ve seen this with the prioritisation of state-subsidised mega-projects like stadiums and coal mines while local infrastructure projects go unfunded, and we’ve seen this with various asset sell-offs and governmental attempts at privatisation by stealth.

And now, we’re seeing this with the Queen’s Wharf mega-casino.

I submit to you that we as citizens of Brisbane can and should be organising a massive citywide campaign against this project, not only because we think this particular site should be developed differently, but because the public input into this development and so many other developments throughout the city has been a tokenistic and undemocratic sham.

If we don’t draw a line in the sand, if we don’t offer at least some form of resistance, this will keep happening. Every square metre of Brisbane will be privatised, commodified and reshaped for corporate profit. That might sound like hyperbole, but let’s consider for a moment what’s happening here...

Without any meaningful public consultation, and without substantive discussion or debate prior to the last state election, the Queensland government is handing over 13+ hectares of public, riverfront land and a further 13 hectares of the Brisbane river on a 99-year lease for private apartments, luxury hotel rooms and a casino. I say again: we’re talking about public land.

I spend a lot of my time as a councillor arguing that we need more public housing and community housing in the inner-city, that we need more useable green space, and the most common response I get from representatives of the state government is that they don’t own any more land to develop on. And now they’re practically giving away 10% of the CBD for a mega-casino. If we let them get away with this unchallenged, what’s next?

The most common response I hear from people when I talk about this issue is a sense of powerlessness. That it’s too big, that it’s too hard, that it’s already been approved. That is how they want us to feel. These companies deliberately talk about their projects like they’re already a done deal, like they’ve already been built, because they know that we will offer less resistance. They want us to feel like it’s too late.

When our elected representatives fail to act in the long-term interests of our city, it falls to us as citizens – as members of what we used to call civil society – to hold them to account.

I put it to you that the negative social and economic impacts of gambling, and the potential value of this land that’s being handed over, far exceeds whatever compensation the state government might have to pay in order to back out of its preliminary agreements.

Down in Victoria, a powerful community campaign saw the government back away from the massive East-West link, which would’ve seen an unjustified tollway mega-project rammed through dozens of neighbourhood communities.

At the start of that community campaign, people said it was futile. That it was too big. That the deals had already been done. But by the end of the campaign, they had senior politicians tripping over themselves to do a complete 180. They won. And their victory offers some useful insights into how we can resist this project here in Brisbane. Even if we can’t stop it altogether, we can certainly push for fewer poker machines, better design outcomes, more riverside parkland and maybe even a component of affordable housing.

So I’d like to propose something of a strategic roadmap to victory. Much of this is encapsulated in the brochure that we’ve handed out called ‘How Can We Stop the Queen’s Wharf Mega-Casino?'

It’s useful to begin our analysis by asking, what does success look like? To put it simply, success looks like the state government reversing its position. Now there are several factors working in our favour. The first is that there’s a state election coming up, most probably within the next twelve months. The second is that we suspect that some Labor MPs and the majority of Labor Party members are already opposed to this project. The third is that not so long ago, Queensland saw a large campaign against asset sales, and the government will be nervous about a repeat of that. So all we need to do is find the right weak points, and apply pressure through multiple channels.

As I’ve said in the brochure, this project has so many flaws and concerning elements that will be relevant to a wide range of demographics, community groups and stakeholders… The heritage impacts, the massive apartment towers, the privatisation of public land, the likely loss of remnant mangrove species, the significant social harms of problem gambling. And of course, that deeper question: what kind of city do we want Brisbane to become? Do we want our defining landmark – the thing that we are known for internationally - to be a massive casino resort?

But the first challenge is that most Brisbanites don’t even know the details of this development. So we need to use a range of strategies to get the word out. A residents’ group called the Right to the City has already started organising a few forums about the casino in suburbs like West End. And they’re happy to help co-organise more. So I’m hoping that some of you here tonight will put your hand up to help organise smaller versions of tonight’s forum in your own communities and social circles - in church halls, meeting rooms and sports clubs right throughout Brisbane. Because people need to know what’s going on.

If you’re up for that, we can provide a lot of support and guidance in terms of organising speakers, setting up the PA system, helping you promote it etc. So if you’d like to co-organise one of these information sessions, sign up down the front of the cathedral.

As more people become aware of this development, we can organise letter-writing campaigns to ministers and MPs. We can go doorknocking and we can talk to people at supermarkets and street corners.

But as was demonstrated with the East-West link project down in Victoria, we also need direct action and civil disobedience to delay this project, to make the multinational investors nervous, and to draw more attention to our key concerns about this mega-development.

I’m willing to get arrested to stop this going ahead, and I know a lot of other people are too.

There are a lot of us who work in industries that might be involved in different parts of this project, and I encourage you to consider organising strikes and other forms of collective action within your workplace. We’re talking about an industry that uses gambling addiction to suck wealth from poor and marginalised people. An exploitative, unethical industry. So I encourage all of you to reflect on whether it is right to work on a project that will cause so much harm, or whether you should make the courageous, difficult choice to say ‘no’.

We must reject misleading and exaggerated job creation figures, and recognise that the state government could create plenty of construction jobs by building public housing. That there are plenty of tourism dollars in creating another riverside parkland to mirror South Bank. That it is more sustainable to create a diversified economy revolving around the arts, music, science and technology rather than spending all our chips at the casino.

We need to share a positive alternative vision. We do want this site to develop. But we know it can be done better.

Ultimately though, I think this campaign will come down to votes. We need to target senior inner-city Labor MPs who are worried about losing their seats, so that they will then put internal pressure on their party to back away from this project.

This is, in some senses, a test of our democracy. This project is so outrageous that it should never have seen the light of day. The fact that it’s got this far tells me that we as Brisbanites need to start standing up for ourselves.

This isn’t just about this one development. This is about who profits from the evolution and transformation of our city. Should the wealth flow only to the big end of town, or should we all share in it? Should the big decisions be made behind closed doors, or should we all get a say?

So please, if you haven’t already done so, sign up to keep in the loop about the campaign. Put your hand up to help organise an information session in your own community. Start talking about what forms of direct action are most strategically effective. Talk to your friends and colleagues about why they should boycott contracts related to this project. And get political. I genuinely believe that we can win this one. But even more than that, on principle alone, we can’t let them get away with this without a fight.