Making Peace on Australian Campuses

Australia, Brisbane, Politics

Drew Pavlou

In recent weeks, menacing Chinese ultra-nationalist rallies have convulsed Australian university campuses and city streets. Peaceful pro-democracy Hong Kong demonstrators have been bullied, assaulted, abused, and subjected to doxing and death threats online. Against this backdrop of tumult and unrest, in part encouraged and spurred on by Chinese diplomatic officials in Australia, it is easy to lose faith in the ability of peaceful debate and discussion, those hallmarks of liberal democracy, to help us find a way out of this mess. My personal experience as an Australian student involved in the pro-Hong Kong democracy movement at UQ tells me that we must not be so quick to despair.

The other night, an improbable meeting of minds occurred beneath our university’s Lennon Wall that reinforced to me the enduring power of free deliberation and dialogue. Hubert introduced himself to me as a twenty year old International Relations student from Southern China. He already knew who I was, having seen the posts circulating about me on Chinese social media. He was taking a courageous risk in reaching out across the divide. We soon got to chatting, speaking for hours as the brilliant purple sky above Saint Lucia burnt to night.

Over the course of our friendly exchange, we discussed a wide range of topics frankly and openly. Hubert described his family’s experience of the horrors of the Cultural Revolution while speaking with great pride of China’s stunning economic miracle. I shared his sense of awe at China having lifted some eight hundred million people out of poverty in a single generation, an achievement of world-historic magnitude. We bonded over a shared respect for Chinese literature, culture and civilisation. Throughout our conversation, I was struck by both his erudition and his kindly and thoughtful demeanour.

We also talked about the pro-democracy rally at UQ I helped organise on July 24th. During that rally, I was assaulted by a co-ordinated group of masked pro-CCP heavies. If I am honest, I was surprised he was present among those Chinese nationalist demonstrators that sought to disrupt Hong Kong students peacefully expressing their concerns on campus. Hubert did not participate in the violence and I know he did not condone it. Still, what led him to support the nationalist rally?

He explained his concerns and I tried to understand and respond to them. As the discussion broadened, he helped me see that Chinese students share the same anxieties and fears as Australian and Hong Kong students. Where we feared persecution for our political beliefs and views, they did too. Alone in a foreign country, Chinese students could rationally fear Australian protests critical of the CCP would contribute to the creation of a McCarthy-like atmosphere of paranoia and mutual distrust. Who could blame them, given Australia’s long history of anti-Chinese racism?

Profound contrasts in the political culture of our nations served to stoke misunderstandings that inflamed passions on both sides. Hubert explained to me how China’s nationalist education system encouraged citizens to conflate the CCP-led state with the very nation itself, so that Chinese students at UQ would interpret criticism of the state as criticism of the Chinese people. This definition of nationhood is obviously radically different to how we conceive of the relationship between a state and its people in the West. Where I intuitively draw a distinction between criticism of Prime Minister Scott Morrison and criticism of my identity as an Australian, Chinese students at UQ interpreted our opposition to the policies of the Chinese state in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong as opposition to the Chinese nation and people.

I fundamentally disagree with this vision of political life as it seems to underpin a blood-and-soil authoritarianism that brooks no criticism of human rights abuses. I think this is an idea we must rationally challenge and break down. Were it not for my productive discussion with Hubert, I would not have understood the need to reformulate future protest messaging to clearly respond to this distinction. He helped me see how vital it is that we show Chinese students our opposition to the current policies of the Chinese government do not entail an objection to them or their presence in this country.

Ultimately, Hubert and I still came away from our dialogue with fundamental disagreements. But leaving aside those differences, it was a productive, educational experience. And that is the power of free debate and discussion as hallmarks of effective liberal democracy. Through peaceful dialogue, we overcame differences, clarified misunderstandings, and tried to bridge the divide between ourselves. That night at UQ, two twenty-year-old kids from vastly different worlds and cultures got together to try to understand each other a little better, and I think they came away slightly better people. That is the beauty of discussion and peaceful attempts at mutual understanding, and it can underpin a new peace on Australian campuses and city streets.

UQ Campus Heated as Anti-CCP and Chinese-Counter Protesters Clash

Australia, Brisbane, Politics

Nilsson Jones

UQ’s Market Day at the St Lucia campus was hijacked by mid afternoon as tensions boiled over between Chinese and Hong Kong protesters. 

Market Day was an opportune time for anti-Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and pro-Hong Kong protesters to join together and get their message out to students. 

Drew Pavlou, an organiser for the anti-CCP protests promoted the event on Facebook in the days leading up to Market Day.

Mr Pavlou has been a vocal student on the persecution of Uighur Muslims in mainland China, as well as the controversial relationship between UQ and the Chinese Government – regarding international students bankrolling the university and the presence of the Confucius Institute on campus. 

On Wednesday morning, Chinese students contacted Mr Pavlou and encouraged him to cancel the event, as it would cause unnecessary and unwanted damage to the broader Chinese-Australia relationship and implicate students who wish not to become involved. Some sent Mr Pavlou death threats.

The event went ahead at midday, beginning as a peaceful sit-in with students holding signs that criticised outgoing UQ Vice-Chancellor, Peter Hoj for the Chinese Government’s supposed influence at UQ. 

Pro-CCP students then gathered directly across from the protesters at the entrance to the great court near Merlos, as a form of counter-protest. 

This is when the day got interesting. 

The counter-protesters arrived with speakers loudly playing the Chinese national anthem on repeat as students joined in on the singing and chants that were endless throughout the afternoon’s ‘festivities’. 

Both groups screamed and chanted at each other until tensions boiled over when Chinese students began tearing up pro-Hong Kong signs and pushing the protesters away. 

The violence then escalated when Mr Pavlou, amongst others, was assaulted, being repeatedly punched then pushed into a group of students sitting down. 

Another student was hit over the head with an energy drink by a pro-CCP student, it was then that a UQ security officer stepped in and was bitten by the Chinese student. 

It is important to note that there were UQ security officers present throughout these events, however, they remained largely uninvolved to avoid the appearance of stifling debate and free speech on campus. 

It was after signs were stolen and students were punched that police arrived on campus and remained there until the groups calmed down and later moved on. 

There was a brief forty minute period where things looked to have fizzled out, the groups had dispersed from the Great Court. A group of students led by Mr Pavlou occupied the Confucius Institute on campus and live streamed from the location. 

Following the Confucius Institute protest, approximately fifty Hong Kong students sat down near the Grassy Knoll. 

Domestic students who were in support of the Hong Kongers, as well as those in opposition to the CCP, huddled behind the students in a showing of support. 

Over the next thirty minutes, pro-Chinese students had re-grouped opposite the Grassy Knoll, with an increasing presence that grew to over 350 as tensions began to rise once more. 

The chanting and singing returned as both sides grew increasingly agitated by one another until the second round of violence ensued. 

Police and media presence was far more apparent at the revived protest as key figures from both sides were interviewed and questioned about the day’s events. 

This violence and motivation to protest did not exist in a vacuum, there were several peaceful Hong Kong student protests at the end of last semester showing solidarity with family and friends back home. 

Similarly, tensions and debate have been present on UQ platforms such as Stalkerspace following the events and protests in Hong Kong in previous months. 

Wednesday’s events will most likely not be a one-off, with a larger protest already proposed on campus for next Wednesday.

How Brisbane’s Paniyiri Festival Lost Its Way

Brisbane, Culture

Peter Calos

As May draws to a close, it is time to once again revisit, and mourn, that classic festival venerated by philhellenes all over Brisbane: the Paniyiri.

Yes, the weekend is a tried-and-true vehicle for the consumption of gyros, honey puffs, dolmades, calamari, and that other thing you can’t quite remember the name of but you tried once on holiday in Mykonos and thought was pretty good.

But is it worth anything else?

Sure, there’s a cultural exhibition in the club next door, and dances late into the night. Not to mention a mock village made of a few deck chairs. (Let me tell you from experience – that’s as far from a “Greek village” as we are from Alpha Centauri.) We’ll have fun despite ourselves, since at heart it’s a social event – but everyone will eventually acknowledge at some point in the proceedings that it’s not what it used to be. Every year for at least the past three years, as far as I know, some strapped-for-a-story young journalist has tapped into the mostly-unspoken Greek consensus: that the festival has lost the connection it once had to their Greek community of Brisbane, and is now a mere commercial venture. And the trend looks set to continue: advertisements for the event now feature, and I quote, ‘Greek Yum Cha’, as a product on offer.

It is immensely hard to see how we reached the point of apparently needing to claim cultural practices from China to service a Greek festival, given that we have the same thing which can be found in a two-second Google search for ‘mezes’! But nonetheless, this is the bed Brisbane’s Greek community has made, and we can either lie in it or sleep on the floor – give up on the whole thing and just sell it to Channel 7 already.

It’s an accepted fact, at this point, that the spirit of the thing is, if not gone, then at least noticeably corrupted.

In response to my arguments, a philhellene will make two claims: it’s an excuse to meet friends and enjoy a social outing, in an otherwise drab time of the year filled with overly grim political role playing both on HBO and the ABC.

(I think you know what I mean.)

And, second, “at least it shows off more culture than Australia usually has on display.”

The first point – that it is a fun social outing – no one could take issue with. The second?

What is ‘culture?’ Allow me a slight diversion here, for the sake of a fuller understanding.

‘Culture’ is something that results from multiple singular perspectives coming to a consensus, assigning value based on shared values. Historically, the purple dye known as ‘Tyrian purple’ was reserved for the colouring of imperial robes, and the robes of higher statesmen, because harvesting the specific dye was difficult, compared to the more common colours. Hence the idea of purple as the ‘royal’ colour throughout much of Roman history. To give a more modern example, if a novel exemplifies a particular national outlook, captures a moment in time for a certain culture, or outlines a movement with enough accuracy, it becomes a ‘cultural icon’ – i.e. Nikos Kazantzakis’ novels are held up as ‘Greek literature.’ The Notre Dame is an expression of Gothic Catholicism, the combined efforts of hundreds of French workmen over hundreds of years that were able to come together to create a ‘cultural icon.’ These things are what is meant by ‘culture’ – but none can exist without acknowledging the frameworks of shared understanding which underlie their existence.

The Greeks, upon our dispersion to America, the UK, and Australia over the last century, have offered the Western world many aspects of our old culture that amounted to the following: honey puffs, baklava, gyros, Zorba’s syrtaki dance, the uniforms worn by soldiers during the Greek War of Independence, and My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

Unfortunately, without an excessive time and attention investment, it’s difficult to understand the underlying reasons for those things, or their composition (For example: what is the Zorba – is it one dance? No, it actually borrows from two different types of traditional dance). The Greek customs and symbols mentioned above fit into the Anglo-Saxon mould because they have universal appeal and they become ‘symbols of Greekness’, trappings of Hellenism that don’t require their original meaning to make sense anymore. Does anyone remember the origins of Zorba’s dance, or the traditions it borrows from? (Who even remembers who Zorba was?) Why did the soldiers of the Greek War of Independence wear shoes with pom-poms? How could anyone in their right mind actually find My Big Fat Greek Wedding funny?

It takes time and investment to learn the answers to these questions, time and investment that most don’t want to, or can’t, put in. In a grand vindication of Baudrillard, the symbols have assumed substance from outside their place of origin – given new meaning by a Western tradition seeing them for the first time. I am Greek. That means I must also constantly eat baklava, spend half my life on beaches, always do funny-looking dances, wear a silly uniform, and so on and so on.

Of course, because these symbols are so distinct, it’s easy to make money off them. They are excellent advertising tools, which attracts Channel 7 et al. And so we return to the discussion at hand. Oh, the festival’s lost its way a little, yes. But are things really so bad as the pessimists say? Is there a medicine for the popular complaint?

Up till now I was able to excuse the slight bastardisation of custom as a translation done for convenience. Very few people are attracted to a culture by a desire to understand its underlying assumptions, after all. People are interested in something initially by the trappings, by symbols divested of their true meaning. Fair enough. You can’t start off rambling about rebetiko culture from the 1910s and expect anyone to really care – you have to show them the dancing, and if they’re interested enough they’ll start exploring from there. Nor can you attempt to celebrate a smaller culture within the context of a larger one without excising the more specific, unpopular, obscure cultural artifacts – no one will be eating lentil soup, for example, at Musgrave Park this year, or wearing a Chi-Rho emblem. Obviously, they serve gyros, and those passionate enough to dress up will wear togas. One cannot fault the Paniyiri’s organisers for exploiting the very marketable symbols of Hellenism, as laid down in this country by their milk-bar-owning forefathers 80 years ago, for the chance to show off a tiny bit of the real Greece. There’s quite literally no other way to do it than that.

However, surely the desire for recognition and popularity has reached a complete nadir when this translation is done through an unnecessary third party, when radio ads advocate for ‘Greek Yum Cha’?

Yum Cha is Chinese. It’s not Greek. Therefore, this is not Greek food, but a fusion. I have nothing against that in and of itself, but it shouldn’t be present at a Hellenic festival. What an utterly ridiculous disgrace this is, that we apparently can’t stand on our own cultural merits and have to resort to leeching off Chinese customs to get people to like what we eat! Those Greeks who would protest at my words – are you averse enough to your own culture that you can’t tolerate it without a familiar Asiatic balm? Where is your respect for your ancestors? You never had to do this before, Paniyiri organisers – there’s no need to embarrass us all by starting now.

This is one of very few moments where I have been ashamed of my own culture. The organisers have stooped so low in order to draw in a new audience that they have created a festival not just out of sync with, but counter to its original intentions. You’re no longer showing off Greek culture to Brisbane – you’re actively trying to disguise it as something else, to erase what it really is, to get people to pay attention to it.

I cannot be the only person in this city who finds that absolutely disgusting!

Try not to misunderstand – even as it was commercialised I had some appreciation for this festival, because, Westernised or not, as annoying as Effie’s voice is, the symbols it was showing off were true to their origins. Oh, they were draped in too much honey, you had to pay exorbitant prices for them, the announcers kept mispronouncing the names and talking about them in a silly manner, but we still acknowledged what they really were.

Now that even the token veneer of Greekness has been stripped away, and traditional Hellenic customs are presented in a manner utterly counter to their origin, quelling all curiosity and distorting people’s image of what Greek culture really is, I see little reason to attend the Paniyiri again. It’s no longer even pretending to be Greek. I can’t respect this festival if the organisers don’t – and they clearly don’t.

Gentrification or Urban Renewal? Brisbane’s Cultural Hubs at Risk of Homogenisation

Australia, Brisbane, Council, Society

Toby Rowen

Shortly after Premier Campbell Newman rolled out his ‘New World City’ plans for Brisbane in 2009, Brisbane Lord Mayor Graham Quirk commissioned his twenty year Economic Development Plan. The chief goal of the plan was to, rather optimistically, transform Brisbane into a ‘top-ten lifestyle city’ and bring over 300 000 jobs to the region by 2031. Additionally, the development plan predicted a population boom: over 800 000 new residents in the next 20 years, coupled with 150 000 new dwellings within the Brisbane metropolitan area, particularly in the inner city suburbs. The Brisbane City Council, in partnership with the State Government, appear to be committed to transforming Brisbane in accordance to its New World City ideal, tabling their 12.4 billion-dollar plans for seven mega-developments including the Queen’s Wharf Casino.

Such mega-developments are emblematic of the so-called ‘urban renewal’ already occurring throughout many of the historically working-class culture hubs of inner city Brisbane. Naturally, an increase in population begets an increase in housing infrastructure. However, given the demographic employment swing from labour-based jobs to professional and creative careers over the past few decades, higher demand for upper-market housing solutions in culturally significant locations close to the city centre have spiked property prices and created an opening for infrastructure developments by investors. What does this mean for the original residents in such areas, and for the fabric of the city as a whole?

West End, where the population is set to quadruple in the next 20 years as a result of government urban consolidation policies, is perhaps at the forefront of Brisbane’s urban renewal versus gentrification debate. Dr Peter Walters, an urban sociologist and researcher for the University of Queensland, says that West End is unique in that it’s experiencing what he deemed “the classic gentrification process”.

“Stage one is where students and artists and musicians – so renters, basically – move into an area,” he says. This demographic, given their lack of economic influence, don’t really affect an area too much in terms of “development and commodification of space”, however they do, according to Dr Walters, start to “affect the culture”. Once an area has been made “cool and hip” by this demographic, affluent professional couples start to move in and buy and renovate houses, triggering a sweeping demographical change and shift in retail. “This is the point where property values continue to increase to the point where the abstract capital starts to come in like property developers,” says Dr Walters. This process describes what Dr Walters refers to as “bottom-up gentrification – carried out by owner-occupiers, interested in preserving the heritage value of existing working-class properties”.

This differs from “top-down” gentrification, which has also begun to occur within West End. A 2014 case study of West End and its gentrification, authored by Dr Walters, found that “architecturally unsympathetic and opportunistic developer-led house demolitions and rebuilds” are, quite literally, on the rise in the area – which the study suggests “is simply  an exercise in the re-zoning of former industrial sites for market-led high-density residential development” with little commitment to social, cultural and recreational factors.

Dr Natalie Osbourne, whose primary work revolves around urban planning and critical human geography, says Brisbane is seeing more ‘top-down’ gentrification, such as West End’s West Village – marketed as “a picturesque residential and lifestyle village set against the historic backdrop of the old Peters Ice Cream Factory”. Deputy Premier Jackie Trad approved the West Village developers to build nine towers of up to 22 storeys when the site was originally zoned for a maximum of 15 storeys. “The West Village development is symbolic of a top-down gentrification process; a large development, considered out-of-scale and intrusive by many local residents, disrupting and destroying some beloved spaces and uses, and replacing them with apartments and retail out of the reach of many existing residents,” says Dr Osbourne.

The ‘out-of-reach’ nature of such developments don’t just mean original residents are unable to pursue property in the area or make full use of the public space; it also directly contributes to their marginalisation and in many cases, displacement. A joint study conducted by RMIT University and the University of Queensland found that West End’s ‘‘top-down’’ gentrification process “led by capital and the state planning policies” ultimately introduced policies that were in favour of urban consolidation to concentrate the population. The study found that the arrival of higher income households and the resulting spike in property prices and rental rates forced lower income households, particularly tenants, to relocate to more inexpensive pastures – usually the outer suburbs.

Greens Councillor for the Gabba Ward, Jonathan Sri, says the study is just “one of thousands of case studies around the world, all proving what we already know: gentrification and its associated negative effects is encouraged by the treatment of housing as a commodity for speculative profiteering”. Cr Sri, who has been vociferous in his condemnations of both the West Village and the Queen’s Wharf Casino developments, says gentrification “tends to exacerbate class stratification, with poorer people concentrated in low-status suburbs that are underserved by essential infrastructure, and wealthier residents concentrated in well-designed suburbs, usually closer to the city centre”.  According to Cr Sri, this means a “skewed” view of social realities is developed alongside a “loss of empathy” for people of different demographics and backgrounds. It also “undermines the cultural vibrancy of a city by reducing cross-pollination and collaboration between different social groups and sub-cultures,” he added.

Dr Erin Evans, GP by day and president of the West End Community Organisation by night, says the West End she knew and grew up in is “being torn apart right before my very eyes”.

“Increasing rent and property prices in both residential and commercial sectors has changed the accessibility for many West Ender’s: there is wholesale displacement of many types of people – musicians, artists, students, the homeless and working-class – who have lived here but can no longer afford to,” Dr Evans says. Single parent and low-income households have also failed to escape the grip of gentrification, which Dr Evans says has resulted in “a loss of diversity in the community, as most new occupants – residents or business owners – come from a similar situation and background”.

“The existing culture here is focused on diversity and tolerance,” says Dr Evans. She describes community members as “anxious,” increasingly living with less certainty that they will have affordable accommodation in the future. Residents worry West End will lose its vibrant alternative culture: “Street art becomes vandalism pretty quickly as an area gentrifies,” says Dr Evans.

Dr Osbourne says social stratification and the homogenisation of former culture hubs such as West End may “break down social networks” as people leave their neighbourhoods. According to Dr Osbourne, people may lose access to community spaces and infrastructure that have been important to their social life, sense of belonging, and wellbeing. They may lose track of people and hobbies, and may have to face longer and more expensive transports. She posits that gentrification may be an example of “collective trauma”, which describes a kind of damage inflicted on the social fabric of a community, which may include a “loss of shared identity, the fracturing of relationships, and a weakening of civil society”.

“Gentrification, particularly the displacement it is associated with, can contribute to the sense of alienation that many feel in modern cities – where people don’t know their neighbours, where they don’t feel connected to the place they live in, its history, its environment or people,” Dr Osbourne says. Gentrification, especially top-down driven expansion that emphasises large-scale redevelopment projects, can have a “homogenising effect on the urban landscape – in terms of people, in terms of design, and in terms of commercial activity.” In addition to “displacing people and destroying homes”, a gentrified area runs the risk of being “a little dull”.

“Cities allow diversity to happen,” says Dr Walters. “If you get rid of that in your city, you’re getting rid of a very important part of what makes a city a ‘city’. People who have different lifestyles, sexual preferences, cultural tastes and political views – they need space,” explains Dr Walters. He warns that if cultural hubs have their diversity extricated “you end up with a homogenous city – a boring, nothing, vanilla city”.

While the State Government and the Brisbane City Council continue marketing Brisbane as a ‘New World City’, one can’t help but think the approach may be slightly counter-intuitive. When the destruction of all that makes a city interesting – culture, diversity, art, heritage and the weird and wacky – ensues, questions are raised regarding how the city markets itself as special in the first place. Expensive buildings certainly aren’t anything ‘special’ – flagrant displays of vast capital accumulation are, after all, a pillar of neoliberal Western society. Realistically, it would seem the gentrification versus ‘urban renewal’ battle is an ideological one at its core: the intrinsic relationship between capital and political power buttressing the prioritisation of profits over people.

Local Politics Matters: Don’t Leave Brisbane’s Future in the Hands of Big Business

Brisbane, Council, Politics

Jonathan Sri

“Ordinary people don’t know what’s good for them.” Sadly, this is a common sentiment among many politicians, business leaders, government bureaucrats and even senior academics. None of these power-holders can agree precisely on who these so-called ‘ordinary people’ actually are. But they all seem to agree that big decisions should not be made democratically by those who are most directly affected by them.

Apparently, ‘the masses’ are too uneducated, disengaged, short-sighted and self-interested to make good decisions about the long-term public interest (as though politicians have proven themselves to be any better in this respect).

I see this patronising contempt for democracy play out in Brisbane City Council on a daily basis. Residents are given no meaningful input into the big decisions that shape our city, because the political class doesn’t trust ordinary people to make good choices (they do, however, trust developers, property speculators, security companies and advertising agencies).

This is a problem we can’t afford to ignore; cities shape every aspect of our lives. Urban planning, transport networks and local government regulations have a major influence on our quality of life – on how often we see our friends and family, on where we work and relax, on our food security and disaster resilience, on our mobility, housing security and cost of living.

The values and policy priorities of local government also directly shape how we face the great global challenges of our era. Whether it’s transitioning our society to be less dependent on fossil fuels, or making sure we have enough room to accommodate more refugees, or ensuring all of us are happy and healthy, a lot comes down to the design and governance of our cities. Even the minority of us who arepolitically engaged tend to focus more on federal and perhaps state politics, forgetting that the effective implementation of major federal initiatives often depends on what’s happening at the local level.

But right now, cities are primarily arranged and governed to suit the interests of big business. Bushland is rezoned for residential suburban sprawl so that a land speculator can clear the forest and make an easy profit. Ratepayer funds are wasted on mega-projects like toll tunnels and road-widenings that don’t reduce congestion, but do make a lot of money for construction companies. Planning codes are relaxed so developers can squeeze even more low-quality highrise apartments into neighourhoods that lack sufficient green space, community facilities and public transport services. Even humble bus shelters are redesigned to create more space for corporate advertising.

Meanwhile, roughly 10 000 Brisbanites are homeless, while somewhere between 30 000 and 60 000 homes sit emptylong-term. The poorest residents of our city – those of us who walk or ride the bus to get around, those of us who can’t afford to buy a home in the ‘nice’ neighbourhoods – are most greatly impacted by Brisbane City Council decisions, and yet have the least influence over them. As our cities evolve and densify, some of us are making a lot money and experiencing significant improvements to our quality of life, but others are getting left behind. In this context, arguing that ordinary residents shouldn’t have more say over local government decisions seems particularly callous and inequitable.

Sure, right now many Brisbanites might not understand the basic principles of urban planning or street tree maintenance, but giving people more power and responsibility over a particular issue leads to greater engagement and understanding. And actually, it’s the people on the ground who have the localised practical knowledge of what their neighbourhood needs, and who better understand the linkages between different issues and policy areas in a way that’s often overlooked by public servants and ‘experts’ with narrow fields of interest.

A council traffic engineer might look at aerial maps and vehicle count spreadsheets and decide that a pedestrian crossing should be located on the southern side of an intersection because that’s better for traffic flow, but it’s only the residents living in that neighbourhood who’ll recognise that kids walking home from school will prefer the northern side because it happens to be shadier and flatter.

But above and beyond that, city councils – particularly the big rich ones like BCC – also have a crucial proactive role to play in placing upward pressure on other levels of government. When councils start passing motions supporting same sex marriage or Aboriginal land rights claims, this can have a significant impact on state and federal policy.

Many people are surprised to learn that as of February 2019, 19 of Brisbane’s 26 councillors belong to the Liberal National Party. This is the main reason that BCC has not, for example, passed motions calling for reforms to Centrelink, while neighbouring councils like Logan City Council have done so. The fact that Brisbane’s councillors are, on average, nowhere near as progressive as the people they represent is a huge missed opportunity. It’s only when you stop to imagine how different our society would be if we had a city council that actively supported and valued live music, or local small businesses, or public transport, or public art projects, or restoring wildlife corridors, that you start to realise how much we’re missing out on.

Basically, what I’m saying is that we need to fight for greater control of how our city changes and evolves. We need to experiment with a range of different democratic processes to decentralise and localise decision-making. And we need to do this in a way that engages with and centres the struggles of First Nations peoples against dispossession and ongoing colonisation. This is not such a crazy proposition. Other cities, from Barcelona in Spain to Porto Alegre in Brazil, are already showing us what’s possible.

The message that ordinary people should have more say in local government decision-making has broad appeal across the political spectrum. And it’s one that all of us should be spreading. We shouldn’t be content to allow big corporations to shape and control our city.

As Brisbane grows and changes, all of us should be able to share the benefits equally. And all of us should get a say.


The ideas in this article have come from a wide range of literature and conversations, but for more on this topic I particularly recommend the work of David Harvey, Henri Lefebvre, Ada Colau, James C Scott, Jane Jacobs, and closer to home, Natalie Osborne.