Former MP: Why our future hangs in the balance
FORMER Ipswich state MP Rachel Nolan believes the city’s future “hangs in the balance” and the next few years are critical to setting things on the right path after the monumental damage done by corrupt mayor Paul Pisasale and other senior council figures.
Now executive chair at think tank the McKell Institute, Ms Nolan has been out of politics for almost a decade.
At the time she was the youngest woman ever elected as an MP in Queensland when she won the seat of Ipswich in 2001, at the age of 26.
She served as minister for transport, natural resources, finance and arts under former Premier Anna Bligh before losing her seat to the LNP’s Ian Berry in 2012 as Campbell Newman led the party to a landslide win.
After the loss Ms Nolan spent a couple of years living across Canada, France and Ireland before she was struck by an “epiphany” to return home and run a business in the Ipswich CBD.
She negotiated to buy Cactus Espresso Bar from friend Jim McKee while she was still living overseas.
“This will sound egocentric but I think that at the point at which I lost, essentially the council got kind of untrammelled power,” she said.
“Once I lost, the wheels started to fall off in Ipswich and so by the time I got back there was … already some decline starting to happen.
“I didn’t come back to get involved in council politics.
“People would come into the cafe and say you need to know about this and I would be like, ‘look I just run a cafe, do you want a flat white or a cappuccino?’
“It became clear that things were really bad and so I tried to have Pisasale expelled from the Labor party.
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“I became aware that the council had lost a fortune on the Ipswich City Square and that they’d covered it up and I made that public and that contributed to the council ultimately being sacked.
“I kind of reluctantly involved myself. I came home to a run a cafe and live in this community where I belonged.
“I just found myself standing in the middle of this spectacular disaster and it was horrible. I’m genuinely heartbroken about what's happened and I try not to think about it too much.”
Now 47 and with a five-year-old son, Ms Nolan said she didn’t miss politics at all but recognised how her experience in the halls of power had shaped her life.
She is still motivated to make a difference in her new role but said she enjoyed the freedom of being out of the public eye.
“I don’t know, if I hadn’t got into politics I may well have ended up with work taking me somewhere else,” she said.
“I’m really glad I got to stay. I just feel really deeply connected to the community.
“It's frustrating because it’s not New York but I just think it’s a total gift.
“I frankly think nothing else is as important. It’s a pretty full on kind of life if you’re going to do it properly.
“I don’t know if you’ll ever get to have a job again which involves such important and interesting decision making.”
Ms Nolan said despite the challenges she faced as a minister in Ms Bligh’s cabinet in the wake of the global financial crisis and during the natural disasters which struck Queensland in 2011, she was proud of what she achieved in office.
“It was really governing through pretty extreme pressure and genuine difficulty and the government was also really unpopular for most of that period,” she said.
“I fundamentally redirected the transport department towards sustainable transport.
“We did seek really fundamentally not just to build new freeways but to get southeast Queensland doing more sustainable transport and that all then got abandoned by the Newman Government.”
In Ipswich, she pointed to building the ‘new’ Bremer State High School, upgrades to the Ipswich Hospital and the establishment of the Brisbane Valley Rail Trail.
Ms Nolan said the Labor party had a vision for Ipswich that was scuppered when she lost her seat.
She believed it had been difficult for the Labor heartland to secure the federal infrastructure funding it needed to keep up with its population growth since the LNP won power eight years ago.
“If Ipswich doesn’t keep its autonomy then it just becomes greater western Brisbane,” she said.
“I certainly had a tense relationship with Paul Pisasale and I didn’t agree with the way he was taking Ipswich.
“All the council was trying to do was approve terrible urban sprawl.
“We did these projects and they were part of a broader vision … that Ipswich would be a stand-alone economically diverse regional city.
“If you don’t make sure we’ve got a first-class university and do stuff to improve the quality of state education and start building rail from Springfield and ultimately through to Ipswich and create new tourism opportunities with stuff like the rail trail then what you get is just urban sprawl with none of that stuff that’s about the heart and soul of Ipswich.
“Essentially once I lost, that vision took over. The good side of growth got abandoned by Pisasale.
“Unless there’s a federal Labor government then there’s no federal infrastructure money coming our way.
“If we don’t seriously get it back then Ipswich won’t be Ipswich, it will be greater western Brisbane. Greater western Brisbane is poor and it’s got no soul.”
Ms Nolan said she supported Ipswich Mayor Teresa Harding despite being on opposite sides of the political divide.
She is cautiously positive about Ipswich’s future but stressed that change needed to happen now.
“There has to be a clearer vision for Ipswich about maintaining our regional identity and telling the world that this is what we are and it’s separate from Brisbane,” Ms Nolan said.
“All three levels of government need to be working together on that otherwise you blink and you’re Campbelltown.
“I think we’re dead set in the fight of our lives. I think Ipswich’s future hangs in the balance right now.
“Because we’ve got this loss of local political engagement I’m not sure if it’s widely understood how critical the next few years of decision making are.
“It’s bigger than do we get the infrastructure of widening Ripley Road. It’s how do we revise the town plan to make sure that we can revitalise the CBD. How do we get an economic strategy which reduces the level of people commuting out of here to work somewhere else.
“It’s really fundamental and it’s really life and death.
“I don’t think it’s the council’s fault. The community is a bit broken by what happened. I think that they’re good people with their hearts in the right place but I think we probably need two more things.
“I think we need a step up in urgency to really cement a vision for a stand-alone Ipswich and the other thing I think we need is better organisational leadership in the council at a public service level.
“I think modern local government is not roads, rates and rubbish. Modern local government is sustainable transport, economic development, opportunities for the most underprivileged children. It’s shaping the place fundamentally.
“I think other councils in other parts of the country and in southeast Queensland have better leadership and are much more professional and understanding of the role of holistic leadership for the future than Ipswich is.”
Ms Nolan joined the McKell Institute in 2018 and also sits on the board of the Kambu Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Corporation for Health.
She closed down Cactus in 2019 as doing business became too difficult with a dramatic drop in foot traffic due to the stalled redevelopment of the CBD.
Apart from conducting public policy research, Ms Nolan has also started a podcast called Deep North, which aims to take a deep dive into Queensland politics beyond the usual sound bites.
It was inspired by the popular The Axe Files podcast hosted by Barack Obama’s former chief strategist David Axelrod.
She has already recorded an episode with Katter’s Australian Party MP Shane Knuth but it won’t just feature politicians.
“What I’m trying to do is talk to them about who they are and what they believe in and what they’re trying to achieve,” she said.
“We’re not as interested in issues in our state or issues in our community anymore. I think that’s really bad for democracy.
“Either in Ipswich or Queensland you’ve got all the big issues about climate change and economic development and does the power lie with just an elite few or does it lie with real social movement?
“People write off Queensland politics like it’s all a bit of a backwater.
“(I want to) find out who they are and what’s their story and through that human story to get to the depths of the issues.”
Read more stories by Lachlan McIvor here.