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Why have the Greens 'suddenly' started winning seats in Queensland?

In the space of a couple days, a lot of journalists and political commentators (including some Greens members from down south) have apparently become experts on the growing electoral success of the Greens in Queensland, despite the fact that very few of them seemed to have paid close attention to what’s been happening here over the past 7 or 8 years.

Many of these explanations (particularly from major party supporters) are hilariously simplistic, maybe because some people are trying to convince themselves that there’s an easy, straightforward way to counteract what’s happened. They sound more like wishful thinking than robust analysis… “Oh the Liberals lost because we didn’t put forward enough strong female candidates!” (Yeah sure mate… That might be part of it, but the collapse in both the major parties’ primary votes is far more fundamental, long-term and chronic.)

Greens victories in the senate and multiple lower house seats around Brisbane might seem like they’ve come out of nowhere, or that they’re purely attributable to concerns about climate change. But there’s way more going on here.

At all levels of government, the Queensland Greens vote has been rising steadily – particularly in Brisbane – in consecutive elections since 2016, but it hadn’t resulted in us actually winning many seats. We came close to snagging four more Brisbane wards in the March 2020 local government elections, but the Greens vote was dampened by the arrival of covid and associated disruptions (voter turnout was under 80% - and was especially low in electorates with higher proportions of young adults). Similarly, the overall Greens vote wasn’t great in the November 2020 Queensland state election, apparently because a lot of progressive voters wanted to signal support for Palaszczuk’s handling of the pandemic. The muted results in these two most recent elections partially hides the longer-term general trend of growing Greens support in Brisbane, which is perhaps why some people didn’t predict this result in 2022.

Our federal election victories didn’t come out of nowhere. They’re the product of years of patient, dogged organising and capacity-building.

 

General swings vs bigger surges

Nationwide, the Greens vote seems to have increased by about 1.4%. I suspect much of that general swing is connected to climate change, corruption, women’s justice, maybe refugee rights etc.

That positive swing is also partially attributable to the broader trend of more young Greens-leaning people turning 18 and enrolling to vote, while older, conservative voters pass away. A lot of those school kids who marched in the street as part of climate strikes a couple of years ago are now adults, and are moving to the inner-city… I don’t think many of them are voting for parties who support digging new coal mines or endlessly propping up house prices.

But the additional swings of 5% to 10% that we’ve seen in multiple electorates are well ahead of the national trend, and contrast markedly with progressive inner-Melbourne seats like Wills and Higgins, where the Greens vote barely moved (despite the absence of strong independent campaigns).

The other important piece of the puzzle – which might be a hard pill for some Queensland Greens members to swallow – is that the headline-grabbing growth in Greens support seems to have been much more concentrated in Greater Brisbane and a few other pockets of South-East Queensland than in the rest of the state.

The Greens (myself included) really want to believe our messages and vision are appealing to voters across Queensland and that we aren’t just a party of the inner-city. And we did see healthy swings in Brisbane’s middle and outer suburbs, which are demographically quite different from the inner-city. Electorates like Ryan stretch all the way out to Ferny Grove and Upper Brookfield on the city’s outer fringe. They are not purely inner-city electorates.

Encouragingly, we’ve also seen a Greens primary vote increase of 1% to 2% across most of the rest of the state. But this isn’t markedly different to average swings across Australia. Unfortunately, contrary to some commentary and wishful thinking, there was not a ‘massive’ swing to the Greens in regional Queensland. Choosing a ‘regional’ lead senate candidate, Penny Allman-Payne (currently based in Gladstone), might have bumped up our vote outside of SEQ slightly, but it doesn’t appear to have had a major effect.

And while we gained respectable swings in outer-suburban Brisbane, the Greens vote only increased modestly in most seats on the Gold and Sunshine Coasts. Our policy platform might have wide appeal to voters across the state, but for various reasons, it’s not yet getting through to them or winning them over.

So on closer inspection, the ‘Greens surge’ in Queensland actually looks like a small general nationwide increase in the Greens vote, coupled with much bigger swings in Brisbane itself that bump up the state average.

It would take too long to offer a full analytical explanation of this growing Brisbane vote, and I won’t pretend to understand all the variables and voter motivations on the ground in our key seats. But let’s start by ruling out the explanations that are not particularly credible…

 

“Lots of Greens voters moved up from down south”

Not quite. Thousands of people have certainly moved up to Queensland from the southern states lately. You might expect that demographically, these people would be younger and more inclined to vote progressive. But we don’t really know for sure.

In my electorate, I’ve certainly met young, progressive, Greens-leaning southerners who’ve moved north, but I’ve also encountered older, wealthier, more conservative people who’ve made the move.

As mentioned above, most seats on the Sunshine Coast and Gold Coast had comparatively small swings to the Greens, even though these regions have reportedly also had quite a large influx of interstate migrants.

In the context of a population of millions, the total number of people who’ve moved north simply is not significant enough to explain such big swings in Brisbane. The Greens vote has increased by tens of thousands. Mathematically speaking, it would be silly to attribute that to interstate migration alone.

 

There were no ‘teal’ independents competing in Queensland

True. But why didn’t strong independent campaigns emerge in Liberal-held seats like Ryan or Brisbane?

Down south, a lot of people who weren’t particularly impressed with either major party decided to run as independents (or to actively campaign for them) because there was no existing alternative party or grouping that seemed to have a credible chance of success. Meanwhile here in Brisbane, the Greens had been picking up momentum with big swings on council plus a couple of high-profile state election victories.

The steady growth of the Greens in Brisbane meant that for anyone who was unhappy with major party inaction on climate change, there was already a clear alternative political force to get behind.

Rather than saying “The Greens did better in Queensland because there were no centrist independents” we should recognise that there were no strong campaigns by centrist independents in Brisbane precisely because the Greens were doing better.

 

No-one cares about an ICAC

Ok maybe ‘no-one’ is an exaggeration. But based on all the conversations I’ve been having over the past few months at community events, in private meetings with residents, and at the polling booths, I’m not at all convinced that demands for a federal ICAC were a major vote-swinger in Brisbane.

Obviously there are lots of politically engaged people who’d like to see a federal anti-corruption commission. But such demands can feel somewhat abstract and technocratic for disengaged swing voters who are worried about affording childcare and paying the rent.

We definitely still need an Independent Commission Against Corruption at the federal level, but the reality is that this isn't the main issue changing most people's voting intentions.

 

It was the floods!

Maybe a tiny little bit. But not necessarily in the way you think.

As big Greens swings started coming in on election night, a couple of commentators started pointing out that they were all in flood-affected areas along the Brisbane River. This is only partially true. Some parts of Ryan, Griffith, Brisbane, Moreton and Bonner, were indeed smashed by flooding. But most suburbs in these electorates were only marginally impacted, and a booth-by-booth analysis doesn’t show a correlation between flood impacts and positive Green swings within those electorates. With the arguable exception of Ipswich (Blair), other parts of the state that were flooded much worse than Brisbane didn’t see similar big Green swings.

While we may wish it were otherwise, major climate change-related disasters don’t automatically lead to a rising Greens vote.

But apart from reinforcing the realities of global warming, I think the floods did help by highlighting the broader, deeper failures of the existing social order, and prime more people for conversations about structural and political change. For some of the people I spoke to at the polling booths, it wasn’t so much climate change that had them worried, but the nation-state’s demonstrated inability and unwillingness to offer meaningful support during crisis.

This is a subtle but important distinction. Flooding impacts are very uneven, and the number of people directly and severely affected might only be a small proportion of an electorate. But such disasters can be a launching point for broader political discussions, and an excuse to connect with the community.

The greater significance of the February flood was that it created an opportunity for the Greens to demonstrate a practical commitment to helping our local communities. Much of the flood clean-up in suburbs like West End and East Brisbane was undertaken by volunteers organised through Greens networks, and particularly by the Griffith election campaign team. And because we weren’t beholden to government talking points, elected Greens reps (me, Michael and Amy) were also providing more detailed and useful public information about flood risks and recovery logistics, highlighting the advantage of having a hard-working Greens MP or councillor.

This brings me to one of the key overlooked factors that definitely did contribute to the Greens’ success in Brissie…

 

We are closely linked to grassroots community organising and activism

Pretty much wherever you go in Australia, Greens members and supporters are active in social justice and environmental activism campaigns, from bushcare groups to refugee rights street marches. But I think in Brisbane we may have evolved a slightly better (but still imperfect) model of solidarity and co-organising that uses party and elected rep resources to more meaningfully and actively support projects and struggles without co-opting them.

I still worry that our big electoral campaigns are drawing away too much volunteer energy from other grassroots community struggles, but at least we’re maintaining a more solid connection to them.

In many cases, the very same people who are starting community gardens, putting on street festivals, fundraising for refugee housing or organising climate justice protests are also coming along to Greens branch meetings and handing out flyers on election day. There’s very little distance between many of Brisbane’s activist communities and the Greens as an electoral party, because so many of us have a foot in both spaces. At election time, this support for grassroots struggle translates to more volunteers than Labor and the Liberals combined (within inner-Brisbane at least), and a deeper, more nuanced understanding of what the community cares about.

A separate but related factor may be that when it comes to activism, Brisbane has been a pretty radical city over the last few years.

It’s hard for me to draw accurate comparisons to Australia’s other capitals, so I don’t want to overstate this point. But I suspect that Brissie-based activist movements are generally more radical, and more willing to directly challenge state power front-on. They are less influenced by the kinds of liberal reformism and weak-willed de-escalatory thinking that’s normalised and disseminated by big NGOs based in Sydney and Melbourne. While our overall numbers might sometimes be smaller, we get shit done and we don’t shy from conflict.

There’s been a lot of really staunch resistance and struggle here on the streets of Brisbane that has successfully drawn wider public attention to injustices and oppression perpetrated by the colonial nation-state, including by the Queensland Labor Party. This has benefited the Greens electorally, and mustn’t be overlooked.

A lot of Queensland Greens analysis and commentary will likely focus on doorknocking and our effectiveness at one-on-one political conversations. But we can’t ignore the significant value of all the other kinds of movement-building, community organising and civil disobedience that’s been happening parallel to our election campaigns, which creates more political space for the Greens as an electoral force (essentially a ‘radical flank’ effect) while also serving as a strong social base that can (hopefully) hold elected reps accountable.

 

Political education = effective campaigners

Another key element (which I suspect is more prominent among the Brisbane Greens branches than in other parts of the country) is the stronger emphasis on political education and collective strategising. Amy, Michael and I look for opportunities to involve our wider support base in public discussions about policy and political strategy, organising forums and info sessions about big stuff like colonialism and imperialism, the party’s position on controversial topics like covid lockdowns, and the philosophical framework that informs our stance on issues like housing and urban development.

Before elections, key campaigns also put heaps of time into making sure more of our supporters understand our political vision and policy platform, with multiple campaign intro sessions for new volunteers, public lectures, and post-doorknock debriefs functioning as mini political education forums in their own right. In contrast, I’ve heard that many Labor campaigns offered no meaningful training to new doorknock volunteers at all. Our volunteers know what they’re talking about. Theirs don’t.

All of this combines to create a growing layer of highly engaged volunteers who can discourse much more deeply with people about why they should vote Greens. Meanwhile, a lot of major party campaigners seem unable to do much more than parrot slogans. This distinction was starkly visible at the prepoll booths and on election day. Greens volunteers who’d had far more training and experience at one-on-one political conversations were able to engage meaningfully with undecided voters, listen to their concerns and convince them to put the Greens first.

On election day this year, I spent most of my time at the Kangaroo Point polling booth. I met a lot of residents who weren’t loyal to any particular party, and still felt really uncertain about the choice they were about to make.

For almost 10 hours, I spoke to dozens and dozens of people, many of whom were either completely undecided, or who were leaning towards one of the major parties but open to being persuaded otherwise. Without exaggeration, I would conservatively estimate that I was swinging about 5 votes per hour purely through one-on-one conversations (plus locking in many more).

At the Brisbane City Hall prepoll booth on the Friday evening before the election, there was an even higher proportion of swing voters from across Brisbane, and I’d estimate that I was swinging closer to 7 or 8 votes per hour.

Those numbers might not sound like much in the context of federal electorates with 120 000+ voters, until you remember that throughout the 10-hour election day voting period, at almost every single booth in our key Brisbane seats, there would have been two or three equally-effective volunteers on shift at all times (backed up by many more volunteers who weren’t quite as experienced but could still smile and hand out flyers).

An electorate like Griffith has around 20 larger polling booths (and another 10 to 15 smaller ones). So with two or three experienced campaigners at each of those major booths swinging 4 or 5 votes per hour (votes that would otherwise have gone to one of the major parties), that potentially amounts to a swing of 2000 to 4000 votes right there on election day, plus a couple thousand more at the prepoll booths. This maths is obviously rough, but the general conclusion is worth paying attention to.

Thanks to a robust and multi-faceted emphasis on political education, Greens campaigners in key Brisbane seats have become devastatingly effective at changing voters’ minds if we get the chance to talk to them one-on-one.

 

A radical orientation

Ultimately, the main reason we can swing so many voters and motivate more volunteers to campaign for us is that people genuinely like what we’re offering.

In the past few years, the Australian Greens have shifted to campaigning on a broader social democracy platform. We’ve been talking more explicitly about how our calls for climate justice and social justice connect directly to higher taxes on the mega-rich and increased spending on public housing, healthcare, education etc. rather than allowing ourselves to be pigeonholed as caring exclusively about koalas and trees.

I would argue that this shift has been led by the Queensland Greens, and flows directly from our initial experiments with bolder policy platforms in the 2016 Gabba Ward council campaign and the 2017 Queensland state campaign.

For years, too many people in the Greens (and in progressive circles more generally) have uncritically swallowed the myth that we can’t be too radical or we will put off ‘centrist’ voters. But that conclusion doesn’t stack up to the experience from successive campaigns in Brissie.

In electorates like Griffith and Ryan, we were talking openly and confidently about capping rents and scrapping negative gearing. This certainly put off a few property investors from voting for us, but it also helped us win over heaps of people who were on the fence between Greens and Labor, or indeed between Greens and the Liberals. Bold platforms based on taxing the mega-wealthy, discouraging property investment and redistributing wealth towards social services and public facilities are extremely popular with the majority of voters.

But the swings in Queensland aren’t just down to this broader policy platform. We have an underlying vision and ethos that seems to resonate particularly strongly with voters who are disillusioned with the major parties. Rather than settling for narrow parameters of debate and contenting ourselves with liberal reformism, we continually push for deeper change and demand more of the political establishment. When the major parties reject the ideas we’re advocating, we support protests and other forms of activism to ramp up the pressure.

During Max’s campaign in Griffith, a lot of Bulimba residents articulated concerns about a major development proposal on flood-prone land. While other progressive campaigns would have contented themselves with encouraging people to make written submissions to the council that are inevitably ignored, Max’s campaign didn’t settle for that. They drew on community networks and worked with residents to establish a community garden right in the path of the proposed road that was to lead into the new subdivision (without asking permission from the authorities). Later, the campaign distributed produce from the garden as part of covid lockdown care packages.

This feels like a fundamental difference between Greens in Brisbane and Greens parties in other states. We continually make it clear that we don’t accept the narrow limits of what’s purportedly possible within our current system, and we push back assertively whenever we’re accused of being unrealistic or ‘too utopian.’

A lot of southerners don’t seem to understand this dynamic. They’re already theorising that Elizabeth Watson-Brown won Ryan because she was palatable to middleclass centrists who were concerned about climate change. But that’s not the full story.

Queensland is not a conservative state. It is an anti-establishment state where voters have a healthy scepticism of authority and of whoever they perceive as being ‘in charge.’

Whereas down in NSW, Victoria and perhaps Tasmania, the Greens are increasingly seen as part of the political establishment, the Queensland Greens have been able to more clearly position ourselves as anti-establishment. (I should note that a few individual Greens candidates who achieved strong results in other parts of the country have also presented more strongly as ‘system outsiders’ – Celeste Liddle in Cooper springs to mind)

There’s an important distinction between being part of the establishment and being a serious, well-organised political force that’s a credible alternative to the establishment.

To simplistically characterise the massive swings we’re seeing as being purely about ‘climate change’ or ‘sexism’ or narrowly-defined ‘political corruption’ is to overlook the long-term structural collapse in support for both the major parties.

Old political allegiances and loyalties are weakening. Many more voters are up for grabs by anyone who isn’t seen as ‘part of the system,’ and a new contest is emerging between different political orientations – including hardcore fascists, liberal technocrats, and anti-capitalists seeking deeper change – as to who can reach them first.

More and more people are looking for alternatives, and more specifically, for a departure from the status quo.

Here in Queensland, the Greens were clearly offering that. That’s why we won.

 

 

Postscript:

While all this sounds very triumphant and self-congratulatory, I should probably note that there are also still some big weaknesses within the Queensland Greens that can’t be ignored…

The ridiculously long working hours that some campaigners adopted in our key campaigns (not just for weeks, but for months) are not necessarily sustainable or scalable. And we are still failing to preselect and elevate enough people of colour and First Nations people as candidates in winnable seats. If anything, our recent successes mean our party will be perceived as even whiter than before. I’ll have more to say on that in the coming weeks.

For now though, I’m feeling pretty damn pleased and excited about what we’ve achieved here in Queensland, and looking forward to what comes next…

I'm very proud of and excited for our newly elected federal representatives here in Queensland. But honestly: have you ever seen a whiter bunch of people?


Musgrave Park Toilet Block Murals

I've allocated a bit of my discretionary local budget to fund Aboriginal artists to paint murals on the two toilet blocks in Musgrave Park.

Work should start in the next few weeks on the toilet at the Russell Street end of the park. A First Nations artist named Dylan Bolger will be working with young Aboriginal kids from the Murri School to paint a mural centering on the theme of the Macaranga tree. Dylan writes: "The Macaranga is of old world genesis and is considered a re-coloniser or pioneer plant; meaning after devastation it will be one of the first plants to grow back and breathe new life into the space. The leaf is representing my people and culture being of ‘old world genesis’ as we grow back through the devastation of colonialism."

You can see an image of Dylan's concept design for the mural below. I'll post more details about the other toilet block mural once they're locked in.


BCC 2022 Flood Investigation

BCC has initiated a reasonably broad-scope investigation into the 2022 floods, to be led by Mr Paul de Jersey. The following text is copied from the Terms of Reference circulated to councillors by Mr de Jersey on Friday, 18 March.

You can read my submission here.

Review into the February 2022 Brisbane Floods ‐ Terms of reference

18 March 2022

Context

1. The City of Brisbane has throughout its history been the subject of intense seasonal weather events. It is not uncommon for Brisbane to receive several weather warnings from the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) throughout summer months. Of relevance, was the flooding event of 2011 which resulted in the findings of the Queensland Floods Commission of Inquiry being released in March 2012 (QFCI Report).

2. As a result of the 2011 flooding event Brisbane City Council (Council) established a board in late January 2011 and requested a report be produced by the middle of May 2011 (Brisbane Flood Report).

3. In response to the recent weather event described below, Council seeks to have an independent review undertaken to ensure that Council continues to improve its ability to protect lives and property from similar natural disasters in Brisbane in the future.


The Weather Event

4. Between 24 and 28 February 2022, South‐East Queensland and northern New South Wales experienced an unprecedented weather event (Weather Event).

5. The Weather Event was the largest rainfall event (for that period) to have occurred over the Brisbane catchment with 792.8mm falling 24 February 2022 to 9.00am 28 February 2022. To put this in perspective, this exceeded the 1974 rainfall record of 655.8 and represents about 80 per cent of Brisbane’s yearly average rainfall falling in this five‐day period.

6. The Brisbane River peaked Monday, 28 February at 3.85m (AHD city gauge) at 9.00am. whilst this is less than the 4.46m AHD recorded in 2011, the widespread intense rainfall also caused significant creek and overland flow flooding.

Appointment and Scope

7. On 1 March 2022 the Lord Mayor of Brisbane, Councillor Adrian Schrinner announced that former Governor and former Chief Justice of Queensland the Honourable Paul de Jersey AC CVO QC would undertake an independent and comprehensive review with respect of the following matters:
(a) the extent to which Council has implemented the relevant recommendations from the
QFCI Report and the Brisbane Flood Report, as they related to the City of Brisbane, prior
to the Weather Event;

(b) the effectiveness of measures recommended by the QFCI Report, and the Brisbane Flood
Report taken by Council to improve the protection for flood prone properties from
inundation with a particular focus on backflow devices and the Flood Resilient Homes
Program;

(c) the effectiveness of Council’s disaster management framework in responding to the
Weather Event having regard to the combined means of other relevant entities, with a
focus on:
i. Council’s disaster management organisational structures and policies;
ii. the establishment of Council’s evacuation centres;
iii. the adequacy of public information provided by Council on flood risk for individual
properties;
iv. the coordination with other government agencies, communications and utility providers; and
v. community response, including the organisation and management of community volunteers.

(d) the adequacy of the Council’s public warnings and advice, having regard to:
i. the requirements and responsibilities of the other relevant entities, such as the State Government, Commonwealth Government and BOM;
ii. the reliability and timeliness of the information provided to Council by other relevant entities;
iii. the capability of external systems relied upon by Council;

(e) the effectiveness of changes made to the Planning Regulations 2017 in mitigating loss and damage in respect of flood prone areas post 2011;

(f) the resilience of riverine and waterways infrastructure which has been upgraded or constructed following the 2011 flood event (a list of relevant infrastructure is provided in Attachment ‘A’).

Submissions

8. Mr de Jersey will be calling for submissions from all Councillors, Council, and all others at Mr de Jersey's discretion, in respect of the matters subject of the review, with submissions to be provided to Mr de Jersey by close of business 8 April 2022

Report

9. Mr de Jersey is required to produce a report addressing the above matters including any recommendations arising from the terms of reference which he considers as reasonable to improve the City's preparation and planning for any such future weather event.

10. The report is to be provided to the Lord Mayor on or before 1 July 2022. However, should Mr de Jersey require any further information on a particular matter that cannot be addressed in the above timeframe, this request should be made through the report and be addressed after the provision of the material. This timing will enable any recommendations to be addressed prior to the next summer’s wet season.

11. The report will be made public following its delivery to the Lord Mayor.


February 2022 Flood Reflections 3 - Key Infrastructure and Services are Too Vulnerable

Originally published on social media on 8 March, 2022

Recent floods have shown very clearly that Brisbane’s key public infrastructure, services and systems are far less resilient to flooding and other climate change-related disasters than they need to be.

The Brisbane River flood peak in the CBD on 28/02/2022 was 3.85 metres. In contrast, the 2011 flood peak was around 4.5 metres, the 1974 flood peak was 5.45 metres, and back in February 1893, floodwaters peaked in Brisbane at a whopping 8.35 metres. (There are several other major floods in the historical record for anyone who cares to look)

Placed in this historical context, this latest flood was nowhere near as severe as it could’ve been (although I should note that the added combination of significant creek flooding meant that many areas were affected more seriously than in 2011).

While technically classed as a ‘major’ flood event, this was a relatively moderate flood compared to what the river is capable of (particularly considering the added uncertainty of global warming and the increased likelihood of severe weather). Despite this, a lot of significant public and private infrastructure was detrimentally affected.

We’ve seen a lot of commentary about the electricity infrastructure, and it’s now quite obvious that all levels of government have failed to ensure that key pieces of both public and private power infrastructure were raised above the flood level after 2011. More than a week since the floods, hundreds of Brisbane residents are still without power in a context where better planning and design of electricity infrastructure could have allowed power to be restored much faster in several areas.

But there are lots of other kinds of infrastructure and services that also proved to be very flood-vulnerable...

For example, Brisbane City Council contracts out its general household waste collection services to the private company SUEZ. While I haven’t personally visited the site, I'm told one of SUEZ’s main service centres, where garbage trucks are serviced, refuelled and stored overnight, is located in flood-prone Rocklea along a low-lying stretch of the Ipswich Motorway.

Last week, floodwaters cut off access to the site, meaning SUEZ workers couldn’t get into the site to get the garbage trucks. If the waters had risen much higher, all the trucks themselves could have been flooded too, which really would have stuffed up the recovery and clean-up.

For residents across the city who are wondering why your garbage collection was missed last Monday or Tuesday even though your own neighbourhood wasn’t affected by flooding, the answer seems to be that the garbage truck depot itself nearly went underwater.

In fact, lots of other important stuff tends to be located in our city’s lower-lying floodplains. Large parts of Rocklea, and other flood-prone areas like Albion and the low side of Woolloongabba, were historically developed as warehouse and industrial land uses rather than residential, in large part because of their flood vulnerability. This means a lot of the trades, services and heavy equipment that a city needs for recovery in the weeks immediately after a flood are themselves very heavily affected by flooding.

Even the Brisbane Markets (aka Rocklea Markets), the city’s largest distribution hub for fresh produce, is on low-lying land near Oxley Creek. This time around, the market site lost power around 10am on the Saturday (well before the city’s flood peak the following Monday morning) and was flooded and out of action for several days.

Thousands of pallets of fresh produce were lost either due to water damage or because the industrial refrigerators lost power. We’re talking tonnes and tonnes and tonnes of wasted food at this one site. The stock losses suffered by individual supermarkets due to power-cuts elsewhere in the city were tiny compared to this.

Brisbane’s stormwater system is supposed to be completely separate from the sewerage system (which, in theory, is fully enclosed), but as often as a couple of times per year, during heavy rain, heaps of stormwater gets into the sewerage network via a range of channels, flooding the whole system...

Sewer lid covers in low-lying areas pop open, spewing shit and toilet paper into the street. Residential sewer pipes back up and overflow, spilling watery poop across backyards and under houses. And of course the sewage treatment plants are completely overwhelmed by the volume of poo-contaminated water flowing through the pipes, and have to release hundreds of thousands of litres of poo water directly into local creeks, the river and Moreton Bay.

Even though it’s heavily diluted, the fact that floodwaters and mud deposits are partially contaminated with faecal matter then becomes a major potential health issue even after the rain stops.

I could go on with a much longer list…

There’s the really obvious stuff like the flooded bridges and bikeways, the damaged ferry terminals, and dozens of sets of traffic lights failing due to flooded power boxes (which was a contributing factor behind many of the 30 serious car crashes Brisbane saw during the flood).

And there’s the stuff that’s less obvious to most residents, like the fact that flood damage to bus drivers’ toilets and rest areas caused avoidable delays in restoring bus services, even well after the roads were cleared of water and mud (right now the drivers who take their breaks at Orleigh Park are using portaloos).

It’s worth mentioning that one of Brisbane City Council’s main bus depots, the Sherwood depot, was also cut off by flooding (residents previously objected to the depot being established at the Sherwood location in part due to concerns about flood vulnerability).

And let’s not forget one of the most frustratingly stupid and obvious issues: the council only has four sandbag depots for the entire city. One of these depots – Newmarket – is itself partially vulnerable to stormwater flooding, and was taken out of action by the storm on Sunday, 27 February.

Every time there’s a risk of severe storms and flooding, thousands of residents from both the eastern suburbs and the inner-south side drive for several kilometres and queue up in both directions along Wynnum Rd to pick up sandbags from the Redfern Street depot on Morningside.

Myself and a few other councillors have been raising concerns about this for years, but still haven’t seen a shift from the LNP. You’d think locating sandbag depots closer to areas that are known to be highly vulnerable to flooding (such as the Deshon Street side of Woolloongabba) would be a no-brainer, but apparently not.

The broad point to all this is that despite the relatively recent experience of the 2011 floods, our city still has a long, long way to go in ensuring that key infrastructure and services can continue functioning (or at least bounce back quickly) during floods.

We are certainly going to experience more floods in future, potentially including events where the water rises higher or flows faster, and where heavy rain is accompanied by high-speed destructive winds.

Our city is nowhere near ready for this.

We’ve just had a wake-up call that we urgently need to listen to. If a single, comparatively modest flood like this one can cause so much disruption, a bigger flood will really mess us up.

We need to build resilience, and we need to take further action to address catastrophic climate change (e.g. stop approving new coal mines) before things get even worse.

Hopefully we take away the right lessons this time around...


February 2022 Flood Reflections 2 - The Poor Were Hardest Hit

Originally published on social media on 8 March, 2022

Ok so this should be obvious to most people by now, but I wanted to say it really clearly for those up the back who aren't paying attention... Even within flood-prone suburbs, poorer/lower-income residents have (in general) been much more seriously affected by Brisbane's floods than wealthier residents.

After the 2011 floods, some big changes happened along low-lying residential streets in West End like Ryan Street and Orleigh Street. Lots of houses were absolutely trashed by that flood. Some owners had the money to rebuild (often because they had good insurance), while others who couldn't afford to rebuild just sold up to wealthier buyers who did have the money for major renovations.

One way or another, most (but not all) of the worst-affected West End homes were raised higher, with all habitable areas raised above the 1974 flood level, leaving only easy-to-hose-off concrete carports at ground level. So after the February 2022 flood, many of these properties lost a bit of old furniture that was stored in their garages, and had to cope without power for several days, but the impact was nowhere near as severe as ten years ago.

The same seems to have happened in many other parts of the city. Over the past decade, almost all wealthier owners have spent big money (sometimes taking advantage of various government grants) to build higher. This probably also reduced their insurance premiums.

In contrast, poorer residents who couldn't afford to raise their homes kept paying much higher insurance premiums, or were completely uninsured. In suburbs like West End, East Brisbane and Fairfield, a very high proportion of the properties that hadn't been raised (and thus flooded again) were older investment properties rented out to lower-income tenants.

We're gradually building a list of homes in our area that were so badly flooded this time around that the residents couldn't move back in (i.e. they became homeless). So far in the inner-city, it seems like they were all rentals. 

The situation is even worse in suburbs like Rocklea, an extremely floodprone area alongside Oxley Creek and Stable Swamp Creek (and also further out in Goodna, Ipswich etc). Many low-income long-term owner-occupier residents gave up paying flood insurance here years ago. They would sell if they could, but property values are so comparatively low in this area that they wouldn't have enough money to buy elsewhere in Brisbane. They also don't have a couple hundred thousand dollars on hand to raise and renovate their home.

In practical terms, the floods create a situation where poor residents are either displaced, or have to take time off work (potentially losing more income) to clean up their homes, while wealthier residents in the same streets can hose off and return to 'normal' life pretty quickly.

Some wealthier residents may even get a windfall out of this... For example, we saw one riverfront home in West End where the owners threw out thousands of dollars' worth of vintage wine from a flooded underground wine cellar and put it on the footpath for kerbside collection. The wine itself wasn't damaged, and some neighbours who scavenged it reported that it tasted amazing. But I'll bet the people who threw it out will be claiming the full value back through their insurance and will barely end up out of pocket.

I know some wealthier residents decided to go stay in hotels as soon as the power was cut off in their street, confident in the knowledge that even if their insurance company ends up refusing to pay for the hotel, they have enough savings to cover it.

I know all this is a bit of a generalisation. And I'm sure there are a few wealthier residents who've been really hit hard by these floods too, but the impacts have fallen most heavily on the poor.

This disparity overlaps and intersects with other forms of marginalisation and oppression. For example, we know that many people with disabilities and people for whom English is a second language will have a particularly hard time surviving and recovering from the floods, especially if they also don't have a lot of money. The psychological impact of feeling left behind and overlooked will be doubly traumatising.

For many residents in suburbs like Rocklea, the best outcome would be a new non-compulsory flood buyback scheme, where the council buys flood-affected homes at a higher value, giving the residents enough money to buy another home elsewhere while reclaiming more of the floodplain for green space and native habitat.

We also need to make sure we stop further floodplain development, because each new building in a low-lying area tends to push more floodwater somewhere else.

All this is important to keep in mind, because I expect that over the coming months, politicians, property developers, tourism companies etc will be eager to promote a narrative of how quickly the city has bounced back from the February floods.

They'll talk about how resilient we are, how the changes made after 2011 paid off, and how quickly life is 'getting back to normal.'

With an Olympics on the horizon, the establishment's preferred framing will be about how we all helped each other and 'got back on our feet' - that climate change is something we can learn to live with (even though climate disasters can get a lot worse than this one).

This narrative of resilience and recovery will ring true for many middleclass residents whose main experience of the floods is a few days of transport disruptions or power cuts (noting of course that prolonged power cuts are pretty hard to live with, particularly when your apartment has been designed to be heavily dependent on aircon, powered elevators etc).

The voices of those most severely affected will be left out of mainstream conversations, or only fleetingly engaged with simply as disaster porn/poverty porn.

We know that a lot of lower-income people who were made homeless by the 2019/2020 bushfires still don't have stable housing over two years later; the same will likely be true for these floods. But how much coverage will that get in the media 6 months or a year from now?

Over the coming months, there will be a lot of media stories of infrastructure being repaired and political leaders cutting ribbons on newly-completed projects that reinforce the myth of endless growth and progress.

We will have to work hard to continually remind one another that future flooding could be a lot worse, and that for some of the poorest among us, even these relatively moderate floods (moderate compared to what else the river is capable of) have been a life-changing disaster that will take years - not months - to recover from.


February 22 Flood Reflections 1 - Volunteer Coordination

Originally published on social media on 6 March, 2022

The past week of flood clean-up has revealed efficiencies and deficiencies of different models of volunteer coordination that we need to reflect on so we can improve for future climate disasters…

(I know the clean-up is still continuing, but I wanted to get these thoughts down while they’re fresh... and let’s be real, global warming means we don’t know how far away the next severe weather event will be, so we need to have these discussions now rather than waiting for some hypothetical ‘post-crisis’ calm that never comes)

After Brisbane’s 2011 floods, with comparatively little top-down coordination, thousands of people travelled into flood-affected communities to help with the clean-up. Many drove in private cars, causing serious congestion issues leading in and out of flooded suburbs. Organisation was mostly either very decentralised or non-existent. Some streets got heaps of timely and much-needed help from volunteers, while other areas were initially overlooked. Some volunteers engaged in risky behaviour, or rocked up without any protective gear or useful cleaning equipment. Some volunteers got a little carried away, throwing out muddy possessions that the owners would’ve preferred to clean and keep.

This time, Brisbane’s mayor got on the front foot and announced a formal signup process for volunteers, telling the general public not to rush straight into flooded neighbourhoods to clean up as soon as the waters receded.

There were arguably reasonable justifications behind this approach, but the centralised signup process managed by Brisbane City Council was also arguably quite politically advantageous for the mayor, because the ‘Mud Army’ is a positive symbol/phenomenon that politicians can get extra kudos for being associated with.

The highest flood peak was on Monday morning, 28 February, by which point thousands of Brisbane residents were already eager to help out. But none of the volunteers who signed up through the ‘official’ platform were mobilised by BCC until Saturday, 5 March, and by the end of Saturday, Brisbane City Council declared that: “Due to the Mud Army 2.0's incredible effort on Saturday 5 March, Brisbane City Council has confirmed that the Mud Army 2.0 can now put down their tools. Volunteers are no longer needed to clean-up Brisbane on Sunday 6 March.”

But as others have rightly pointed out, volunteers were actually needed for cleanup from Monday/Tuesday onwards, and were still needed in some areas even after the ‘official’ Mud Army was stood down.

BCC created a widely-promoted signup process to seize a large chunk of volunteer energy, then held off deploying it until most of the immediate flood clean-up work had already happened. This is a pretty counter-productive form of volunteer management – recruiting lots of people, then steering them away from taking action when it’s needed.

Meanwhile, during the first week of March, thousands of residents were already out on the ground helping clean up... From what I saw in my ward, perhaps 90% of the labour-intensive work of sweeping mud out of flooded properties and carrying damaged furniture to the footpath was undertaken by volunteers BEFORE BCC’s Mud Army 2.0 ever hit the streets.

In some cases, this work was done by immediate neighbours autonomously heading down the street or around the corner to see where they were needed, or by people travelling from slightly further away and just getting stuck in, much like in 2011.

In other cases, it was existing networks of relatives, friends, work colleagues or community groups mobilising to help specific residents or businesses that they were connected to.

And in some areas, including Brisbane’s inner-south side, we saw an ecosystem of community groups, elected representatives and political parties taking on partial coordination roles, recording requests for assistance and advising volunteers where they were most needed.

From what I saw, these less-centralised forms of volunteer organising were much quicker and more efficient than the top-down coordination approach taken by Brisbane City Council.

River mud is much easier to clean off while it’s still wet, and the sooner you get muddy, damp furniture out of a flooded property, the less likely it is that mould and damp will spread up to higher levels. So it was good that local groups essentially ignored the local and state government messaging and started the clean-up sooner.

In my ward, a LOT of volunteer work was directed by the Greens, who reassigned federal election campaign staff to work on supporting the flood recovery effort. I’d venture to suggest that vollies organised through Greens networks got a lot more done in suburbs like West End and East Brisbane than those who signed up through BCC and who then waited several days before being mobilised.

Some of the factors contributing to the delay in mobilising the ‘official Mud Army’ included predictions of more severe weather, and uncertainty about how high subsequent tides would rise through the week. There were also a bunch of other risks that government officials would have been worried about – electrical hazards, exposure to faecal matter etc.

But going into people’s flooded homes to clear out muddy furniture is still an inherently risky business (BCC seemed to understand this – the liability disclaimer on its Mud Army 2.0 webpage is VERY broad)... You can partially minimise the risk to the coordinating organisation (in this case, BCC) by delaying how soon after a disaster you send volunteers out, and taking a really bureaucratic approach in terms of keeping rolls and making people sign waivers etc, but the individuals who actually go into muddy homes are still risking their safety.

I was already on the ground cleaning up under houses when some of the ‘official’ Mud Army volunteers were finally deployed around East Brisbane on Saturday morning. They arrived in a bus, kitted out in protective gear, with brand new brooms and clipboard-wielding council staff briefing them and directing them. They were all really eager to get stuck in, and one of the volunteers complained to me that it had taken two hours of marshalling, transportation and briefing before they even got to any of the houses that needed help.

When I saw that there was a surplus of volunteers on the street, I asked one of the council workers if some of the volunteers could be directed to instead pick up a lot of the rubbish and detritus that had accumulated along the edge of Norman Creek. But the officer’s instructions were clear – volunteers were only to assist with carrying out muddy furniture and cleaning out homes. Picking up rubbish along the waterway would have to wait for some other group of volunteers.

The slow deployment and the narrow restrictions regarding what Mud Army volunteers were instructed to assist with obviously wasn’t the volunteers’ fault. Nor is it the fault of council officers. It’s a predictable feature of highly-centralised, top-down volunteer coordination by risk-averse bureaucratic entities.

Locally coordinated volunteers can mobilise more quickly, and can adjust their plans more flexibly around tidal peaks and predicted storms. Whereas if you’re organising thousands of volunteers to all gather at a central suburban meeting point, prepping them to participate in a very specific activity, then bussing them across the city to locations that were only roughly scouted in advance, you can’t easily delay the mobilisation while a storm passes, or redeploy people to different tasks.

I should add that I’ve heard from a couple of people who contacted Brisbane City Council to request help from the Mud Army 2.0, were told that they’d be assisted, but then never received assistance. I suspect this is because rather than assigning volunteers to specific households that had asked for help, BCC just bussed volunteers into general neighbourhoods depending on where they’d received requests from, and the council officers directing volunteers on the ground weren’t actually double-checking whether all the specific household requests had been met.

On the flipside, there were probably also a couple examples where a resident got in touch with an organisation to ask for help, but if that organisation was too busy and stretched, the request wasn’t passed on to other groups that had more volunteer capacity. In this respect, shared online documents came in handy. By recording needs online in one place that anyone could access, it was easier for different groups and individuals to proactively reach out to offer help without a central coordinating entity acting as a bottleneck.

In times of crisis, it’s ideal to have volunteers who’ve been collectively organised beforehand – people who already know and trust each other and are accustomed to working together – and who are directly connected to the communities requiring help. Such groups can be directed towards (or can proactively identify) areas of need, and autonomously assist in whatever ways they deem necessary. In the best case scenario, they are already organised and specially trained through channels like the State Emergency Service or Rural Fire Service.

The second-best option is probably for volunteers who aren’t already part of a community network or organisation to sign up to be directed by a local group that has a better sense of where people are needed on the ground.

One way that Brisbane City Council could have facilitated this would have been to collect volunteer contact details centrally, ask different local groups how many volunteers they needed, then pass on contact details.

Even when Brisbane experiences a severe flood, the majority of residents across the wider city aren’t directly affected by flooding of their home, which means there are plenty of potential volunteers available – you just have to get them where they’re most needed.

Other kinds of climate disasters – where a larger proportion of the city is directly impacted and fewer volunteers are available – would be quite another matter. So we definitely need to improve our systems for mobilising and coordinating volunteer energy.

I’m still working out what I think of all this, and looking forward to having further conversations over the coming weeks to understand the different experiences of people who volunteered or asked for help through different channels. I don’t think anyone has a complete picture of how the flood clean-up has progressed so far, or exactly what else still needs to be done.

But if you signed up to volunteer on the flood clean-up, didn’t get called up for some reason, and are now feeling like you wish you’d done more to help, remember there are plenty of other ways to support your neighbours and build more resilient communities...

Start a community garden. Join a bushcare group. Or rock up to the nearest community centre and ask them what they need help with. There’s still a heck of a lot to do.


Draft Article - One Ring to Rule Them All: Unpacking the centralisation of power within the Queensland Greens

Note: I'm kinda thinking of this article as a work-in-progress draft rather than a definitive statement of where I stand. I'd be interested in feedback on it and might make further changes.

 

No matter how noble its intentions, any political movement that seeks to win power through electioneering in a system of representative democracy is gradually going to be co-opted and corrupted by the process. Earnest young anarchists lecture me about this regularly, and while I find their presumption that I haven’t already reflected on this challenge annoyingly patronising, I can’t deny the truth of the general critique.

Engaging ‘effectively’ with the mainstream political system seems to necessitate a high degree of centralisation of power. When power is heavily concentrated, the power-holders are inevitably corrupted by it in one way or another (usually without even realising).

I’ve written previously about how across the Australian Greens as a national organisation, power is very heavily centralised in the hands of the federal leader, and about the broader tendency for electoral politics to change people who get deeply involved in it.

With the Queensland Greens now (gradually) winning more seats and increasing our influence at the state government level, I thought I’d describe and reflect upon a couple examples of creeping centralisation within the Queensland party, in the hope of strengthening party processes and helping us stay true to our core value of grassroots participatory democracy.

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Fixing a Broken System - Practical Trajectories Beyond Representative Democracy

In 2021, I published an article called "Fixing a Broken System - Practical Trajectories Beyond Representative Democracy" in the 2021 edition of the journal Pandora's Box (Vol 27), published by the Justice and the Law Society at the University of Queensland.

The PDF of this article can be downloaded via this link.

Article abstract:

From the perspective of a serving local politician, this article looks at the flaws of hierarchical centralised decision-making within  representative democracy and suggests that shifting towards participatory democracy systems would lead to better outcomes for the environment and the general public. I reflect on our various local trials of decentralised decision-making processes within the Gabba Ward of Brisbane City Council, including forms of online community voting, participatory budgeting to allocate funding to local infrastructure projects, and participatory design workshops for public park upgrades. I highlight key lessons from our trials over the past five years and unpack some of the tensions between maximising participation via online direct democracy versus encouraging deeper deliberation via face-to-face engagement.


Freedom vs Government Control? (Part 2 of 2)

This is part 2 of an exploration into the Queensland Government's so-called 'vaccine mandates.' Please read part 1 first at this link.

20 December, 2021

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Freedom vs Government Control? (Part 1 of 2)

20 December, 2021

Lately a few people have asked me what I think of the ‘vaccine mandate.’

The short answer is: I’m pretty concerned about it.

But I’m also very worried that some groups and political parties are exploiting concerns about the mandates for their own political gain.

So this is a two-part, long-form piece collating a lot of ideas that others have been sharing over the past 18 months, in an attempt to make sense of all this (please read the second part of the article too - don't just take this part in isolation).

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