“Wake up! When you consider the threats and challenges our society is facing, even the most radical and active among us are still only doing a small measure of what’s necessary if we are to avert catastrophic climate collapse, mass displacement of refugees, and widespread poverty and housing insecurity.”


This was Jonathan Sriranganathan‘s parting challenge to the Gabba Ward electorate as he took his leave from his role as councillor.


Sriranganathan was first elected as Queensland’s first Greens councillor in the Brisbane City Council elections in March 2016 and was returned in March 2020. On 26 March 2023, Sriranganathan announced that he would be moving on as Councillor at the end of April, with Trina Massey as future local Greens Councillor for the Gabba Ward. 


During the past seven years, he has served on several committees, including the Environment, Parks, and Sustainability Committee, the Public and Active Transport Committee, and the City Planning and Economic Development Committee.


Selecting Trina Massey

In this, my last interview with Sriranganathan as Councillor, I took him back to an interview with the Westender while he was The Greens’ candidate in 2016. But before we got underway, I asked him how he would respond to residents’ concerns that they had yet to have an opportunity to vote for his replacement, arts worker Trina Massey.


“The process in a nutshell was that I notified the South Brisbane branch that I was planning to step down. The South Brisbane branch then called for nominations for my replacement. There were a couple of nominations and then we had a democratic vote among members of the South Brisbane branch who live within The Gabba Ward.”


Sriranganathan said he understands why people feel it’s odd that there is no by-election. 


“But as a matter of practicality, administering a by-election would probably cost several million dollars, which would be a cost borne by Council…. It’s become a fairly common process now for councillors to step down a little bit before the next election …I think so far two Labor councillors and two Liberal National Party councillors have done the same thing.”


Massey will take office in the second or third week of May. Read our first interview with Trina Massey here or at the link below.


Talking about how Massey might fare in the 2024 Council elections, I asked Sriranganathan if he thinks the strength of his vote is due to his personal popularity, or a committed vote for the Greens Party.


“I’ve definitely spoken to people who’ve said they never voted for the Greens until they’d met me. But I’ve also noticed that once people switch from the major parties to voting Green, they’re more likely to stick with the Greens. And although a lot of people have voted for me rather than for the party, a lot of my vision and policy ideas are now entrenched as party policy.


“So, the policy platform that The Greens take to the next Council election will be very similar to what I’ve been advocating for over the past seven years. Policy-wise, Trina will be on a very similar page to me. And the blunt reality is that the vote of both major parties is in structural decline across Australia, particularly in the inner south side. 


Growing Greens Vote

Sriranganathan rejects the idea that because The Greens’ vote is growing in more affluent suburbs, it attracts wealthy voters. He said commentators often misidentify areas with high property values as wealthy. 


“That’s a little bit of an oversimplification. Property values might be high, but over sixty per cent of the electorate is renting. So just because property values are high doesn’t mean Greens voters are wealthy. What it actually tends to mean is that Greens voters are more likely to have precarious housing situations and that correlates across cities and jurisdictions where areas with high renters tend to be more likely to vote Greens, regardless of whether it’s in a city trendy suburb or regional town. The greens vote is quite high in parts of the Cairns hinterland and again that’s connected to rental precarity more than anything.”


Adversarial politics?

In our first interview with Sriranganathan in 2016, he said he didn’t want to engage in ‘us-and-them’ adversarial politics. So, I asked how he thinks he has done over the past seven years.


“The honest answer is mixed. My general approach has always been that before I criticise a party or a decision-maker publicly, I always seek to meet with them first and resolve disagreements in a conciliatory fashion. And I think I’ve succeeded in doing that. So, I’ve always been very careful about not criticising people publicly or attacking them in any way until I have first at least reached out to them and tried to have conversations. 


“I have, however, been very firm and critical of bad decision-making. So, if one of the other parties has had a policy I disagree with, or a particular power-holder has made a decision contrary to the public interest, I haven’t shied away from being explicit about that. 


“When people say that they’re frustrated with adversarial politics, they’re often frustrated with ad hominem attacks that are not really about the subject matter of the discussion but about people attacking each other’s character. And I’ve avoided that. 


“I think the broader challenge has been that the adversarial political system rewards an antagonistic us versus them approach. And if anything, I wonder if I would have gotten some more wins and outcomes if I’d taken a more antagonistic approach”.


I put it to Sriranganathan that some would nevertheless consider him polarising.


“I think that’s a reflection of privilege and the fact that some people, accustomed to the system meeting their interests and matching their values, are unaccustomed to seeing someone critiquing or presenting an alternative point of view. 


“I don’t think my vision for society is particularly divisive.… But I think it’s very easy for people in positions of power to silence legitimate critique by calling outsiders divisive. 


“I think we live in an inherently divisive society… When someone else has drawn the property boundaries, when someone else has created a system that pits people against each other, I think it’s pretty disingenuous to call me divisive because I’ve highlighted the injustice of those systems. It’s the mainstream system itself, which turns people against each other, I’m just pointing that out.”


Reflecting on achievements

In 2016 Sriranganathan told The Westender he wanted to organise regular community assemblies in all seven suburbs of the Gabba Ward, establish an online voting system so that residents can easily provide feedback on issues, hold community-wide plebiscites on questions of scrapping or rewriting neighbourhood plans that govern zoning and building heights. However, he said his achievements in these areas were mixed.


We certainly did run online community voting. And we also had input like offline voting as well for a range of issues and budget allocations. And we’ve had mixed results from that, mainly because the participation rates have always only been a small proportion of the electorate. 


“I think that it’s been a really good exercise and experiment in direct democracy.”


Sriranganathan said that while the Greens held meetings in every electorate, the same issues arose with the community assemblies idea.


“I’ve been a little disappointed that we couldn’t get more people to participate meaningfully.” 


Regarding community votes on neighbourhood plans, Sriranganathan said they realised they did not have the power to overturn neighbourhood plans unilaterally. 


“It would have been a little bit disingenuous for me to hold a plebiscite on whether we should scrap the south Brisbane Riverside neighbourhood plan when I didn’t actually have the power to do that.”


Sriranganathan’s ambitions in 2016 were detailed and specific: examples included fixing the intersection at the corner of Stanley Street and Annerley Road, installing pedestrian crossings on the East Brisbane stretches of Vulture and Stanley Streets, and on Montague Road and Victoria Street in West End. He also wanted to start a strategically nuanced city-wide community campaign for cheaper public transport and establish a network of generous homeowners with spare bedrooms who can help accommodate people struggling to find stable, affordable housing.


“We did get the intersection of Stanley Street and Annerley Road redesigned, and we got separated bike lanes put in. However, the design could still be improved. It was undermined slightly by the Liberals’ desire to prioritise car travel, but it’s a lot better than it was. 


“We did get a signalised pedestrian crossing on Vulture Street East in East Brisbane, and we had some partial improvements to crossings on Stanley Street in East Brisbane, but there’s still more to be done there. 


“We got the Montague Road, Victoria Street intersection upgraded, and we also got Montague Road, Vulture Street upgraded, which was another big fight. 


Sriranganathan said a city-wide campaign for cheaper public transport was more difficult. 


“We recently managed to get a free bus route for West End. And a few years into my term, we also succeeded in getting the State Government to introduce concession fares for concession card holders. For a while there, even if you were unemployed, you still paid full fare. 


“We have now gotten the Federal Greens to the point where they’re advocating universal free public transport. So, the discourse has shifted in a big way and there are much more people on board with the idea that public transport should be cheaper or free. But that hasn’t necessarily happened yet.”


Success stories

I asked Sriranganathan how a small party, or single representative in his case, convinces the electorate that they’ve been part of the solution in instances such as these?


“It’s very difficult and is one of the biggest challenges in terms of the Greens being able to tell stories about our success. 


“The process is that the Greens start calling for something and propose an idea, and then there’s some advocacy for it. And eventually, whoever is government implements the idea or a watered-down version. And so, from a causal perspective, we’ve clearly been involved in that process, but we can’t claim sole credit because we weren’t the ones in government or in power who implemented it. 


“I give voters credit to be smart enough to understand that process.”


I asked Sriranganathan what he has been most pleased about having achieved over his seven years as Councillor, what’s disappointed him, and what keeps him awake at night?


“Starting with the latter, it’s definitely planning, and particularly approval of more development on the floodplain. That’s such an eminently stupid thing for the Council to be allowing. And it’s really disappointing that we haven’t been able to shift the dial on that. And in fact, now the Liberals are calling for even higher density down on the floodplain. So, I feel a lot of regret and disappointment on that front. 


“The most tangible outcome has been to increase engagement, broaden the parameters of acceptable debate, and teach people that they can, and should, demand more of their elected representatives. 


“Some people might say, “Well, that’s not actually tangible; that’s not as physical as a park bench being installed”, but I think actually, in the broader sense, that is a much more significant and material outcome because we’ve fundamentally changed Queensland politics and how people in the Gabba Ward in particular, relate to their political representatives. 


Jonathan Sriranganathan with incoming Councillor, Trina Massey, and Gabba Office staff, Taylor and Nick.

What Next?

Sriranganathan says he is not a career politician, but he has yet to rule out a tilt at the Mayorship, and others have also suggested a state or federal seat.


“I’m not ruling out anything. But the honest answer is that right now, I just want a break. I still firmly believe that running for office is an important piece of the puzzle in achieving social change. I see value in contesting elections and making powerholders nervous about losing their seats. But I remain quite cynical about the potential for achieving major systemic change through electoralism alone. My answer hasn’t changed much in the last few weeks. But yeah, the Greens are on track to win a whole bunch of seats at all levels of government over the next few cycles, and I don’t see myself running for higher levels of office. Nor do I see myself running for positions where I feel I will be more disconnected from the people.


“I think a lot of people find it really hard to believe that I don’t have something lined up. But I think it’s good to take time to reflect and work out what you want to do next before you go and do it. So that’s kind of where we’re headed.”


He said he will continue to write and might move into radio and podcasting.


“I’ll keep writing more for various formats and outlets. I’ll have more time to write poetry and music and song lyrics. So, I’m really looking forward to that. I have been making a few notes on a non-fiction book about the future of the city and what kind of direction Brisbane needs to be heading in. So, I’ve got a bunch of different ideas. 


“I’m also increasingly interested in radio and podcasting as forms of communication.”


Parting challenge

Towards the end of our conversation, Sriranganathan issued a couple of challenges to the residents of The Gabba. First, he said he’d like to see local activists be less parochial and develop more city-wide perspectives.


“I still notice a lot of West Enders who really want certain things to change in terms of the city, are not willing to campaign for those changes beyond their own geographic community. We saw that in the last Council election, where there are a whole bunch of other seats that could have flipped to more progressive representation, where a lot of West Enders who are engaged in conversations about urban planning or local government decision-making, simply focused on having those debates within their own communities rather than on turning them into proper city-wide discussions.”


“There’s also an unexamined tension between people who want better planning but don’t want their property values to fall, compared to a lot of younger people who also want better planning but have a very strong interest in property values falling. And so, while at first glance, those two demographics might appear to have similar interests, there’s an underlying ideological divergence that sometimes may undermine opportunities for solidarity… It’s going to take people stepping beyond their immediate self-interest and thinking about the broader collective interests. It’s the same old challenge; how do we build intersectional alliances across the city?”


In his parting comments to the electorate, Sriranganathan called for us to “Wake up! 


“Australians in general are really subservient and tend instinctively to want to follow rules even though they think of themselves as rule-breakers or deviants.


“It’s a great shame that there isn’t a deeper, wider commitment to civil disobedience and other forms of resistance because we’re not going to change the system without that. And I think a lot of people are really naive about the risks that we’re facing and the degree of threat. The science is very clear now, and if people really turned their minds to what the science is telling us, we wouldn’t just be voting every few years and elections; we’d be doing a lot more than that.”



Big shoes to fill: an interview with incoming Councillor Trina Massey.


Not a Career Politician – Jonathan Sriranganathan announces arts worker Trina Massey as Gabba Ward replacement.

Jonathan Sri – Greens Candidate for The Gabba Ward #bccvotes




Images, Jan Bowman