In conversation with Helen Abrahams

Helen with ALP Lord Mayoral candidate Rod Harding

The Westender recently caught up with retiring Brisbane City Councillor Helen Abrahams. Over a wide ranging conversation – an edited version of which follows below – Helen talked about her time as our local Council representative, her achievements and disappointments and her plans for the future.

In the Westender’s opinion, we could not have asked for a better Councillor than Helen. Her hard work, determination and dedication to the betterment of West End are recognised by all, even her political opponents.

We express our sincere thanks for all her efforts on our behalf, and wish her all the best for the future.

What do you see as the role of a City Councillor, Helen?

I actually think your role changes, depending whether you’re in administration or, as I have been reluctantly, in opposition for the last two terms.

If you’re in opposition, your role is to make sure the community knows everything that is happening that will impact them in the short and long term, to be able to harness their energies so their endeavours to be heard are most effective, and to make sure the administration holds the line on issues.

When you’re in government, as I was very fortunate to be, the opportunities are so much more. You have the ability to be able to reflect the community. Everything you do must be grounded in community needs, but as well as that to show leadership. For me, I had a strong environmental agenda and I was able to bring about long term change through leadership, commitment and determination.

What has been your greatest achievement in office?

Each year, I got more support from the community and, with that support, comes the confidence that I am representing them effectively. It’s probably one of my greatest achievements.

In terms of policy issues, what we were able to do with the environment, so that we could bring sustainable development seriously to the City Plan, that we could bring a Climate Change Action Plan for Brisbane City Council so that all of the Council’s power is green power, so that energy use is reduced to a minimum, we do have the natural gas buses, many of those initiatives came out of that Climate Action Plan.

And at that time, before Lord Mayor Newman was elected, Brisbane was leading other cities on its sustainability initiatives. Since that time, we have only gone backwards. Other cities have taken up the challenge and outstripped what Brisbane City Council is now achieving.

And what’s been your greatest regret in your time in office?

The fact that there were 4,000 submissions to the South Brisbane Riverside Plan, 496 individually written submissions, and this administration did not make one change to what they came to Council with, is my greatest disappointment.

It will have the greatest longstanding impact on this part of the city, and I am passionate that we must change this administration so the excesses of that Neighbourhood Plan can be reviewed, for the sake of the diversity, the charm, the character of this inner city area.

And what decisions would you make differently today with the benefit of hindsight?

Ah, I think that’s really interesting. From when I first got elected, the Labor Party saw me almost as an ideological environmentalist. Certainly I’m passionate about the environment, but I’m also passionate about transport, I’m passionate about development and land use, but because I was labelled an environmentalist it reduced my effectiveness.

I was fortunate when I was first elected I was with Lord Mayor Soorley for one term, and that was time when Council and the whole city was ripe for change. I was able to achieve things in that time.

But afterwards, when I came back, I found the labelling a disadvantage and it did take way some of my ability to be an advocate on some of the things I thought were important.

How you change that is really interesting, but to be labelled is sometimes the worst thing if you want to be an effective politician.

What was it like dealing with Campbell Newman then Graham Quirk from Opposition, for most of your term?

When I think about it, it was harder than it looked from the outside.

Labour councillors, who were in Cabinet with Lord Mayor Newman, made a commitment that we weren’t there to block every one of his actions, that we had to respect that the community had voted for him, that Transapex was critical to him being elected. Our role was, therefore, when there were total excesses and absolute injustice in his decisions, to debate and mitigate those decisions, and we did that very effectively in that time.

As soon as he won in his own right, the brakes were off and you saw major disruption to social services, consultation with the community, the respect for the community, involvement with the community, and we got into this maniacal transport and development at all costs which is still part of Graham Quirk’s agenda.

It has not changed one iota. The presentation is a little more polished and not so rough around the edges but it’s exactly the same.

So it was extremely difficult to manage Newman when he was hell bent on undoing things you had actually fought for and achieved under Lord Mayor Soorley.

It was “How to keep some working relationship”, because there was no point in not having a working relationship. Lord Mayor Newman was very clear that all he needed was to pick up two or three people, to be able to cajole them, and he had won the day and I think that was the hardest of the lot.

I certainly respect Councillor Hinchcliffe, who was our leader in the place, who Newman deliberately tried to coerce into his way of thinking, and I think that was a very difficult role for David but it was a very difficult role for all of us at that time.

What would you have achieved with a friendly City Hall? How would Brisbane be different today?

Let’s go back to what you remember about Jim Soorley’s administration. We were serious about public transport, we were serious about bike ways. The State Government started the Eastern Busway, which would have continued.

So we would have had a designated bus route through to the Eastern suburbs.

I believe as well we would have had a similar, designated bus route through to the Northern suburbs, if Labour had been in power. We certainly would have had a proper network of bike ways, many of which would have been on roads but separated from the cars and therefore safe.

But I think that’s one of the other things I’m quite proud of, that I was part of developing the first, comprehensive bicycle network for Brisbane, although it has not effectively been brought forward.

Also, if Labour had stayed in power, we would have addressed affordable housing to a much greater extent. It is just off the agenda at the moment under the LNP. Brisbane City Council historically has been extremely poor in delivering all the social services that other local governments deliver

 How do you see the parties performing in the next Council elections? Do you think people are sick of the LNP yet?

We know that the residents of Brisbane are ripe for a change. They know who Graham Quirk is but they don’t know anything that he has delivered to benefit our City.

So it’s up to the Labor Party to say “This is how we are different from the LNP and we deserve your vote”, and I absolutely passionately believe that’s the case.

We have said clearly, we will not be building the six lane Kingsford Smith Drive upgrade which is literally to a community that doesn’t exist, while there are many Brisbane communities are desperate for little, local upgrades to get rid of bottle necks and improve public transport.

We will be making a public transport commitment, the forefront of which is the Light Rail proposal.

So it’s goodbye tunnels, goodbye freeways, let’s come into the twenty first century and have modern, effective people movers in our City.

And the other one is, though it doesn’t affect everybody, people who have been adversely affected by development, they want a change of Government so they can have a City Plan that they have a meaningful say in through the Neighbourhood Planning Process.

At the moment, their wishes are ignored and once that plan is in place, which should be a contract between Council and community, it then IS the plan, it should be adhered to, rather than what’s happening in Woolloongabba and West End.

The very first development that has come in after the Neighbourhood Plan is in place has been well in excess of what the Neighbourhood Plan says and it has been approved!

The very first time the LNP has the opportunity to put their plans for the suburb in place they renege and jump for higher density.

Do you have any advice for your successor as Councillor, no matter which party he or she represents?

They have to gain the confidence of the majority of the community, understand the community so they can represent them.

My advice would also be never give up, you need to be determined, but you also need to know when and how to fight the fight. You can’t fight everything.

And when you fight, you must know you have the support of your Party, as well as your community, to be successful in that fight.

Who, in the local community, would you like to acknowledge?

That’s easy. Tim Quinn has been my mentor. We give each other a bit of curry, but it is a very frank and honest relationship. He has, at times, really put me through the wringer, to justify to him and the community some of the decisions I have made.

He has always been there with advice, support, and a continuing, underlying concern that we get the best political outcome for this area.

The other one is certainly my family. One of the reasons that I’m leaving is that my family has just had enough.

And I think sometimes you just don’t realise how much support you get, because often it’s just that raised eyebrow  when you realise you’ve said something that’s totally off the mark to what your family thinks is important.

I’d also like to acknowledge all the people who are actively involved in community organisations, be it Souths Leagues Club, WECA, the school committees, the neighbourhood watches and the like. It’s always made my job of representing this area much easier.

Would you share a secret about yourself with us?

There are two things that have made the job hard for me. My English expression is woeful. (Laughs) My written expression written down is doubly woeful. That’s because I’m a trained scientist. I can spell every Latin medical term that you want, but where to put the “ofs”, the “ifs” the “thes” is beyond me. So I have always hired people who can proof read what I write.

If anything goes out without proofreading, like my website, then I know it will be appalling. What surprises me is that the residents of West End have never complained.

Once, in a plebiscite against David Hinchcliffe in 1994 (A preselection ballot in Paddington – Ed) I wrote a thank you letter for a woman who said she would give me her vote. I wrote it so badly she rang me up and said she could not possibly support me. I’d have been much better off if I hadn’t written to her.

On another occasion, I sent something off internally, to the Labor Party, and somehow it got into the hands of the media. I was talking about my support for football clubs but unfortunately I referred to “footpath” clubs. So, with much gusto, they published this cartoon of me as being in the vanguard of footpath clubs. I think that’s the only time I’ve had that trouble.

In the council chamber, and in media interviews, most people are confident that what they’re saying in their minds and what comes out of their mouth are the same. But unfortunately for me, sometimes there is a complete and utter disconnect. I literally say the wrong word at the wrong time. It has caused much mirth to the LNP, many of whom used to wickedly wait to hear the faux pars.

Can I only say, with much pleasure, than when I am really angry and really determined to object to LNP decisions concerning my Ward, I am at my most articulate.

And what of the future? What do you plan to do with your time when you vacate the office at the Gabba?

People have been asking that all the time, and you know what? You have to have an answer.

I have lots of things planned. I will volunteer at the Jazz Club at Kangaroo Point. I’ve worked with the Jazz Club in the past so they now have a much more harmonious relationship with their neighbours. I love what they do, I think it’s fantastic, I think it’s one of the treasures of the Ward and of Brisbane.

I’m also going to become a political activist, getting active about cycling in our city. We need to make that big, important step forward for cycling, and I want to be a part of it.

There’s also the Multicultural Development Association, and I hope they’ll find something for me to do with migrants and refugees.

I’m also on the Board of Transit Care, which is a time consuming job but one that I want to continue.

Finally, I have five grandkids, and I plan to spend a little bit more time with them.