Qld MP breaks from Labor, says it has lost 'labour values'

Rob Pyne at the community solidarity protest at Lady Cilento Children's Hospital. Photo: Peter Boyle

Rob Pyne (MP) is now the independent Member for Cairns in the Queensland Parliament, following his shock resignation from the Australian Labor Party on March 7.

Pyne was a student leader at James Cook University, then served on the Cairns Regional Council between 2008 and 2015 before becoming Australia's first quadriplegic member of parliament in last year's Queensland state election.

Since then, this outspoken MP has been a headache to the Annastacia Palaszczuk's Labor government in Queensland which, earlier this year, tried to muzzle Pyne with “minders” and through pressure from the party whip.

I first met Pyne in Cairns last May at a rally against the closure of Aboriginal communities. He rocked up with a sound system balanced in his motorised wheelchair and was welcomed by the crowd of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and their supporters as only a respected community activist can be.

Pyne was at another significant demonstration: the 10-day-long community solidarity protest outside Lady Cilento Children's Hospital in support of the doctors' and nurses' refusal to hand over baby refugee Asha to immigration officials, who wanted to return her to Australia's notorious offshore refugee detention centre in Nauru.

Pyne was one of the activists who committed to physically block any attempt to forcibly remove Asha from the hospital.

Pyne spoke to Green Left Weekly's Peter Boyle on March 8, the day after he resigned from the ALP.

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Rob, you have made a big decision: to resign from the ALP and stay on as an independent MP for Cairns in the Queensland Parliament. In your resignation letter, you cited three main ways in which Labor has abandoned “traditional labour movement values”. Tell us about this.

I'm happy to talk about that. One thing we don't have in Queensland is an upper house. But sometimes it feels like the multinationals and the big corporates are acting like the de facto upper house here in Queensland because it seems neither side in politics will put any legislation forward or amendments that challenge the domination of the big multinational companies.

And that is the same, whether it is Monsanto or Santos or any of those big companies. One of the concerning things is the impact that this is having.

You cited the Indian billionaire Adani's proposed Carmichael mega coal mine. This a big climate change issue, and not just for Queensland but on a national and global level. What is your position on this coal mine?

I am against the Carmichael mine that is being proposed by Adani. It is really a double whammy against the Great Barrier Reef.

As we know, the amount of carbon emissions is already unsustainable and for that amount of coal to be dug up and burnt, it will feed in to climate change that is already happening. When you add that to the fact that to get that coal exported will involve massive dredging operations at Abbott Point, it is fair to say that it is ridiculous to talk about saving the reef while allowing a project like this to proceed.

But the Queensland Labor government has been clearing the way for Adani. It hasn't done anything to check this dangerous mega-mining project.

It is very disappointing that we haven't seen stronger leadership on this. We know what direction our country and state need to be heading in to address catastrophic climate change. We simply can't countenance projects like this. It is a matter of moral leadership.

These projects are not economically, socially or environmentally sustainable. The mining sector causes immense disruption to communities by moving people out of other industries, out of manufacturing and other workplaces. It only provides jobs to 2% of the workforce and all too often leaves environmental messes that the rest of us are left to clean up. And some of this toxic waste is impossible to clean up.

Another issue you cite in your resignation letter is the question of water resources and mining. Can you explain this?

I've been lobbied quite heavily by the Environmental Defenders, the Wilderness Society and other environment groups about this.

The issue here is in relation to Part 4 of the Water Reform and Other Legislation Amendment Act 2014, introduced by the former Campbell Newman Liberal National Party government. This allows mining companies to take as much water as they want without applying for a licence. That is not a right accorded to anyone else.

I campaigned on a “Not For Sale” platform to keep our public assets in public ownership. We have no greater asset than water. Not only should our water resources be not for sale, but they should not be handed free to mining companies.

Coal seam gas (CSG) is another controversial industry and it seems to be a free-for-all situation for this industry in Queensland. A major concern with this industry is the poisoning — as well as depletion — of precious water supplies. What is your position?

Unfortunately, 15% of CSG produced in Queensland involves fracking. We've seen the impact on people's lives in rural areas. We have people experiencing all sorts of health issues and it is also in an area which depends heavily on waster from artesian basins.

In coastal areas, like Cairns to some extent, our problems get washed out into the ocean every wet season. But when you are polluting those artesian basins that's damaging resources that those communities will need for hundreds of years.

I am worried about the impact this is having. We see the impact this has had on people like the farmer George Bender who took his life last year. I'm working with George's daughter Helen on many of these CSG issues and I am happy to see that Senator Glenn Lazarus is also taking up this issue.

We need good people who care about the country to come forward and who will not be bullied or battered down by the two-party system which runs this country a bit like a protection racket.

The third area where you say Labor has got lost on is transparency and accountability. You've been in the media quite a bit about this. Can you elaborate?.

When I was a member of the Labor party, one thing I was quite proud of was the Fitzgerald reforms and the commitment to those reforms of the Wayne Goss Labor government.

What we've seen in recent years is a lack of reformist zeal in implementing the Fitzgerald reforms and reforms for even greater transparency and accountability.

That has saddened me because if we don't go down this path we leave the system open to becoming one of political patronage where big donors subsidise candidates' election campaigns and after the elections there's always a dirty cloud of suspicion. Why is this government making this or that decision as a pay back for those election donations?

In some cases in Queensland, it is very obvious that property developers have made sizeable donations to candidates for local councils and when those candidates are elected they go on to approve development applications from the very developers who funded their election campaigns. Sometimes they don't even declare a conflict of interest.

That's just not good enough, but the Queensland government is stalling on taking any action on this. It's a real shame. We've seen in NSW what could happen with ICAC [Independent Commission Against Corruption]. I would love to see a situation where people could come forward with information about illegal and corrupt activities without fear or persecution.

I would love to see a whistleblower protection law that will allow people to come forward with information without fear of losing their jobs.

You have declared that you are “here for the 99% not the 1%” What are your thoughts on growing inequality in Australia, where the richest 10% now own more that the other 90%?

It is a very intimidating development and it gets worse because of the links with the media. This makes it hard for people like me because the people who own the means of production also own the means of communication. It is important that we work together to raise these issues.

We know about this aggregation of ownership of capital in Australia in the hands of the few and we know the measures that could turn this back. We need to be looking at negative gearing, we need to look at raising the real company tax rate. And what we should be doing with the revenue we raise is investing it in our education system.

We've got our state premiers and our prime minister talking about innovation, being creative and being a “smart country”. So what about spending some money on our education system? Why not? We can see all the opportunities being given to children growing up in other countries with a stronger social safety net and stronger investment in public education.

You are appealing explicitly to “traditional labour movement values” that are not being honoured in the ALP. But one traditional labour movement value, in the history of this and other countries, is the commitment to democratic socialism. Do you still support this commitment?

I certainly do. Democratic socialism is the vehicle in which ordinary people can get the representation and the social safety net they need to improve their lot in life.

One of the things we know about happiness is that where there is a greater level of equality there is a greater level of happiness amongst people. And where there is a disproportionate allocation of wealth there is less happiness.

It is systematic. This is not a situation where someone works harder and they become incredibly wealthy. The dice are completely loaded in favour of these massive companies at the expense of small businesses. We've seen this happen in the United States where it is not only the working class but the middle class that is being squeezed out.

Democratic socialism offers policies that will allow people to be supported in the community, that allow diversity and a meaningful life for people.

You must have come across may people in Labor — and there are many in the Greens as well — who say that “socialism” is an outdated term, one that ordinary people no longer relate to. However, the phenomenal support that is being demonstrated for openly socialist politicians like Bernie Sanders in the US and Jeremy Corbyn in Britain, especially from younger people, would suggest that this is no longer true. What do you think?

I think that the movement of the age we are entering will be one back towards democratic socialism. One of the reasons I left Labor was not just that I felt morally bound to do so, but because the people of Cairns and far North Queensland are saying we don't feel we are represented by the two major parties. So people are looking for an alternative and I believe developing socialist policies can support regional communities where market forces never deliver quality outcomes.

So democratic socialism certainly is the key to a better future and hopefully its star is on the rise.

What has been the reaction of your constituents and others to your resignation from Labor?

I have had a lot of well-wishers and some negative responses. But the problem we face, as activists, is that most of the community is disengaged. What we are seeing with Bernie Sanders is that when someone articulates an agenda and principles in a way people understand, this can re-engage a lot of people.

I am not sure that I have the charisma or the vocabulary to do this, but as activists we need to be proclaiming that message and trying to get people to re-engage in the political process by showing that there is a way forward for them and for the community as a whole.

If we can do that, we can give people what the Americans call “skin in the game”. If we can engage the disengaged and the disenfranchised then we will have the people who can help build the sort of community that we want.

Some of your critics argue that by resigning from the ALP you have some how helped the LNP. How do you answer this? Is it true that you have made a commitment to support the Queensland Labor government in any vote of confidence motion?

That's correct and this is just a very simple and concise way I can say that no LNP government will take power at my hand or as a result of my resignation from the ALP. I've always advocated voting in such a way that puts the LNP last because that is where they put most Australians.

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