Meanjin: portrait of a city on fire

Optimism of the will, pessimism of the intellect” – Antonio Gramsci

This is my 70th year of living in Brisbane. Never once in those years have I been asked to re-imagine the city where I grew up in the 1950s & 60s. A small band of about one hundred dedicated people led by green city councillor, Joanthan Sri, have done just this.

Brisbane (Meanjin) is a city of the homeless, especially in summer when it is warm; its a place of summer storms, of weatherboard homes, high-rise on a floodplain, a dirty river slicing urban sprawl into a north / south divide. A port city to export coal and wheat. An aerodrome without curfew with two parallel runways. Meanjin, a city of deaths in custody where street marchers were arrested in their thousands crying out for democratic rights in the 1970s. This river city is hot and humid. The climate has changed. Our house does not even have proper sewerage, it has a common drain with our neighbours. Creeks are flooding through developments with banks falling down. It is not safe for strangers, especially if they are young women, who have been attacked and killed only metres from police stations. Once it had central markets in Roma Street, trams and trolley buses, now it has freeways and traffic jams.

Each September, this city is on fire.

Ban on Street marches 1977-1979

Once dominated by Labor the Brisbane City Council is the largest local government in the southern hemisphere with a $3.15 billion a year budget. A library network without parallel where you can borrow books, film and magazines from and about anywhere in the world.

Yet developers run city hall.

To quote from Maaate – Bribe Proofing the Public Purse against Good Blokes by Bernie Dowling:

Something is broken at councils in south-east Queensland. By 2017, it could not be ignored. The Crime and Corruption Commission, an independent investigator created by State Parliament, called an inquiry to investigate the conduct of the 2016 elections for the councils of Moreton Bay Region, Ipswich and the Gold Coast.”

This inquiry was later broadened out to include Logan City council. As a result many corruption charges were laid against councillors and the entire Ipswich City and Logan City Councils were sacked by the Minister Stirling Hinchcliffe.

So, with 2020 local government elections imminent, I attended the postponed Reimagine Brisbane: Ideas Fiesta and Policy Conference held on Saturday 31 January 2020. The conference was delayed out of respect for the deceased Sam Watson, an aboriginal leader who grew up in Mt Gravatt in Brisbane and who had such an impact on this city.

At the end of the plenary session, councillor Jonathan Sri made a call for feedback and further discussion. This is my attempt to do so. This is part of a series where I wish to tell a wider audience what important work is being done behind the scenes to improve representation at local government levels here in the capital and in regional Queensland. There are local government reform alliance groups around the state but little is known about candidates who are part of this reform. I hope to remedy that.

Community media
“These are dangerous days
To say what you feel is to dig your own grave”
– Sinead O’Connor

At the conference I was only able to get to two workshops and the plenary session. The ones I attended were about “Arts & Culture” and the other about public housing called “A Home for All”. Earlier in the morning I watched the live stream of part of the introductory session put on the internet by the organisers.

Councillor Sri said that the first session that I attended was ‘primarily focused on hearing from selected speakers in their respective fields while the sessions in the afternoon were policy discussions which were facilitated in a more open format.’

I attended the arts and culture session with ‘expert’ speakers but missed the equivalent ‘homes for all’ expert speakers session which also took place in the middle of the day.

Reimagine our City held at QUT on 1 Feb 2020

The Arts & Culture session was moderated by an ‘arts professional’ and there were three people from ‘the arts’ on the panel. There was a presumption that we were all artists and not simply people interested in arts and culture and how it is funded and carried on. By the way, the artwork for the re-imagining Brisbane Festival poster was done by Anna Carlson. Unfortunately Anna was not present at the Arts & Culture session I attended.

One woman, a worker at the Museum of Brisbane, interjected to suggest a Universal Basic Income (UBI) for all artists. But is UBI just a capitalist ploy to drive down real wages and create a pool of under-employed? Perhaps I am wrong about this?

There were two questions raised by the Arts & Culture panel: Getting paid (industrial question) and Equality (political question). Someone mentioned ‘an artist guild‘. I wanted to ask if there was anyone present in the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance MEAA.

One person on the panel knew what artists want from the Brisbane City Council. Artists need affordable venues and resources to practice their art.

In his email Councillor Sri said the aim was to get ‘some ideas out there and drawing links across disciplines.’ Councillor Sri said that it is ‘not possible to comprehensively talk about every aspects of arts and culture in a 90 minute session.’ Fair enough.

In 2006 the Museum of Brisbane ran an exhibition of Brisbane’s radical past. Taking to the Streets: Two decades that changed Brisbane, 1965 – 1985. It opened in April 2006 and ran for five months. The exhibition was the largest presented at the Museum of Brisbane (MOB) since it had opened in 2003 and proved to be one of the most popular, with close to 80,000 visitors. I remember daughters and sons asking their parents questions like this: “Hey Mum (or Dad) that person being arrested looks like you! Were you a radical back then?” That exhibition was curated by Jo Besley, Louise Denoon and Katie McConnel.

A Home for All
The moderator (Jonno Sri) asked for each person to declare their interest in the topic and sought feedback on major policy objectives from the eight (8) people present. Sri sought amendments to his proposals from everyone and reported them faithfully back to the plenary session.

There were some constructive policies like having developers provide 20% community housing in all future apartment blocks. There was an emphasis placed on the state government building more public housing. The moderator explained differences between community and public housing. Another positive policy was dedicated funds being provided to Aboriginal housing co-ops to provide purpose built housing for aboriginal people.

There was an element of empowerment as well with most of the people in the audience supporting pickets and occupations when dealing with unreasonable landlords kicking people out of their homes.

Starting in 1972, inner-city residents of Brisbane struggled against the Queensland Government’s plan to build a freeway that would destroy their community. Residents were offered inadequate compensation for their properties and the State government was cold-hearted and dismissive of the community’s concerns. As their voice went unheard, residents decided to change tack and joined together in an effort to make the Government “sit up and take notice” of them. This video shows the resistance of the people when the Department of Main Roads wanted to evict tenants in order to build the North-East Freeway through their homes in the 1970s.

Radical Times website is at

In 2019 the Brisbane City Council compulsorily acquired and demolished 92 homes along Lytton Road, East Brisbane, in order to widen that thoroughfare. These house demolitions were done under the pretext of reducing inbound and outbound congestion at peak hour. Many of the homeowners were not adequately compensated. Nearby parkland (Mowbray Park) were reduced in size and trees cut down. These events occurred in 2019.

One person who questioned the tactic of NVDA pickets and occupation to resist landlord evictions was himself the subject of developers gone mad.

34 Unit development at 31 Tallowwood Street, Seven Hills by Wolter Consulting Group Pty Ltd. See Application Details for A004872911

A perfectly good TAFE college at Seven Hills was demolished in order to make way for developers building ugly housing in boxes along Tallowwood and Foxton Streets plus yet another Woolworths or Coles is planned as well as an aged care facility. These developments have caused considerable traffic congestion in Seven Hills. Local small businesses have complained about lack of parking near their shops.

Now developers are building 34 five-storey high apartments at 31 Tallowwood Street at Seven Hills. Does this exceed building guidelines? The BCC has levied only $384,559.02 to provide stormwater, transport, public parks and land for community facilities. The participant said they are going to build to 8-stories. Who is right? Why did the State Government approve such development and sell public land for private gain to developers?

The TAFE college once contained a magnificent library and a state of the art printing training facility. The Seven Hills Art College (as it used to be known) was an important place for arts education. In 2019 the State government authorised the demolition of the Schonell Theatre at UQ. The Heritage board was placed under pressure from the UQ Vice-chancellor overruling claims for heritage listing by students and staff at the University. Despite this still being an important arts venue.

One of the Arts & Culture panelists said that, with an unlimited budget, artists should be equipped with venues and resources where they can practice their art. I am sure this would be music to the ears of the many musicians in Brisbane who cannot afford to put on performances because of lack of affordable venues. Many halls under the control of the BCC are overpriced. What is the reason for this?

There is a need for an Aboriginal Cultural Centre which was raised at the introduction session. For many years a cultural centre has been on the books but the allocated budget has been put to other use. Why?

Economic literacy
People need to be aware of how ‘negative gearing’ inflates housing prices. This was an issue in the last federal election. Do people know what ‘negative gearing’ is? Landlords on high wage incomes obtain a tax deduction by declaring a loss because their mortgage expense is higher than their rental income. This loss is used as a deduction against their salary income placing them in a lower tax bracket, in reality a subsidy by other taxpayers. The capital gain when they sell is largely quarantined by Howard government amendments that makes little capitalists out of a whole new breed of professionals.

MAAATE! by journalist Bernie Dowling is an important guide to corruption in local government. The publisher is aptly named Bent Banana Books.

A panelist at the Arts & Culture session suggested that arts funding is ridiculously small in comparison to the total $3 billion budget of the BCC.

Councillor Sri in his email pointed out that the session I attended was not meant to have input from the audience, that was for a later session that overlapped with the one I attended, a ‘Home for All’.

In the 1970s there began a community arts movement that existed in Brisbane all the way through till now with successive governments slowly killing it off.

There has been a creative challenge to graffitti by artists. Council sponsored street art has been painted on traffic signal boxes and Energex pad-mount transformers. This is a great boost to the visual look of the city, perhaps sometimes missed by passersby.

At an earlier session aboriginal people supported the proposal for aboriginal control of indigenous housing.

At the arts & culture session I was reminded of a film Portrait de la jeune fille en feu (‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’) set in the late 18th century. This is a truly beautiful film, a work of art which looks at the role of painting in holding women back from having a more fulfilling life.

The two protagonists, Marianne and Héloïse, fall in love on an island in Brittany. The painter, Marianne, is producing a portrait so that the mother of her subject, Héloïse, can be married off to a nobleman in Milan. Marianne can’t bear the deception and tells Héloïse that she has been secretly painting her portrait and shows it to her subject.

Angered by this, Héloïse criticises the painting.
Offended Marianne says: “I didn’t know you were an art critique.”
To which Héloïse retorts: “I didn’t know you were a painter!”

The two women discussed art and its role in society. Marianne was not permitted by her guild to paint nudes, particularly male nudes. When Héloïse asks her why, Marianne explains that the purpose was to prevent women painters from becoming great artists. Apparently their careers were stymied because all great art was supposed to reside in the male nude.

This film addresses the equality question beautifully.

Thanks to the organisers of Reimagine Brisbane who have done a lot of work to gather people together from around the city to share ideas about improving our lives, our city.

At the plenary session reports were given on policy questions raised. Suggestions being made were quite modest reforms in a troubled city mired in inequality.

During the final session I wondered about how big a leap forward there would have to be to achieve such objectives and how hard it is to get good people elected.

‘Western Window’ from Mt Glorious above Brisbane. PhotoGraeme Walker

Reimagining Brisbane: arts, culture and a ‘home-for-all’

Western Window
Trains go south with guns
And bats hang on fruit trees
While hills roll in slumber
Pinkish in sunset mist

Green and blue
No war here
As bellbirds sing

Ian Curr
Paradigm Shift
4ZZZ fm 102.1
Fridays at Noon
3 Feb 2020

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