On Thursday 3 December, following her first three sitting days in Queensland’s Parliament, I met with Amy MacMahon on The Green at Parliament House for this conversation before the bells sounded for the beginning of day four.

Those who have worked and campaigned with her may know Ms MacMahon well, but there will be many in the electorate who want to learn more. What inspires and motivates her, for example? And while we are now pretty familiar with the policies Ms MacMahon took to the election, we are probably less sure about her strategies for working in a majority Labor Parliament.

These are the themes explored in this interview.  

How does it feel to be finally in Parliament House?

It’s very exciting learning how this place works and meeting lots of different people.

I did make my first speech the other day, and I’m just really getting stuck in[1].

It’s quite unusual that straight out of the election we’re straight into the budget. It would have been really nice to have some time back in the community: settling in, meeting people, having events and so on, but it wasn’t to be. So we’re straight into the budget this week, which is also really exciting because it means straightaway we’re able to see what decisions the Government is making, what benefits are going to be coming to our communities, and starting to push for some better outcomes around the budget as well.

How did it feel to get to stand up and give your maiden speech?

It was very special. It was particularly special to have my family and many of my campaign team in the gallery as well. But just to be there and to lay out the vision that we’ve been talking about for many years now. To say this is what The Greens are here for this is what we’re going to be fighting for. We’re going to be fighting for everyday people. This is the platform that we’ve gotten elected on, and this is our plan for the next four years. Yeah, it was an amazing experience.

The first question is one that Fiona Stager likes to ask politicians: what was the last novel you read and enjoyed?

I re-read the Golden Compass series, recently, because that has been really special to me as a kid, and I just needed something to help me relax completely. So that’s the last novel that I read, and at the moment I’m reading the biography of Vida Goldstein, who is a famous feminist in Australia.

Who is the person that you have most admired or who has most influenced you personally and professionally?

I talked about my grandmother in my maiden speech. She has been a huge influence on my life. She died when I was very young, but the impact that she had on me and the family has been profound. She was a nurse. She worked in remote Aboriginal communities, and then later in her life she was a prolific fundraiser for many different causes, and we knew her house to be a place where many people were coming and going. She was holding events; she was selling plants by the side of the road to raise money for different causes. She did a lot of work for the Fred Hollows Foundation. She was an avowed Republican and really hated Joh Bjelke-Petersen. And so, she had a big influence on my politics, even though our lives only overlapped for a short amount of time. Her spirit is in the family very strongly.

Have you been or are you a member of a Union?

I have yes. I was a member of the Services Union, I was a member of the Student Union when I was at university, and I’ll be rejoining the Services Union now that I am again gainfully employed.

I think that’s really important. It’s really important for workers to be part of their unions. We know that union membership in Australia is very low at the moment and encouraging as many people as possible to join their unions. Membership is obviously a lot higher in the public service, but the private sector is very poorly represented, and we know that there’s a lot of exploitation, a lot of issues that go unexamined when you don’t have a union there to support you.

You spent some time working in Bangladesh. Could you tell me what key lessons you learned from working with a community that is so impacted by climate change, and that potentially could lose a large part of its landmass?

Bangladesh is one of the places most vulnerable to climate change. There’s also a whole lot of other environmental challenges that layer on top of climate change, particularly in the area where I was working down in the south. They’re facing cyclones, facing floods, they’re facing salinity, and these farming communities are obviously very poor and very politically marginalised. As you can imagine the political sphere in Bangladesh is very contested and for everyday people to have their voices heard is very hard. Union organisers for example, in Bangladesh, are often the target of violence as we see in many parts of the world. And so, one of the biggest lessons I took away was when communities can work collectively, they can be really powerful. There were lots of really exciting stories about communities that had pushed back against land grabs that were going on when wealthy landowners were coming in and saying we’re going to take up all this land. When people were able to work together collectively and say, “No, this is our right: this is our lands“.

They were able to get some good outcomes, but obviously, there’s often concerted efforts to stop people from working collectively. That means these communities are fragmented and continue to be very vulnerable and also the fact that Governments come in, and NGOs come in, and say, “This is what you need. This is what your community needs“.

Often those schemes will fail because they haven’t bothered to talk to the community. This is a story that we’ve seen time and time again, even here in Brisbane, even here in South Brisbane. We’ve seen the impacts of State and Council and Federal decisions where the community hasn’t been consulted about development, for example, or traffic, and the results are subpar because you know the community wasn’t given a say.

By mid-term, in two years, what would you like to look back on as a key achievement?

I’m hoping we can get some good movement around active and public transport for the community.

Knowing for example, the issues around Montague Road, all over the electorate really: the issues that people face trying to get around and having access to active and public transport – that’s something I’ll be pushing for.

We’ve noticed that in the budget the money set aside for the Montague Road study won’t come online until about 2023, which is pretty alarming given that the issues with that pocket of the neighbourhood are pressing right now. They were pressing three years ago, but they’re even more pressing now. So, I’m hoping to get some action on that, as well as a city cat terminal down there as well.

Opening up more pockets of green space and getting some really good outcomes around the new [Cross River Rail] stations that are coming. They’ll be in the works over the next four years, so making sure that land is retained for the community in terms of green space, in terms of facilities, in terms of housing. We have this really exciting opportunity now as those spaces are being conceptualised to put forward a community vision, and to make sure we’re maintaining those areas as legacies that the community will be able to enjoy for decades to come.

What do you think your key opportunities are to influence the Government?

Well, I think the opportunities that we have in Parliament is one side of the coin. The other side of the coin is the work that we will be doing in the community: mobilising the community, bringing people together, working with community groups that are already mobilised; doing a lot of work to amplify their voices into Parliament.

You know, Michael [Berkman] and I can be in here, we can be asking questions on notice, we can be moving motions, we can be involved in committees and asking questions and so on. But the more powerful part of what we can do is to be opening up this place to the community and those community voices and trying to connect with various community groups to make sure their voices are present in the chamber.

I think for me that is one of the most powerful aspects of our role here because, you know, we’re only here to represent the community. We’re only accountable to the community at the end of the day and it’s the community voice that we need to be bringing into this place, that is, quite opaque. And in many ways it is designed to shut everyday people out.

What do you think are the impediments to working with Government?

Well, the system itself is not set up particularly well for crossbenchers to be able to have a say. Already last week, we were told that there would just be one committee spot for a Greens member[2], and it was pretty disappointing, particularly given that I was also told that I was too inexperienced to be on a committee. When in reality the only experience I need is the fact that I was voted in by the community, and here to represent the community.

So, there’s some obvious structural barriers that have been put in place, which I think are put there because they know that we can be quite powerful, and they know that we represent the community.

I am working as hard as I can to get my head around all of this, but this is a system that is designed to maintain the status quo. It is designed to make change very slow, and it’s designed to keep power in the hands of a very small few. And so, again, that’s where our role connecting with the community will be so powerful. But we have incredible teams behind us, and we are working so hard to make sure that our voices and the voices of everyday Queenslanders are present in this chamber.

I asked a few locals what their concerns and interests are for you as their local representative. Overdevelopment came up a lot.

You have talked in the past about the problems with the State planning legislation, so what key changes would you be seeking to that legislation and would you work with other crossbenchers to seek some amendments?

I think that obviously, the main problem with the planning scheme at the moment is that there are loopholes that allow developers to argue their way around what’s in the neighbourhood plans. I think the most important thing will be making sure those neighbourhood plans are binding. There are a few different pathways. We can be pursuing over the next few years to make those changes through legislation, through motions and by putting pressure on the Brisbane City Council as well.

For example, there’s some push from the Brisbane City Council to allow rooftop gardens. That would mean that developers would be exempt from height limit requirements if they put a rooftop garden on top. So we put a question on notice yesterday to ask the Planning Minister to say that once that comes to the State Government for approval that they should reject any further measures that allow property developers to argue their way around height limits. And just shining a light on the ongoing power that property developers have in our planning system. We’ve seen property developer donations banned, but there’s still a lot of different pathways we’ve found through which property developers can be donating to both of the major parties. So further pressure on those donations is another avenue that we’re going to be using.

Some have asked, given The Greens have been extremely critical of Queensland Police, how you will work with QPS, and especially with the local community liaison officer, to support all users of Boundary street?

Yes, obviously, we’ll be working with Police liaison officers to make the place safe.

Our overarching philosophy is that extra policing doesn’t necessarily make the community safe, and there’s a lot of underlying issues that feed into people feeling unsafe and crime in the community that is mainly centred around housing, access to services, mental health services. When people have their basic needs met, we know that there are significant reductions in crime. And so that’s kind of the angle that I’ll be pushing for.

We’ve been quite critical of the extra funding for police right across Queensland, mainly focused on areas and towns where we know there’s also massive unemployment. And so, you can see how they’re getting the issue around the wrong way. But yes, looking forward to working with the police liaison officers to do some good community building, to be building up some of those connections, but in the background pushing for systemic change as well.

Are there any local organisations you think have been neglected over the years, and how would you ensure that their work is recognised and supported?

I wouldn’t want to single out any particular organisations that have been neglected. I have been meeting with lots of community groups over the last few weeks that are looking for funding and looking for support. My task, particularly come January once we’re not sitting anymore, is to be meeting with as many of these groups as possible: to be understanding what their needs are, particularly those groups that are doing that kind of immediate emergency need around food security and housing, and mental health support. So, as an example, Community Friends, that runs the food bank on Wednesdays, and are looking for some extra funding. So, I’m going to try and be working closely with them to get some more support for the work that they’re doing, as well as West End Community House and the Hope Street kitchens. I think these services have saved people’s lives over the COVID period by meeting immediate emergency needs.

I’m open to working with any community groups that want support.

I’ll be reaching out to as many people as possible, so any community group out there, watch your inbox, because we will be looking forward to working with you, and we want to have as wide a reach in the community as we possibly can.

The other question that’s top of mind for a lot of people on Boundary Street in particular is, how you will assist them as they recover from the impacts of the COVID shutdown? (By the time I asked this question, the bells had been ringing insistently for some time, so Amy only had time for a very brief response).

Well, one of the things we’re going to be continuing to push for is the moratorium around commercial rent evictions to make sure that there are no businesses that can get evicted. Some of those systemic changes around, people being able to stay in the community for long periods and not be turfed out by their landlords because they can’t afford to pay rent. We’ve been talking a lot about residential tenancies, but commercial tenancies are important for small businesses as well.

We’re also coming up to Christmas and encouraging as many people as possible to shop local.

Ms MacMahon is now based in Jackie Trad’s old office on Vulture Street and is using the same email address same telephone.

Please get in touch. We’re doing our best to get back to everyone as quickly as possible, but I’ve got an amazing team in the office, do pop in and say hi for anything that you need. We’re really looking forward to seeing all.

Ms MacMahon’s contact details are:

Email: south.brisbane@parliament.qld.gov.au

Phone: 07 3255 34615

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/AmyMacSouthBris

[1] Ms MacMahon gave her Maiden speech on Tuesday 1 December – see link HERE.

[2] Greens MP Michael Berkman is a member of the Community Support and Services Committee

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.