Councillor Rob Pyne: ‘Democratic socialism is getting a wider hearing’

Rob Pyne at a refugee rights gathering in Carins in July. Photo: Rob Pyne / Facebook

Rob Pyne has been politically active for years and was elected Labor MP for Cairns in 2015. He resigned from the Labor Party the next year and as an independent championed abortion law reform and voted against the Adani coal mine. He is now a local councillor in Cairns City Council and has joined the Socialist Alliance. He spoke to Green Left’s Alex Bainbridge.

You couldn’t have taken up abortion law reform or coal mining while you were in the Labor Party. Is that why you left?

I left over those issues, plus the party’s lack of action over corruption at council. Soon after I became an independent MP, some activists came to see me about abortion law reform and I had a bill to decriminalise abortion in Queensland drafted.

You cannot get a private member’s bill drafted or tabled in the parliament if you are a member of the Liberal or Labor Party. You have to refer it to the relevant minister or party.

After tabling the abortion law reform bill, it got a lot of attention. But, when it came time to vote, a significant number of Labor MPs said that while they believed in the cause they “didn’t think this was the right bill”.  Governments do this all the time: they will vote against an opposition bill and then put their own.

It was clear the abortion bill would not be passed. But, as Labor didn’t want to explain why it would not support it (which would have created some problems for them) deputy premier Jackie Trad and the attorney general said they would embark on abortion law reform if they were reelected and if I agreed to withdraw my bill. They also publicly committed to referring the issue to the Law Reform Commission and introduce a bill after the LRC had tabled its report. Once that was public, I knew the bill would become a reality.

If my bill had been put up, there would have been a conscience vote. While a couple of LNP members would have crossed the floor (and did end up doing so), at least three Labor MPs would have spoken against decriminalising abortion.  That would have been embarrassing for Labor.

Adani is going hard against activists opposing its mine in the Galilee Basin in central Queensland. What are your thoughts about the campaign?

The secondary boycott actions have proved to be successful tactics. Some organisers have been threatened with litigation. It has worried Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Adani.

It has also showed there remains a high level of support for the fight against Adani’s coal mine. Every day, coal is more on the nose. People can see what is happening: bushfires and natural disasters. Support for the campaign to stop Adani will only grow.

The other issue you mentioned you resigned over was corruption at a local government level.

The Westminster principles don’t always apply in local government. Former Queensland Premier Campbell Newman changed the law so that the mayor was given executive power — the “strong man” model.

This allowed the mayor to instruct the council CEO and other council officers. This put some senior officers in a difficult position when some mayors asked them to do things that were illegal, although one former Ipswich CEO made sure he received his chunk from some illegal dealings.

The state government has since reversed that rule. In my former council position, I pointed out local government corruption to the state government, but the responsible minister would not even discuss it. I ended up leaving the party. The corruption was discovered and the reforms were finally made.

I am passionate about reform. But there are many Labor MPs who only seem to be in office to ingratiate themselves with other ministers and score a portfolio.

There is also the pressure on MPs from corporate interests.

Yes, I expected the Liberal National Party to strongly support the fossil fuel industry. But the Labor minister for natural resources said there is no greater supporter of the coal industry than the Palaszczuk government! That was another reason I left.

The Labor Party feels it has to commit to existing economic growth and fears that if it does not come across as more hairy-chested than the LNP it won’t be taken seriously.

The coronavirus support packages JobKeeper and JobSeeker are about to be cut, even though the jobs are not there. What’s your view?

JobKeeper has helped many of Australia’s big companies by allowing millions of dollars to flow to CEOs in bonuses. Meanwhile, people on welfare payments are stigmatised as bludgers.

The pandemic has made it hard to organise mass protests and engage in civil disobedience, which is needed now more than ever. That has been frustrating.

But people have also been questioning the government’s economic policies and methods as well.

Is that why you are talking up your socialist views?

Yes, I’ve been creating a more social media explaining socialist values and why we need to head down the path of democratic socialism.

The term “socialism” is now being accepted more widely. Bernie Sanders in the United States and Jeremy Corbyn in Britain have been a part of this change.

Socialist Alliance’s policies and practice is the perfect fit for me. I’m also committed to forming wider alliances and working with other left groups and networks.

In the Queensland elections, for instance, there are progressive Greens running and I’m helping out there: we have a chance to get two or three into parliament.

What sorts of issues are you campaigning on in the Cairns council?

I ran in the area where I grew up, on the south side of Cairns. It was not easy, because a conservative team and mayor ended up with almost 70% of the vote which then flowed to their divisional candidates. I was fortunate to get over the line.

I am on a council with a conservative mayor, eight conservative councillors and myself as the only progressive. It was good to have a win against the odds, but it would have been better to have more progressives. So I am trying to help progressive young people step forward in community campaigns.

There’s a real hum about Socialist Alliance and it’s important to grow the branches so that we can have a real impact.

It’s not all about electoral politics, of course, but it would be great to have more Socialist Alliance candidates on the ballot. At the last council elections in Cairns, for a lot of people there was a choice between two conservative candidates. To not have anyone on the ballot paper who shares your values can be quite disillusioning.

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