My final official speech as Councillor for the Gabba Ward was delivered in the Brisbane City Council chamber during General Business on Tuesday, 28 March, 2023...
I first acknowledge and offer my deepest respect to the Jagera and Turrbal peoples, who I recognise as the true owners and custodians of so-called Brisbane, and whose sovereignty over this land was never ceded.
In the context of the many tens of thousands of years of human occupation of the Maiwar Valley, this institution we call Brisbane City Council is still a new, young, fleeting thing of questionable legitimacy, that over its short history has done more harm than good to the rights and interests of First Nations people.
All of us here are complicit in the continuing exploitation and dispossession of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and we are obligated to help heal wounds, rectify ongoing wrongs, and to pay rent or compensation for land which was stolen and not returned.
I acknowledge the unreconcilable tension of holding elected office within a system of colonial government that has blood on its hands. I hope I’ve used my position to advance and support First Nations struggles for sovereignty and justice. And I apologise for any times when I’ve mis-stepped or fallen short of what was needed.
Today is a little sad for me, leaving this role I’ve been so passionate about. But it’s also a relief, because being one of relatively few public figures who argue for deep, systemic change and social transformation hasn’t been easy. And I need to rest.
So I’d like to thank my friends and extended family for supporting me on this strange, self-flagellating path I’ve taken.
I’d like to thank all the residents of the Gabba Ward and the wider city who’ve worked collaboratively with me and trusted me to represent them – particularly the many overlapping creative, counter-cultural, radical communities that have had my back, and have held me accountable.
Thanks to all the Greens supporters, staffers and elected reps from across Brisbane and around the country who’ve assisted my work, and who have been brave enough to hit share on some of my saucier online commentary. Thanks in particular to my current and former ward office staff, who’ve been among my greatest supports and strategic advisors, and who deserve much of the credit for all the cool stuff our office has accomplished.
And thanks to Trina Massey for stepping up. It’s much easier moving on when I know that such a fierce, sharp, kind-hearted person will be taking on my role. Good luck Trina. We will definitely have your back.
Thanks also to all the Brisbane City Council staff and contractors I’ve worked with, from the cleaners and clerks here in city hall to the senior managers and policy advisors. For what it’s worth, I think the council’s bus drivers and garbage collectors are underpaid, and the CEO, the divisional managers, and all the councillors in this chamber are grossly overpaid. I do especially want to thank all the rebels within ALL levels of the council, who’ve quietly sought out opportunities to bend dumb rules and sidestep ill-suited policies in order to achieve better outcomes for the environment and the people we serve.
Of course, at the top of my thankyou list are my mum, my Appa, my sister and my partner Anna. I’ve copped a lot of criticism and outright racist abuse from some of those who have a vested interest in maintaining an unjust status quo, but the unconditional love, loyalty and surprise home-cooked curries has made it all bearable.
To my partner Anna, you’ve been a co-conspirator, occasional media strategist, a source of wisdom and new insights and joy and so much more. I love you deeply, and I’m so excited to be able to spend more time together over the coming months.
When I first stepped into city hall 7 years ago, a senior council staffer told me I had to wear a suit and tie, and could get kicked out of the chamber if I didn’t. So I bought a tie at the mall and kept it in my backpack just in case, but I walked into this chamber dressed the way I wanted to dress. And I didn’t get kicked out.
I’ve replicated that approach throughout my time in office. Just because someone in a position of power tells you certain ideas or actions are unconventional or against the rules, doesn’t mean you should listen to them. It doesn’t mean positive change is impossible, or that resistance is futile.
Back in 2016, even a lot of Greens supporters wrongly believed we had to water down our vision for a different, better world, and moderate our messages to appeal to an imagined conservative mainstream.
But we set out to demonstrate we could argue unapologetically for bolder, more ambitious changes, while winning more people to our cause. And I have to say, it’s working pretty damn well.
Since the 2016 Gabba Ward campaign, the Greens vote in Brisbane has grown faster and more consistently than anywhere else in the entire country. We’re now a serious political force in Queensland, with seven federal and state seats, and maybe by this time next year, at least half a dozen wards on Brisbane City Council as well.
But the radical messages and tactics have also delivered immediate outcomes on the ground. Considering that I’m just one lonely councillor in a hyper-partisan chamber of 27, we’ve helped catalyse an impressively long list of positive shifts in this city.
Sometimes this was by proposing ideas that the major parties criticised but then later enacted, like turning Victoria Park Golf Course into genuine public parkland.
Sometimes it was articulating demands we knew they were never going to support, but then threatening to win seats off them so they at least met us part-way, like free off-peak bus travel for seniors.
And sometimes it was just by causing disruption and becoming such a nuisance that it was easier to agree to my requests than ignore them, like getting new pedestrian crossings installed, protecting trees from the council chainsaws, or even introducing live video streaming of these council meetings.
But I’ve always first tried to take a respectful, collaborative approach with other councillors and the administration, and I thank those who have returned that respect. My office has compromised and negotiated when we had to, but we’ve done it from a position of strength, because we’ve stayed true to our principles and embedded in our community.
Unfortunately though, none of this has been enough. After 7 years of advocacy, we still don’t even have safe bike lanes along Vulture St, and the government is still spending more money on Olympic stadiums than public housing. They’re closing schools and opening casinos.
My time here has shown me the hard limits of electoralism as a standalone strategy for achieving social justice and ecological restoration. This entire system – including the council public service – has been structured to defend an unjust, extractivist order that benefits a privileged few, while brainwashing the majority into believing a better world isn’t possible. It is deeply naïve to think we just have to get a few more ‘good’ people elected and then everything will get better.
When I first won the Gabba ward, I actually had more faith in the potential of progressive government and running for office than I do now. I still think there’s significant strategic value in contesting elections to help tip the scales, but as they say in Barcelona, we must have one foot in the institutions and a thousand feet in the street.
It’s not that the individual politicians in this chamber are all personally corrupt. It’s not even that the major parties still take campaign donations from the corporate sector. It’s because this overly-hierarchical bureaucratic pseudo-democracy eventually reduces everyone who engages with it to faint shadows of what they could be – makes them afraid of deeper transformation. It narrows their thinking and turns them into bickering windbags.
Even the very layout of this chamber shows it’s a space for adversarial political theatre rather than democratic discourse. Just look at the way the LNP and Labor football teams insist on sitting opposite each other, or how we’re all facing these oversized colonial flags, with our backs to the public gallery and the people we represent. That’s a clue about how this place operates.
We should be thinking globally and acting locally. But this system teaches people to think parochially and act selfishly.
It's a toxic, stultifying world, so I’m really happy that I’m getting out of here before it changes me too much… Before I’m corrupted or co-opted into selling out. So I’ll end as I started, with a poem…
I’m seeking samples of the slowest tree species
whose seeds sleep dormant in the soil for decades before even sprouting
trees that only grow a finger-width or so each year
and won’t offer shade or bear fruit until my grandchildren’s grandchildren are hunched over and wrinkled
I’m planting these seeds everywhere
from dusty dry highways to forgotten factory ruins
as an act of utopian rebellion
because I’m audacious enough to believe that lifetimes from now, someone will still be around to enjoy them
and humanity won’t have been reduced to a few self-centred scavengers with drab fashion sense and bad teeth
Cos when I’m switching radio stations
flicking from protest songs composed by computer algorithms
to news coverage of corrupt politicians
I can hear faint frequencies of other futures
through the static
between the official radio channels…
Whispers of a world where ‘homelessness’ has become a punchline because the notion that a fellow human would ever be left alone out in the cold is laughable and impossible to conceive
a world where veggie gardens are afforded the same care and reverence as we give to bank accounts
where the prisons have all been turned into art galleries
and the flower meadows are reclaiming wastelands
I may not live to witness this
but at a time when single-sentence presidential tweets trigger military invasions,
when politicians don’t plan ahead beyond the next election,
and dystopianism has become cliché…
becomes the most radical form of political resistance
We smuggle hope
hidden within the linings in the backs of picture frames
and in tightly sealed jars with faded labels
bequeathing it to our descendants in secret
See, I don’t believe the future is dead yet
there’s a lot of good books that I still haven’t read yet
a lot of great songs that haven’t even been played
lotta beautiful friendships that are yet to be made
and yeah the climate’s way unbalanced and that keeps me up at night
and the super-bug reports sometimes give me a fright
robots to enslave us, and no-one else to save us
entire ecosystems collapsing overnight
but there are movements of resistance hijacking the machine
turning whole cities green
polluted rivers clean
people rising up, building ladders out of prison bars
throw away the old map, clear the smog, see the stars
We are gonna get through this
the sun will have to rise again eventually
So I’m writing love letters to the distant future
I’m planting these slow growing seeds
where they won’t get washed away
And even though I know I won’t get to see it for myself
They’ll be a forest one day
(Poem Copyright: Jonathan Sriranganathan)