23 October, 2018
A lot of people around the country – myself included – have been psyched to see the Liberals lose the federal seat of Wentworth to Independent Kerryn Phelps (even the name of the electorate sounds posh doesn’t it?). For anyone who’s hungry for big changes to our political system, it’s empowering to see an underdog thump the major parties. Whenever a non-major candidate gets a massive swing in a high-profile contest, it’s another valuable and much-needed reminder to voters around the country that they don’t have to settle for the Labor-Liberal duopoly. However as Helen Razer writes, Phelps isn’t really that much of an underdog, and she certainly isn’t here to shake up the system.
Phelps’s win obviously carries some pretty significant ramifications for the Morrison government, and will hopefully catalyse some positive shifts on issues like climate change and refugee rights in the lead-up to the next federal election. But for me, the result also raises interesting questions about where our democracy might be headed in the long-term.
At times like this, lots of commentators will be piling on to interpret the Phelps win in whatever way serves their own agenda and reinforces their own preconceptions. Personally I think we should be cautious and sceptical of drawing general conclusions from Wentworth about the trajectory of Australian politics as a whole, or using the result as evidence of any particular broader trend. This was a unique by-election with a lot of unusual variables. As far as I’m concerned, Wentworth doesn’t actually prove anything.
For a while now, many on the so-called left have warned that the fallout of neoliberalism and declining faith in the major political parties could result in a lurch to the hard-right, with people who’ve been screwed over by capitalism manipulated into embracing xenophobia and fascism. The other possibility is that a progressive political movement will articulate a bold policy platform that diagnoses the problems of neoliberalism and speaks to frustrated voters’ immediate material concerns by redistributing wealth away from the top 1% and investing heavily in public services.
But Wentworth makes me wonder whether another path might in fact be more likely: Rather than a radical shift to the left or right, what if the millions of Australians who are extremely frustrated with the major parties simply start electing more ‘sensible centre’ independents, ignoring and delaying the push for more substantial changes to our democracy?
See there’s nothing particularly transformative or disruptive about Kerryn Phelps’s values or policy platform. She still sits very comfortably within Australia’s ‘elite’ and ‘establishment’ circles. She wants ‘something’ done about climate change (as long as it doesn’t interfere with business profitability) and she doesn’t like refugee kids in offshore detention, but she’s definitely not going to be calling for the dismantling of capitalism or for compensating First Peoples for the theft of their land. There’s an obvious ring of truth to the Betoota Advocate’s Sunday headline “Wentworth Voters Send Strong Message To Liberals By Voting In White Middle Aged Doctor.”
Nothing Phelps has said so far seems to indicate a willingness to critically examine the fundamental structure of our parliamentary or economic systems. Wentworth is an especially privileged electorate where most voters have a strong interest in maintaining the economic status quo, so perhaps this isn’t surprising. But other independent MPs like Andrew Wilkie and Cathy McGowan, who both cultivate reasonably progressive images, have also enjoyed strong support and tapped into discontent with the overall political system, without actually questioning its fundamentals. The same could arguably be said of the Reason Party (formerly the Sex Party) and Nick Xenophon’s Centre Alliance Party.
The problem with our political system is not simply the two major parties. Ultimately it’s not even the fact that big corporations are buying influence with political donations. The root of the problem is the hierarchical, adversarial nature of representative parliamentary democracy itself, and the bureaucratised, centralised, top-down style of government that accompanies it.
Generally speaking, the kinds of people who will be best placed to win seats as independents in the current electoral system will not be so different in terms of wealth, life experiences and worldviews from the kinds of people who currently run our country. A parliament comprised mostly of independent MPs and ‘centrist’ minor parties who are more responsive to their electorate and more difficult for vested corporate interests to manipulate would definitely be a marked improvement from what we have at the moment.
But when each MP represents big electorates of 100 000+ voters, and those MPs are largely still drinking the neoliberal Kool-Aid, most of the problems we see within our current political system are likely to remain in slightly different forms. A trend towards electing more independents of the Kerryn Phelps mould – people who rightly attack the major parties’ bullshit but who also don’t see anything fundamentally wrong with society as a whole – might actually serve as a circuit breaker or pressure relief valve, delaying or de-escalating the urgent and necessary push for more substantive changes.
Right now, a lot of voters aren’t sure whether they’re feeling disempowered by the political system as a whole, or are just frustrated with Labor and the Liberals. Voting in establishmentarian independents might give people the false sense that they’ve done all they need to do (and can do) to respond to the failures of mainstream politics.
The bigger immediate risk is that privileged, politically engaged electorates like Wentworth will make the astute calculation that a savvy independent is more likely to represent their interests than a major party seat-warmer, while more impoverished electorates continue to elect Labor and Liberal candidates. This could result in a parliament where independent MPs follow the wishes of their wealthier constituencies and use their balance of power to reinforce neoliberalism, while continuing to employ anti-establishment rhetoric and making it harder for voters to diagnose the real reasons the system is failing them.
I’m not asserting that this is definitely what will happen. Like I said at the outset, I think we should resist the temptation to draw universal conclusions from one by-election. The takeaway lesson – if there is one – is that those of us who seek a more radical and fundamental transformation of our political and economic systems, and of our society as a whole, should probably resist the temptation to simply heap all the blame on Labor and the Liberals.
There’s a big difference between simply saying “the major parties are fucked” and saying “the whole system is fucked.” The former message creates space for all manner of capitalist independents and ‘centrist’ groupings to win seats, but doesn’t necessarily solve anything long-term.
This might all seem obvious to some, but the distinction is important for minor parties like the Greens, who have been saying for years that neither Labor nor the Liberals care about ordinary people, but still can’t increase their national primary vote beyond the low teens. We must continually highlight the failings of our parliamentary system as a whole, and argue strongly for structural changes that give ordinary people more direct power, rather than taking the easier road of simply saying “elect us because the two majors are awful and we’re not.”
With so many balls in the air, no-one can predict with confidence where our political system is heading. But Wentworth reminds us that we could foreseeably see more and more Labor and Liberal seats won by pro-status quo independents, without anything really changing.
June 2020 Update: This article was published in September 2018. In the past year or two, Queensland Police have become much less reasonable and flexible about negotiating and supporting authorised peaceful assemblies. It is becoming more common for the police to take organisers to court for lodging a notice of intention to occupy a road, which in turn means the value of lodging a notice is diminishing somewhat. It's hard to provide general advice on whether you should or shouldn't lodge a notice for a given event, because the outcome depends on the subjective discretion and biases of individual police commanders and judges. The following info is all still generally correct, and if you get a not-too-conservative judge, it's still possible to win in court even if the police apply for an order preventing your assembly.
Here’s some basic advice on navigating the rules for holding public rallies and marches in Brisbane, which are governed by the Peaceful Assembly Act 1992.
This is not a detailed guide on how to organise a protest, but simply a rundown of the specific rules that apply to protests in Brisbane. These rules can sometimes be overridden by special legislation for specific locations and events, such as with the G20 or the Commonwealth Games.
Disclaimer: The following is general advice only. I’m not a lawyer, and this information should not be interpreted as specific legal advice regarding individual situations.
If you have any questions about all this, you can email my office on email@example.com.
It’s important to remember that protest actions which challenge the power and authority of the state can often be more effective at shifting policy and getting your message across, so you don’t have to go through the legal processes, but then you run the risk of arrests and fines. Some activists argue that every time we organise a protest using the Peaceful Assembly Act process, we reinforce and legitimise the power of the state, and so actually we should never formally notify the police. This is an ongoing debate in Brisbane’s activist circles…
Step 1 – Avoid Date Clashes
Do some basic research online to avoid clashes with other protests and public events. There’s no point going any further in submitting notices to the police and council if some other event is already organised for the time and location you’re considering (unless of course your goal is to disrupt that other event). For spaces like King George Square and Brisbane Square, double-check the BCC website. You can also try calling the council on 3403 8888 but you might not get a straight answer.
The police keep their own calendar of protests they’re aware of. Before you lodge the formal documents, you can try contacting them at MajorEvents.BR@police.qld.gov.au to ask if they’re aware of any potential clashes, but they might be slow in getting back to you, so if you’re in a rush, don’t wait for them.
Step 2 – Lodge a Notice of Intention
Download a copy of a Notice of Intention to Hold a Public Assembly from the Queensland Police website.
At the police’s end, they tend to leave coordination up to whichever team oversees the area that the event starts on, so if your protest is meeting at South Bank but then marching across the river to the northside, it will probably still be handled by the South Brisbane Riverside Patrol team.
Advice on filling out the Notice of Intention
The Notice of Intention requirements are defined in section 9 of the Peaceful Assembly Act 1992. Technically, you don’t have to fill out the actual police form, you just have to make sure the written notice has all the information listed in the act. But it’s probably easier to just use the police’s form.
Even though the police form says it must be handwritten, there’s no legal requirement to do this. We always fill out the form by computer and this has never been a problem as long as there’s a signature on it.
Sometimes, Brisbane City Council might ask you to fill out their own Notice of Intention form, but you’re not legally required to do this. Just send them a copy of the same form that you’ve sent to the police.
Some parts of the form won’t be relevant to your event.
When I’m organising a stationary rally rather than a march, I just write ‘No procession’ in the sections that ask for info about a procession. We don’t usually bother giving much detail about what kind of banners we’re using, because it’s not a legal requirement and the police shouldn’t be preventing you from carrying banners anyway.
You can see an example of a completed notice at this link.
When we’re organising a march, or a larger rally that includes a big stage, we will sometimes send the police an aerial map showing the layout and march route. This is not a legal requirement, but it calms them down because it reassures them that you’re well organised, and it will mean that they’re less likely to try to make your life difficult.
Under section 10 of the Peaceful Assembly Act, your protest is ‘taken to be approved’ – that is, approved automatically – if you have emailed in your properly completed Notice of Intention with at least five business days’ notice.
This means that even if council or the police don’t want your protest to go ahead, giving written notice means it’s still legal, and they can’t technically charge you with causing a public nuisance or blocking a roadway etc (but they can still charge you if you damage property, harm another person etc).
If you’ve given at least five business days’ notice, the only way the council or police can stop you going ahead is if they get a court order from the Magistrates Court preventing the rally.
The actual wording of the act says “if the assembly notice was given not less than 5 business days before the day on which the assembly is held”. In counting the ‘five business days’ our understanding is that you just have to get the notice in before close of business a week beforehand. So if your rally is on a Monday morning, you would have to email your notice before 5pm of the previous Monday (assuming no public holidays). But for the sake of diplomacy and not stressing out overworked police officers, it still might be good to get the notice in as early as possible.
Step 3 – Approval/Negotiation with the police
Once police receive your notice of intention, their process is to give you a call to say hi, and email you out a notice of permission for the public assembly for you to sign. As explained above, if you have given five business days’ written notice, this permission notice is technically not a legal requirement.
However if you lodged your notice with less than five business days’ notice, and the police refuse to give you a notice of permission, your rally won’t be authorised under the Peaceful Assembly Act unless you apply for approval from the courts under section 14.
So if you’re organising your march at short notice, you should try to negotiate with the police to get a notice of permission, otherwise they can charge you with obstructing traffic etc.
How can they stop you?
If you’ve given five business days’ notice, and the police don’t want you to go ahead with the protest (for example, if you’re blocking a very busy road in peak hour), the police must apply for a court order under section 12 of the Peaceful Assembly Act. Before they can apply for a court order, the police (or council) must first hold a mediation session with the protest organisers using an independent mediator in accordance with the processes set out in the Dispute Resolution Centres Act 1990 .
What this boils down to is that as long as you’ve given adequate notice, the government has to go to a lot of trouble if they want to stop you, and generally it’s easier for them to just agree to the protest and try to impose conditions.
Do I need public liability insurance?
Lately, Brisbane City Council has been telling some organisers that they need insurance to hold a rally in a council park. This is not true. There is no legally enforceable requirement to hold insurance and you should clearly refuse such requests from council or the police.
Legal responsibility for any injuries or damage occurring at a protest is the same for any other use of public space. So for example, if a protestor scratches a parked car, they are personally criminally responsible for. If a protestor twists their ankle in a pothole that council should have repaired, the council might be responsible for medical costs under negligence laws, but if a protestor climbs a tree, falls and hurts themselves, it’s probably their own fault.
Am I responsible for traffic control or traffic management plans?
Police or the council might occasionally tell you that you also need to apply for a road closure permit or organise traffic control to shut off streets and divert traffic. This isn't actually true. The whole point of the Peaceful Assembly Act is to allow residents who don't have the money to hire a traffic control company to be able to use the street for the purposes of public assembly. If traffic control is considered necessary to allow residents to peacefully assemble on a particular street, it's technically up to council or the police to provide this.
Can they prevent me from erecting shade shelters and info tables as part of a rally?
The legal situation is unclear, but probably not.
Setting up temporary shade shelters/gazebos is part of a peaceful assembly, and as long as they’re properly secured against the wind and you’re not going over the top with them, you should be fine.
In places like King George Square, the council might try to insist on a condition preventing shade gazebos, but I doubt it would be legally enforceable.
Section 5 of the Peaceful Assembly Act says the right to peaceful assembly is subject “only to such restrictions as are necessary and reasonable in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, or public order” etc. On a hot sunny day, denying protestors access to shade is an unreasonable restriction on free assembly, so if you hold your ground when negotiating with police and council, they will not legally be able to insist on banning gazebos.
How much noise can we make?
There are no specific rules on noise limits and volumes within the Peaceful Assembly Act, but the act allows for restrictions that are necessary to protect the health, safety, rights and freedoms of other people. It’s probably arguable that the general state and federal environmental protection laws against noise pollution would apply, but as far as I know, it’s never been an issue at a rally.
In some publicly accessible spaces - such as inside the lobby of the State Government HQ at 1 William St - building security might ask you not to use a PA system/megaphones, but if you've lodged a notice of intention, they can't stop you. If you haven't lodged a notice of intention, it'll come down to a test of wills between you and the police/security. A police sergeant would have to be pretty stupid/crazy to start arresting or fining protesters simply on the basis that their PA is too loud.
In the past, we’ve had loud bands and DJs playing at events that were authorised under the Peaceful Assembly Act, and haven’t had any problems. I think the best approach is to use commonsense and don’t turn up the speakers so loud that you deafen your own supporters.
You should think practically about which direction your speakers are pointed to maximise coverage of the crowd (it helps to lift speakers off the ground with stands or milk crates) rather than having a single speaker pointed in one direction, which can mean that when someone is standing in front of the speakers it's way too loud while someone standing a bit off to the side still can't really hear the speeches properly.
Where can we legally assemble?
The Peaceful Assembly Act protects the right to protest in any public place. A public place is defined in section 4 as including:
“(a) a road; and
(b) a place open to or used by the public as of right; and
(c) a place for the time being open to or used by the public, whether or not—
(i) the place is ordinarily open to or used by the public; or
(ii) by the express or implied consent of the owner or occupier; or (iii) on payment of money;”
So basically, this would include publicly accessible spaces on private land, such as in the forecourt or lobby of a big office tower, or inside a shopping mall (of course, if security guards on a private property know you’re coming, they’ll probably lock you out).
Importantly, this also applies to land controlled by South Bank Corporation. In recent years, South Bank has strongly resisted any protests taking place within the parklands on the basis that South Bank is “a family-friendly place” (I find this amusing because it implies that other parks like Roma Street are not family-friendly). But in fact, in terms of how the Peaceful Assembly Act operates, South Bank Parklands is just like any other park, so if you send your Notice of Intention to both the police and council with five business days’ notice, they would need a court order to stop you.
It’s pretty straightforward
So that’s basically all you need to know.
Although for the last forty or fifty years, Australian streets have been seen as the exclusive domain of cars, there’s no reason we shouldn’t reclaim them as public spaces for people too.
If you lodge a Notice of Intention at least one week before the protest, you can legally block roads, hold protest gigs in public parks, and arguably even hold protest pool parties down at South Bank.
I find it’s generally better to maintain open channels of communication with the police, because they are more likely to panic and do something stupid if you take them by surprise. But remember: you have a democratic right to peaceful assembly, so don’t let them insist on conditions that unreasonably restrict or limit that right.
22 June 2018
This is not a complete rundown of all the projects and programs that have received funding in our area, but I thought I’d highlight a few key programs that help paint a picture of what the administration’s budget priorities are. You can view the budget papers for yourself via the links at the bottom of this page on the council website.
No Significant Increase in Festival Funding
Funding for multicultural festivals and suburban community festivals has remained relatively stable. Unsurprisingly, there’s been no significant increase in festival funding across the city, but we’ve secured renewed funding for all our various Gabba Ward festivals including Brisbane Writers Festival, End of the Line in Woolloongabba, Kurilpa Derby/West End Festival, West End Film Festival, Buddha’s Birthday Festival, Paniyiri etc.
It’s interesting to note that the cost of resurfacing Gladstone Road, Dutton Park in this year’s budget is $825 000, which exceeds the total council funding of $783 509 for all 75 suburban community festivals across the city. All up, Brisbane City Council spends $90 million a year on resurfacing roads, but only $4 million a year on all major and minor festivals (including the big ones like Brisbane Festival).
Slight Increase to Local Grants Budget
We’ve also seen a modest increase in the local Suburban Initiative Fund grants budgets. For the past few years, the LNP have stubbornly refused to increase this ward office grants budget, which has stagnated at $55 000 per ward, not even rising with inflation. I’ve argued quite strongly (both publicly in council chambers and in written correspondence to the Lord Mayor’s office) that this budget needs to increase to keep pace with population growth, and this year we’ve seen it increase from $55 000 to $75 000.
This is still a relatively small discretionary grants budget considering rising event organising costs and how many community events and projects are in need of funding. There are quite a few local community projects that I wasn’t able to fund in the 2017/18 financial year, so it’ll be nice to offer small grants to more of those next year.
West End Creative Hub Gets Ongoing Funding
The ‘West End Creative Hub’ project – now managed by Outer Space down on Montague Road – was received with scepticism by some sectors of the local arts community when it was first announced, because the council was only offering tenure of two years. It’s a big ask to expect a non-profit community arts organisation to go to all the trouble of setting up an arts space when it might lose funding after only two years, but happily we’ve seen funding for this project extended out to 2021.
Almost all of the funding for this project goes towards paying the rent on a privately owned commercial space. I still believe that this is perhaps not the best or most effective use of money in an environment where arts funding is so limited, and that council should either be spending this money on actually purchasing a building for use as a community art centre, or should be giving it to local arts organisations for them to spend as they see fit. Having said that, I see a lot of value and potential in the Outer Space project, and I will continue to lobby hard for more funding both for this project, and for the arts more generally.
Musgrave Park Pool
Further funding towards the upgrade of Musgrave Park pool was included in this year’s budget, with $2.82 million in the 2018/19 financial year and $2.78 million in 2019/20. I understand early stage design work on this project will begin pretty soon. I’m pushing council to conduct a proper public consultation process about redesign priorities for the pool.
I will also strongly recommend that the redesign includes lighting for the pathway running along the southern end of Musgrave Park
Although it’s described as an ‘upgrade’, a lot of the money will end up going towards basic repairs and maintenance like patching leaks in the main pool. I’ll keep residents posted about this project as I learn more.
Activities in Parks
BCC is continuing to fund the Active and Healthy Parks Program, which includes a lot of free or cheap activities in the Gabba Ward like yoga classes, group bike rides, children’s ball skills etc. You can browse and search for activities via this link. I encourage you to check it out – there’s actually quite a lot of good stuff that residents should take advantage of.
Very little funding for affordable housing and homelessness support services
As with previous years, we’ve seen virtually no funding towards affordable housing programs or ending homelessness in Brisbane.
The ‘Homelessness and Affordable Housing Program’ got a total of $815 000 allocated this year. During the budget information session, Councillor Matthew Bourke, the Chair of Lifestyle and Community Services, would not tell me the exact breakdown of what this line item is actually for, but I understand that some of it goes towards paying for three public space liaison officer roles (PSLOs), who are out on the street, building relationships with rough sleepers and helping link them in to support services. This is a very important and valuable role, and it’s a shame the council isn’t funding more PSLO roles.
The rest of the $815 000 goes towards the Red Cross Night Café – another excellent service that provides a drop-in space for marginalised young people, and to the community housing program – an old program that currently rents out around 10 old council-owned houses at subsidised rent via non-profit community housing organisations. The fact that this community housing program still exists at all is a bit of a miracle, but it’s a reminder that council could be providing significantly more affordable housing through this kind of approach, as it did in the past.
The Homeless Connect event at Doomben racecourse gets an allocation of $144 000, but again, the chair wouldn’t tell me exactly what this money is spent on.
Still no funding for extended operating hours or proper toilets at West End Library
West End Library (aka Kurilpa Library) is a small heritage-listed library which is currently closed on Sundays, Mondays and Tuesday, and doesn’t have publicly accessible toilets. The upstairs toilet facility used by staff is sometimes made available in emergencies, but is not accessible for users with impaired mobility.
BCC seems to have deprioritised investment and staff resourcing for Kurilpa Library on the basis that residents can use the State Library at South Bank or Brisbane Square Library in the CBD, but that’s not much use for the many local residents who live within walking distance of the Kurilpa Library and don’t want to have to travel into the heart of the inner-city just to access a computer or borrow a book.
The library’s lack of toilets and limited opening hours are self-reinforcing issues. These limitations discourage patronage, but council prioritises investment in libraries based largely on patronage rates. People don’t use the library because there’s no toilets, but the LNP won’t spend the money to install toilets unless more people are using the library.
There are also some great fact sheets on the Tenants Queensland website, including info on starting and ending a lease, landlords’ obligations to maintain the property, and what to do to ensure you get your bond refunded when you move out.
A new campaign for rent controls and stronger renters’ rights is building in Brisbane.
Residents are calling on the State Government to enact meaningful policy reforms that ensure greater stability for renters, moderate the negative impacts of gentrification, and help smooth out the peaks and troughs of the boom-bust property development industry.
In particular, we want the State Government to legislate a ‘right to remain’. This would mean that a landlord must renew a tenant’s lease unless the landlord or their family wants to move into the property themselves, or needs the property vacant in order to make major renovations. Even if a property changes ownership, the tenants would be entitled to remain and have their lease renewed unless the new owner actually wants to move in themselves.
We also believe the State Government needs to enforce a cap on how quickly rents can rise. This would give renters greater stability and financial security, and would help reduce the number of people who are made homeless when a neighbourhood becomes trendy and property values start rising rapidly.
For years now, the burden of advocacy, both in helping tenants with immediate issues like getting their bond back, and in terms of pushing governments to enact broader policy change, has been carried by the hard-working activists over at Tenants Queensland.
As a government-funded, non-party political advocacy organisation, Tenants Queensland has scored some big wins over the years, and I am strongly supportive of the work they do.
But there’s a gap in the Queensland political landscape. The Labor Party continues to pay lip service to tenants’ rights, supporting only modest policy reforms while bowing to pressure from the property industry. Simply put, the two major parties aren’t worried about losing votes on this issue, so there’s not enough impetus for positive change.
A new advocacy group called Brisbane Renters Alliance has formed to fill this gap. Brisbane Renters Alliance does not rely on government funding, so it has more scope to directly criticise and put pressure on the major political parties. Brisbane Renters Alliance is not controlled by or directly connected to any political party, but it actively supports political parties and candidates who are committed to introducing rent controls and a right to remain.
If you support the struggle for stronger renters, please start pressuring your elected MPs to make firm commitments before the coming state election to introduce protections against excessive rent increases and unjustified evictions.
There's also a closed 'Brisbane Renters Alliance' Facebook group that renters are welcome to join to discuss policy demands and seek informal advice on dealing with real estate agents.
I intend to support rental advocacy in our city by co-hosting policy forums, co-ordinating direct action responses to unjust evictions, and directly supporting renters' rights campaigners. I've also decided to use my position as an elected representative to name and shame bad real estate agents.
If current trends continue, pretty soon 3/4 of Brisbane's inner-city population will be renters, most of whom are on short-term leases with very little stability, and who will likely remain renter for most of their lives. This makes the community especially vulnerable to the vagaries of the property market. A sudden spike in real estate values can result in thousands of people being forced out of their homes.
Right now, renters in Queensland have pretty weak rights. But renting doesn't have to suck. If we advocate collectively, we can follow other developed nations in introducing stronger rights and protections for rents, and create a better, fairer housing system for renters and home-owners alike.
Different residents often have different, conflicting views on how particular public spaces should be used.
These disagreements can be tricky to resolve in inner-city areas, where the ratio of public space per resident is far lower, and different land uses – residential, commercial, open space, etc – are closer together.
Ideally, each neighbourhood will have a good balance of:
- quiet, well-vegetated green spaces that provide wildlife habitat and allow residents to connect with nature
- Lower-intensity open recreation spaces for holding a picnic, kicking a ball around or flying a kite
- active recreation spaces with infrastructure like playgrounds and sports facilities
- community gardens that bring people together and support urban food production
- intensively used squares and urban commons that are designed for meetings and events.
With greater public investment both in genuine consultation and in well-designed infrastructure, it’s possible to find creative solutions to meet a wider range of needs. Unfortunately, both the Brisbane City Council and the Queensland State Government have underspent significantly on the provision of public space and the infrastructure that goes into it. This general scarcity means that public spaces are being used more intensively, particularly in close proximity to residential homes.
Who is impacted?
As a local councillor, I believe residents should have more control over how our neighbourhoods change and evolve. The residents who live closest to public spaces often experience the greatest negative impacts when the use of those spaces intensifies, and it’s important that their needs aren’t ignored or marginalised.
However, immediate neighbours aren’t the only ones who should get a say in how a space is used, and although their needs and preferences might differ from other public space users who live slightly further away, that doesn’t mean that they should have veto power over everything that happens on a piece of publicly owned land.
There are many benefits in living closer to public parks and squares – for one thing, the view from your window probably isn’t obscured by another building only a few metres away. The trade-off is that you might also have to put up with a bit more noise and a little less privacy. This can be a difficult adjustment for new residents who are accustomed to quieter suburban lifestyles, but it comes with the territory.
Wealth inequality is another important element in this conversation. Public spaces are owned by all of us, and while everyone’s money (in the form of rates, taxes etc) is used to buy and maintain public spaces, it's often the most privileged members of our society who get to live closest to high quality parks, squares and waterways. While poorer residents are crammed into smaller apartments and flats with no private open space and barely enough room to entertain visitors, wealthier residents often get the benefit of larger homes - usually with private courtyards or sprawling backyards - as well as closer proximity to publicly owned open space. Often, public spaces are used more heavily by lower-income residents who live slightly further away from them.
This raises interesting questions about who should get a say in the design and use of public spaces. If we left such decisions exclusively up to immediate neighbours, some parks would probably remain as bare, empty lawns without toilet blocks, barbeques, lighting, shade shelters or the many other features that make spaces more useable. Such an outcome would not necessarily be in the broader public interest.
Ideally, everyone who cares about and uses a public space (whether they’re an immediate neighbour or a less frequent visitor) should get some level of input into how such spaces change, but there’s no definitive answer as to how much weighting should be given to different users and interest groups.
In deciding how much weight we give to the views of immediate neighbours, and how far I should cast the net in seeking broader public feedback, one factor I look at is the kind of zoning that applies to a park. For example, Musgrave Park in South Brisbane is zoned in the City Plan as 'Sport and Recreation (Metropolitan),' so it's understood to cater to park users from across the city, with lots of events and more active recreation opportunities. In making decisions about a park like that, I would want to hear from a very broad range of stakeholders and users, not just the people who live within walking distance or immediately adjacent to the park.
In contrast, Woolloongabba Rotary Park at the southern end of East Brisbane is zoned 'Open Space (Local)' so it is primarily understood to cater for the surrounding neighbourhood (defined in the City Plan as a radius of approximately 750 metres), and is mainly intended for informal recreation and green space, as opposed to the more intensive Sport and Recreation category. You can read about the different zones and categories of parkland at this link. If you'd like to look up the specific zoning of parks in your area, you can do so via the interactive City Plan map (give my office a call if you need help working out how to navigate the map).
Finding balance in an unbalanced landscape
Historically, Brisbane City Councillors have tended to heavily favour the views of immediate neighbours when it comes to designing public spaces. As a result, a small minority of vocal objectors can often prevent upgrades and outweigh the less coordinated requests of other park users.
When I'm facilitating decision-making processes, I try to correct for this tendency by also responding to the needs of lower-income public space users who might not have the confidence to start a petition or call the Lord Mayor’s office, but who are often heavily impacted by how such spaces are managed and developed.
An added difficulty here is that a poorly run consultation process that's not sufficiently inclusive or democratic can end up amplifying a vocal minority, and may actually be worse than no formal consultation at all. Basing decisions on a single survey or a single public forum creates the risk of a decision being hijacked by the people who have the most time and energy to participate in that consultation process, to the exclusion of demographics that don’t have the time to engage. The best approach is to put in the time and money to engage residents through a wide range of consultation avenues that are accessible to different demographics, and encourage residents to talk directly to each other as well as to the council, but unfortunately BCC doesn’t usually do this.
Parks as community meeting places
In our current society, one of the most important roles of public parks and squares is their function as a gathering place where people of different demographics and subcultures can meet and interact. Today, Brisbane’s dog off-leash areas are among the most vibrant community hubs in the city, offering neighbours a chance to get to know each other and share local news. Basketball courts, outdoor gyms and playgrounds can serve similar functions.
In a city where most of us lead busy, individualistic lives and don’t have the time or energy to get to know our neighbours, public spaces can play a transformative role in creating more opportunities for chance encounters and strengthening community relationships. This is one of the most important differences between private gardens and public parks, and is a key consideration when deciding how a particular public park could be improved.
Where are we headed?
In a city like Brisbane, where the provision of public space is not keeping up with population growth, most inner-city public spaces will not be able to remain as quiet, empty green lawns, free of both people and native vegetation. Most public spaces – particularly along the river – are likely to see increasingly intensive uses, especially in the evenings and at night. Public parks are not private lawns, and it is naïve to assume they will always function as such.
Importantly though, councils need to spend the time and resources to facilitate community conversations about how different public spaces change and evolve. Properly funding consultation and participatory design processes can help residents find common ground and strike a better balance between competing needs. Without forward planning and open conversations, disagreements and disappointments are inevitable.
Navigating all this is definitely one of the hardest parts of my role as a councillor, and takes up a lot of my time and that of my two ward office staff. There are more than 50 000 residents in the Gabba Ward. Sadly, we don’t have enough staff or funding to send out hundreds or sometimes thousands of notification letters to neighbouring residents every time changes are made to a public park. Similarly, a lot of residents don’t have the time to get involved in proactive consultation processes or even to read the newsletters that council does send out, and end up only hearing about upgrades at the last minute, when it’s too late to object. There’s no easy answer to this, but a crucial piece of the puzzle is decentralising decision-making power to the neighbourhood level rather than so many decisions being made centrally in city hall.
Perhaps the most important takeaway is that there are many different uses for public spaces, and reasonable people can disagree on how each park and public square should change over time. So in discussing how spaces are designed and managed, we need to consider not only our own immediate needs, but also those of other residents from different demographics who might use public space in different ways.
Many residents would like all our parks to remain as quiet green refuges with only low-impact uses, but many others want these spaces upgraded with more infrastructure and facilities. We need to have more community discussions about these tricky questions, and resist the temptation to take a one-size-fits-all, no-compromise approach.
Media Release: Residents Blockade Major Intersection to Call for Pedestrian Crossings and Public Transport Infrastructure
On Saturday morning (3 March) from 8:30am, frustrated West End residents will blockade the intersection of Vulture St and Montague Rd for 90 minutes, calling for more investment in pedestrian crossings and public transport services and to protest a 14-storey mega-development at 117 Victoria Street.
The Vulture Street blockade is expected to cause major traffic disruption along Montague Road, but residents say this is nothing compared to what will happen if the council keeps approving highrises without investing in public transport.
Local resident and architect Toby Robinson says he is supportive of urban densification that creates liveable neighbourhoods rather than just maximising developer profits. But he’s concerned that Brisbane City Council is currently doing a poor job of planning for growth. “Building extreme high density without basic infrastructure like public transport, pedestrian crossings and green space is not as sustainable as the property industry would have you believe,” he says. “Low-income apartment dwellers are being forced to accept sub-standard design and planning outcomes - most new inner-city apartments are designed to maximise developer profits rather than maximise quality of life for long-term residents.”
“BCC promised to build a new CityCat terminal near Victoria Street back in 2011 to cater for rapid population growth but it never happened, and now thousands of new apartment residents are stuck in traffic,” Mr Robinson says. “You’re gambling with your life just crossing the road to get to the bus stop because council won’t install a pedestrian crossing.”
“If the council keeps ignoring residents, we’ll have to keep blockading, because the system gives us no other option to have our voices heard.”
Local Councillor Jonathan Sri says BCC has been negligent in failing to install traffic lights at the intersection of Victoria St and Montague Rd, and that it’s only a matter of time before someone is killed. “This is a symptom of a broader problem across the city, where council approves developers to ignore the neighbourhood plan and cram in thousands of new apartments, but then wastes all its money widening roads instead of improving local infrastructure.”
“I am calling for a temporary halt to further high-density development in South Brisbane until BCC delivers basic essential infrastructure like pedestrian crossings, bike lanes and high-capacity public transport.”
“Contrary to government propaganda, mega-developments like the one we see at 117 Victoria Street do not significantly improve affordability for low-income residents,” Councillor Sri says. “We need medium-density public housing – not luxury highrises built for private profit.”
Residents will assemble in Davies Park on Montague Road from 8am, stepping onto the road and occupying the intersection of Vulture Street and Montague Road, West End from 8:30am to 10am. A permit for the blockade has been issued by police. Journalists are advised that traffic will be pretty bad, so we suggest arriving before 8am if travelling by car.
For further comments, contact Toby Robinson on 0423 766 046 or Jonathan Sri on 3403 2165.
Further concerns about the development at 117 Victoria St are outlined at this link.
Footage of the unsafe intersection of Victoria St and Montague Rd is online at this link.
Last week at UQ we held the first of many public forums about renters rights.
We had a solid turnout (about 30 in total) of both local and international uni students, as well as other residents who weren’t connected to UQ but cared deeply about renters rights.
The discussion covered a range of topics including inadequate repairs and maintenance, landlords conducting surprise inspections without proper notice, and the tendency for real estate agents to give minimal notice before seeking to jack up the rent.
It was particularly interesting (but not surprising) to learn that a lot of the international students were paying as much as $150/week per bedroom more than what domestic renters would consider reasonable for the same standard of home. It seems obvious to me that new migrants who know less about Queensland tenancy law and have less access to information about average market rents are particularly prone to exploitation and rent-gouging by landlords and real estate agents.
Through small and large group conversations, we are beginning to crystalise a few key policy demands that seem to go to the core of the many varied issues that renters are concerned about. In particular, there’s a lot of support for some form of rent controls, and for rules against no-grounds evictions (i.e. landlords shouldn’t be able to end your lease if you don’t want to move out unless they’re moving into the home themselves, or are undertaking major renovations). I think we should be pushing for the rule against no-grounds evictions to extend to new owners, so that even if an investor sells a tenanted property, the lease should automatically continue unless the new owner wants to move in themselves or the tenants want to move out. I’m interested to know what other people think of this.
Rules against sharp rent increases and no-grounds evictions would help shift the power balance between tenants and landlords, giving renters more power to insist that landlords fulfil their existing legal obligations in terms of property maintenance etc.
In the immediate term, we have identified a couple of key tactics to put pressure on the political establishment and on landlords/real estate agents directly.
Resisting Evictions into Homelessness
Where we as a collective feel that a particular tenant is being forcibly evicted unfairly and has no safe home to move to, we will engage in civil disobedience to try to prevent such evictions. We need to address the tactical question of whether we will use direct action to resist evictions from privately owned dwellings or only evictions from government housing and community housing.
We also need further discussions about the best ways to organise such actions, because they are often required at very short notice. From time to time, we will need to mobilise activists quickly, and Facebook events/mass text messaging may not be the most efficient way to do this (although public facebook events with a large number of attendees do help manifest power and put pressure on the police).
Naming and Shaming Dodgy Real Estate Agents
Publicly outing the most exploitative real estate agents was widely agreed as an effective tactic, with the caveat that we need to be very certain that our public criticisms are legitimate and fair. It’s almost certain that some of the agents we shame publicly will sue for defamation. I’m happy to put my name to public statements naming dodgy estate agents as long as we’re confident that the criticisms of them are valid.
A suggested process is that when someone complains about a particular agent, we put the word out through various channels to see if other tenants have had similar bad experiences with that agent, then once we have enough stories about bad behaviour (e.g. at least five), we go public.
There’s a clear need for more info sessions and forums where people can learn what their basic rights as a tenant are and how best to get landlords to fulfil their responsibilities. One suggested format is that the first half of a 90-minute event could be a Q&A session with an expert who knows a lot about the Rental Tenancies Act, and the latter half of the group discussion could focus more on direct action and political advocacy. If anyone is keen to help organise one of these forums, it would be great to get together a pool of 5 to 10 volunteers who have the time and energy to put on forums in different neighbourhoods and in partnership with different community groups.
There’s a lot more to talk about, and I think as we all participate in more conversations about these issues through a range of formal and informal discussion spaces, we’ll gradually arrive at a shared understanding of strategic priorities and key policy demands.
Currently the Brisbane Renters Alliance Facebook Group serves as one of many spaces where such discussions can take place, but it could be cool to set up a slightly more secure online forum that’s also accessible to non-Facebook users if anyone has the energy and skills to do so.
Thoughts and feedback on all of the above are very welcome. Thanks to everyone who came along to the first discussion forum. Hopefully we’ll see a few more new faces at the next one.
The State Government has finally released a bit more info about the proposed new public high school for Brisbane’s inner-south side.
I’ve written previously about overcrowding issues at Brisbane State High School, and late last year I wrote an update raising concerns about the lack of genuine consultation and possible flaws in the government’s process for deciding where the new school should go.
Recent disclosures by the State Government have showed my concerns were not unfounded. While different government sources initially provided somewhat-conflicting information via different forums, here’s some of what we’ve been told…
- the new high school will have a capacity of 1100 to 1400 students
- like Brisbane State High School, the new school may have a merit-based entry component, meaning students from outside the local area will be able to attend it
- the government’s preferred site is at Boggo Road/Dutton Park near the train station
- two other sites – one next to Davies Park, and the other at the northwest end of the Kurilpa Peninsula along Montague Rd – were briefly considered but deemed less viable
- the school is proposed to have exactly the same catchment boundaries as BSHS
- the new high school will have very little green space on site for student sport and recreation, but the government is currently negotiating with UQ for shared access to UQ sports fields on the north side
As a local councillor, it seems to me that the location, the catchment boundaries and the decision to include merit-based selective entry enrolments are all suboptimal, and that the State Government needs to completely reconsider its approach.
When you look at the government's Precinct Selection Report (particularly page 7 and 8) it's obvious that revoking or reducing BSHS's selective entry enrolment was left out of scope for this decision, so it was more-or-less taken for granted that the new school would also include merit-based selective entry. This necessarily influenced how the government evaluated each potential site, particularly in terms of transport and accessibility. It's obvious that the arbitrary deadline of wanting the school to be ready by 2021 also seriously influenced the decision, despite the fact that BSHS could accommodate more local students in the short-term if it tweaked its enrolment policy.
Under Queensland law, landlords and real estate agencies are required to maintain homes to a reasonable standard, carrying out repairs in a timely manner. They’re also required to provide advance written notice before inspecting a home or bringing potential buyers around. Good landlords give tenants plenty of warning (i.e. at least six months) before ending a lease or increasing the rent, and should be open to negotiating rent decreases as market conditions change.
In practice though, many landlords and agents don’t always meet their basic legal responsibilities – some are outright bullies, threatening tenants and abusing their power.
There are a couple of official mechanisms and processes for tenants to make complaints and pressure landlords to not be jerks, but in general the system is pretty weak and skewed in landlords’ favour. A lot of tenants don’t have the skills or time to navigate these processes, particularly when many real estate agents know a lot more about how to use the system to their advantage. It’s possible to intimidate tenants, continually violate their privacy and keep them living in fear of homelessness while still technically complying with the law.
Renters who do stand up for themselves often experience retribution by landlords and agents. They might find that their lease isn’t renewed or their rent is jacked up. Without knowing it, they could be placed on a tenant blacklist. Even after you move out, a former landlord or agent can make your life extremely difficult by giving bad references to other owners who are thinking of renting to you. The potential for revenge evictions mean existing mechanisms for tenants to make complaints are not sufficient.
Now before the high priests of the property industry start threatening me with eternal damnation: Yes, I know there are bad tenants too. Not all landlords are bad people, and not all tenants are angels. But tenants don’t have the power to make their landlords homeless. And despite the ‘nightmare tenant’ stories that sometimes circulate at parties and BBQs, the overwhelming majority of the 580 000 rental households in Queensland pay their rent on time and keep their homes in good order.
Right now, we have a system that encourages conflict – tenants lack long-term stability and security, which means they have less incentive to look after their rental property. Landlords don’t trust their tenants, and so have more incentive to invade renters’ privacy and scrutinise them aggressively. This needs to change.
From what our office has seen, it is quite common for some agents to take revenge by not renewing a lease when tenants make reasonable and legitimate complaints. Renters know this, and so choose not to speak out even when their landlord is bullying them or clearly breaking the law.
This is why I’m going to start naming and shaming some landlords and real estate agents. I’m using my position as an elected representative to amplify the voices of tenants who are too scared to speak out publicly themselves, to warn other renters that they should avoid certain owners and agents.
Obviously I’ll take the time to verify complaints, and will reach out to agents privately before going public. I won’t shame a real estate agency simply on the basis of one or two complaints. I will be measured in my criticisms, refraining from hyperbole, and I will remain mindful of the fact that the low-ranking property managers who work for real estate agencies and get caught in the middle are themselves often over-worked and underpaid.
But if a certain landlord or real estate agency demonstrates a consistent pattern of disrespect and exploitation towards multiple rental households, I will use my mailing list of 9000 Brisbane residents and my substantial social media platform to hold them to account.
My intention here is not to start a war between tenants and landlords, but to ensure that agents who bully tenants and give the whole sector a bad name are called out. We should be working towards a system where renters have greater stability in their tenancies, which will in turn give them greater incentive to look after and respect the homes they live in.
Stronger renters’ rights also benefit neighbouring homeowners. When tenants have longer leases and don’t have to move house every six or twelve months, they are able to form lasting community connections, getting to know their neighbours and joining local community groups and projects.
I am calling out bad landlords because I believe a better world is possible, and that renters shouldn’t tolerate being treated as second-class citizens. I hope that by doing this, I will prompt further discussion and debate about the need for broader improvements to renters’ rights in Australia, and pressure the Queensland Government to lift its game on this issue.
For media inquiries call (07) 3403 2165 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Brisbane, Australia, 2018
On Wednesday, 7 February, a woman reached out to my office in Woolloongabba for help. She’d come back to her home in Highgate Hill after being out of town for a while visiting family and attending funerals to find a final eviction notice from the police. It said they would be attending with representatives from her landlord at 11am on Thursday, 8 February to forcibly evict her and her five children.
The home is owned by the State Government’s Department of Housing, but like a lot of Queensland public housing, it’s managed and controlled by a community housing provider (a ‘CHP’) which serves as the family’s landlord.
The mum didn’t know exactly why she was being evicted. She remembered receiving a few complaints last year about minor issues like late-night noise and rubbish piling up. And she remembered that she had missed some kind of tribunal hearing a few weeks ago because she had to attend the funeral of a relative, but she didn’t really seem to understand the implications of that.
The warrant for eviction had been issued by QCAT. Apart from a couple of generic contact numbers for homelessness support services in small print at the bottom of the page, the eviction notice was not accompanied by any info about where the family was expected to go after they were forced from their home. This single mum and her five kids were being evicted into homelessness.