Vale John Kaye: defender of public education and renewables

Issue 
John Kaye was a champion of public education and renewables.

A conspicuous absence from the weekend No Coal protests in Newcastle will be Greens MP John Kaye.

He would have certainly been there but for his sudden death on May 2 aged 60 of bone cancer. His death has robbed us all of an incomparable champion of the environment and the public interest.

John was widely known as the author of a plan to convert NSW to 100% renewable energy by 2030 and as the staunchest parliamentary champion of public education in the country.

Some of the many causes he took up in parliament included banning political donations from property developers, mining companies and tobacco and alcohol corporations; preventing the opening of any new coal mines; and the abolition of greyhound racing.

While a fine parliamentarian, he was never under any illusions as to what he could achieve by parliamentary means alone. In fact he counted among his greatest achievement being part of the community campaign to halt the Tillegra dam in the Hunter region.

His energy was legendary. He invariably got up at 4.30am to scan the internet for the news and make himself available for morning radio. He held the record for appearances on 5am radio news bulletins.

He was sustained in his committed and peripatetic life — as he freely admitted — by his partner, school teacher Lynne Joslyn.

John's tireless campaigning was also underpinned by an understanding of capitalism. He was an ecosocialist before the term was coined.

Director of the Total Environment Centre Jeff Angel came close to nailing this when he said John understood the economics of environmental sustainability. “He particularly worked on climate change, renewable energy and water conservation. He understood these are not just green issues, they're actually fundamental economic drivers of a sustainable economy.”

But John went further than this. In his maiden speech to parliament in June 2007, he outlined the ecological crisis of what he called the greenhouse century and called for collective action and public investment to solve the crisis.

“These environmental challenges require collective solutions,” he told parliament, “which cannot be produced by corporate boardrooms, markets, consumer choice and greed acting alone.” A strengthened and larger public sector was a key goal for John.

His vision of an ecologically sustainable society was based on active grassroots democracy. “The Greens' vision of public goes beyond education, utilities and services such as transport, health and broadcasting. The Greens' vision includes the belief that as a community we have a collective right to determine our common future. That is why we have vigorously opposed legislation that seeks to destroy unions…”

In that same maiden speech he celebrated public education: “Our great public school system and TAFE colleges knock some of the rough edges off socio-economic disadvantage and create a celebration of diversity.”

John's trajectory to the left goes back to his school days. Sent to the exclusive private school Scotch College in Melbourne, he rebelled, refused to join the cadets, clashed with the headmaster and rejected the school's values and politics.

Inspired by the Gough Whitlam era he joined the Labor Party but left when it moved to the right in the 1980s. He did electrical engineering at Melbourne University and formed his deep and abiding interest in renewable energy. He won a scholarship to do a PhD at Berkeley in California in the 1980s, during the time of Reaganite reaction. He liked to recall that he was the only member of his PhD class not funded by the military.

Returning to Australia he decided to throw his lot in with the nascent and then miniscule Greens. Unsuccessful in the Senate election of 2004 he was however elected to the NSW Legislative Council in 2007 and 2015.

Luke Foley, Labor's NSW parliamentary leader, in an otherwise perceptive tribute mentioned John's Jewish background but failed to add that John was a fierce advocate of the rights of Palestinians and a supporter of BDS (the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign).

John was close to his family. He knew at times that his political stands distressed his parents and siblings, but while that made him sensitive he never resiled from his positions. He was, as he said, “the black sheep in my family”.

He was, however, a favourite of the Greens in NSW. Shocked and saddened as they are by John's death, they have been united in their responses in rededicating themselves to those causes John contributed so much to in his life.

[Hall Greenland is a co-convenor of the NSW Greens.]