Saturday 22 March 2008

Ten days that shifted Cairns – Part 1

CairnsBlog contributing writer Syd Walker, reflects over the last few weeks..

Val Schier, the first Mayor of the new post-amalgamation Cairns Regional Council, is a lucky woman.

The Cairns region is fortunate too. Unexpectedly, on March 15th, it voted out the arrogant, developer-dominated Mayor Byrne, previously Mayor of Cairns City Council. It now has a new Mayor and a new chance to face up to the problems of the present and the future.

Yet, on March 15th, when Cairns and the new Mayor struck a rich seam of good luck – most pundits were taken by surprise.

The result made a mockery of Cairns Post opinion polls. It belied the view of many insiders. Kevin Byrne wasn’t the only one to complain “No-one saw this coming!”

So was the hand of Lady Luck in play? Or had something else occurred - something under-reported by the mainstream media and essentially unacknowledged by the victor?

I believe so, and was uniquely privileged to form that opinion.

Through circumstances I neither chose nor predicted in advance, during the first half of March 2008, I spent more than a week at Michael Moore’s (of CairnsBlog) house in Cairns. I had my own little campaign to run – as a candidate for Division 8 on the Tablelands. Michael was my host at a time of need, when I was unable to travel easily to my own homebase. Given the frenzy of activity surrounding his small house, this was an act of great kindness - quite characteristic, in my experience, of the generosity of this exceptional man.

As a consequence, my take on the recent Cairns election is rather different. I saw what I saw. I listened. I observed. I asked the odd question. Here’s a behind-the-scenes election narrative you won’t read in the Cairns Post – nor is it likely that Val Schier will dwell on this subject matter. They’d both rather forget it.

Ten days out from the election, even someone who avoids commercial media as assiduously as I do couldn’t help but notice that Byrne was hurling money at his re-election.
The print and electronic media equivalent of Byrne’s huge billboards was rolling out to bamboozle the Cairns populace. For people in the region keen on change, this cynical but rather clever advertising was a disaster. It was predictable, tawdry - yet awesome in its scale.

There are obvious parallels with the way Howard clambered back into power at each successive Federal election since 1996, each time deploying a bigger, better, more dishonest and more expensive PR and advertising package than his hapless opponents. Until 2007, that is. That’s when Howard met his nemesis. He met an opposition leader who knew what was coming – and took smart pre-emptive measures. Consequently, Howard lost the last Federal election – big-time.

Val Schier and her 2008 Cairns 1st team must clearly have known that Byrne’s mega-spend was coming at them too. He’d done the same thing last time, in 2004. Byrne’s support from the local development lobby must only have grown in the intervening years. Like Kevin Rudd before her, Val Schier could and should have predicted the avalanche of negative advertising that was launched against her in the second week before the election. Like Rudd, she should have had an effective strategy to counter it.

Remember that, at the time Byrne's advertising assault got into full gear, he was already slated to win. Now, building on an auspicious starting position, came a torrent of ads that, without an effective response, might well have sealed the election for Byrne. They played on Byrne’s ‘experience’ and portrayed his opponents as lightweights and clowns. Where was Val Schier’s response?

In the last Federal election, Kevin Rudd was able to counter the Howard Government’s advertising barrage, because he inoculated the electorate against it. It was like a mass vaccination program – and it worked.

Rudd – and the trade unions who also command advertising budgets not to be sneezed at –injected into the electorate the notion that Howard’s mega-spend was not a reflection of his real popularity, but rather evidence of the scale of unaccountable vested interests that lay behind him.

This was very successful, and in the end may have turned Howard’s advertising against him. The more people saw of it, he more they distrusted what they saw. Having parried the incumbent’s main blows – Rudd then pushed forward to victory, riding a wave of change.

But Rudd began this strategy early. Federal Labor didn’t let matters drift until ten days before the election before hammering home in the electorate’s mind the predictability that the Howard Government’s would yet again employ the reins of power for unfair electoral advantage.

Yet there I was, ten days before this year’s local government elections, trying to get my own leaflets ready and organize my own campaign. And in the background, in and around Mike Moore’s living room, the buzz of the Cairns Regional Council election was intense. The progressives, it was clear, were worried…

At one stage, thinking I may have missed something, I innocently inquired about Val Schier’s strategy to counter the incumbent Mayor’s advertising barrage. I asked a few Cairns 1st insiders. The people I spoke with seemed rather vague. No-one wanted to be disloyal. But if there was a good Cairns 1st strategy in reserve, no-one I spoke with seemed to have a clue what it was.

Not that the contest was entirely one-sided - or that Byrne was universally popular or respected. Far from it. Since his election in 2000, the Mayor had alienated thousands of Cairns residents by his high-handed manner and backward-looking ideas and policies. Val Schier had a profile - after all, she’d nearly won in 2004. She showed steady competence. She had a team with enthusiasm and didn’t waste resources running against well-established progressive independents.

From mid-2007, CairnsBlog had led the charge in attacking the Mayor’s out-of-touch, out-of-time policies. The inquisitive new medium had rich veins to mine. Toxic subterranean deposits of local politics were found to run deeper and deeper, as more and more alienated Cairns folk came out of the woodwork to tell their stories and share what they knew. Taking considerable risks – risks no other local media were willing to take – Mike Moore’s blog held up a mirror to the old Council and exposed it, warts and all. Many of the warts had never been mentioned in the local ‘mainstream media’. Some had been reported, then quickly buried. CairnsBlog brought them to light.

Yet compared with the audience of commercial radio or TV – or the readership of the Cairns Post – CairnsBlog in 2007/8 was a still minor player.

Byrne and his team clearly saw the new web medium as a significant threat – hence the copious contributions of ‘Factman’ and other frequent Council-insider CairnsBlog commentators. But the old guard relied on dominance in the mainstream media to pull through. On that terrain, Val Schier’s team had an uphill battle getting its message across to the Cairns community.
Ten days before the election, I spoke to a nice but not very ‘political’ man who works for an instant print service in Cairns. “Byrne seems to be doing a good job”, he said. “He’s got the experience. Why change?” Those casual remarks seemed to encapsulate a general view. Another 4 years. Why not?

Then something happened. What I witnessed began, for me, around ten days from the campaign. Mike Moore isn’t the only hero in this saga. There are others. People who went out on a limb to bring about change. People driven by a determination to open up local government in this region. People whose demand for accountability and due process was ultimately to trigger a change of Mayor.

Real historians – and real journalists (if there are any left) - can pour over the entrails of the Cairns election in detail, talking to different sources and piecing together a more comprehensive story. I don’t intend to do that. I’ll just report on some of what I saw and heard, in the background, in between struggling with my own challenges and watching the weather forecast.
People can observe events and read all kinds of things into them. It’s a well-known phenomenon.

I am not immune. So I won’t tell you what I saw. I’ll tell you what I think I saw.

I think I saw the election unexpectedly won for Cairns 1st… right in front of my eyes.

The irony is that Val Schier was a reluctant participant.


Anonymous said...

The observations and rantings of sore loser Syd Walker (Mr. Fifteen Percent) are the early pressings of sour grapes. The only loudmouth to do worse than Syd is the Port Douglas wackjob, Rod Davis (Mr. Seven Percent).

Those of us actually ADVISING Ms. Shier knew ten days out that she had won the election. And as the numbers came in, they tallied exactly with what had been predicted by these statistics.

There was no "Lady Luck" nor any secret plan to counter media spending. Val's gains over 2003, across most divisions, was only marginally up. The difference was TOTALLY the issues in Division 10 - the addition of a Byrne-hostile shire, plus the grassroots organisation and disgust with Byrne in Clifton Beach, were the COMPLETE difference in this election. In the view of the few in town experienced with local elections, the CairnsBlog had little effect (essentially "preaching to the choir") and in fact likely were the cause of the big advertising spend by the Unity Team the last couple weeks.

It's "theorists" like Syd Walker, who has the brainpower of a slug, that look for "secrets" and "conspiracies" where there are none. These same kind of analysts were calling the federal election a "blowout for labor", when in fact a considered review of the complete numbers show only about a 1.5% margin moved them into power.

It's all about the numbers. The day Douglas shire was added to Cairns is the day Kevin Byrne lost the election. Everything else is just sideshow.

Anonymous said...

Hhaha what a wally "Experienced Campaign Manager"

If you were "experienced... you would at least know how to spell "Schier" !!

Sounds like you are the new FactMan... in drag!

Anonymous said...

"Those of us actually ADVISING Ms. Shier knew ten days out that she had won the election."

Well, that's the joy of this blog. I learn something new every day.

There I was, mistakenly imagining that Val Schier's campaign team was personned by mere mortals...

Anonymous said...

Well, there was me thinking that people like Syd Walker would have been pleased with the mayoral election result!

Val Schier won fair and square so why the dissection and attack?

On a personal note, I worked on Julia Leu's campaign and I can tell you that we went into the polls feeling confident, as I'm sure Val did.

The best you can do in an election campaign when you have limited resources is to gauge as much feed back from the people who matter - the voters.

I also know that in the last ten days, and especially the last two to three, most of us who had put in so much effort were literally running on adrenalin. I'm sure Val and many others would have been feeling the same.

Finally, I offer my respect to everyone who must have worked hard on their respective campaigns.

The voters have spoken, so now it's time to give our newly elected representatives and mayor a chance.

Anonymous said...

Michael Moore is the unsung hero of the Byrne demise ... he was the only media owner with the courage to print our Public Letter of questions relating to the Mayors Financial Interests.

The result was contrary to all the polls ... a Divine Intervention.

God Bless in the challenges ahead Val... you have the opportunity to do much good for the Community Spirit of Cairns.
John Babet Cairns Ratepayers Action Group (CRAG)

Anonymous said...

This is only "Part 1"?

How long are the losers going to have a platform to criticise the winners?

Especially Syd - I agree with the above he's a "15 percenter" - a known marginal character who's forever trying to ride on other's coattails.

Another Part? I'd rather have bamboo shoved under my fingernails. I'll come back just prior to the next election - all this negativity is caustic and depressing.

Anonymous said...

Hey, it's ACTUALLY 15.14 percent. :-)

Anonymous said...

I agree with Roisin Allen’s comments,
"The voters have spoken, so now it's time to give our newly elected representatives and mayor a chance".

Some morons including (Gavin Bloody King) are criticising her already for not keeping promises about raising rates. Common sense would tell the average person, that most Councils only raise rates to the value of CPI increases. That is the norm everywhere else, except under Byrne! Ask those poor buggers at Kewarra who were paying $10,000 under Byrne and whose rates initially went up by about 45%.

Peabody is already noted (Last Cairns Sun edition) for his doom and gloom predictions about Ms Schier 's leadership or lack there of. But how would he know ‘cause she has not even been sworn in yet. It seems to me that the likes of Peabody and other male councillors don't fancy the idea of taking orders from a woman. Some men in 2008, still cannot believe that women have the right to vote let alone lead. It would seem male chauvinism is alive and well at CCC!

In the words of the previous Mayor,
"Stop your whinging and get on with it."

As for Gavin King's vicious and defamatory attack on Ms Schier (Saturday’s CP), obviously his nose is way out of joint, ‘cause the CP got it wrong. And they could not have got it more wrong on Saturday 15th March!!

Personally, Gavin, no one really gives a stuff what you think. She was voted in as Mayor by residents of this city, who had had "ENOUGH" of the previous mayor and his total disregard for the little people who are hurting out there in suburbia, good honest people whose lives have been wrecked and turned into misery by inappropriate development at their backdoors, and our vanishing beautiful natural surrounds, all in the name of over zealous developers who go too far without proper controls.

This wave of anti-inappropriate development is a phenomenon that was seen all up and down the Queensland Coast, so shut up Gavin, your opinion on this matter is redundant and out or touch with the thinking of many Queenslanders including Cairns Northern Beaches residents!

Anonymous said...

"Personally, Gavin, no one really gives a stuff what you think."

You obviously do.....

Anonymous said...

I haven't read Gavin-fingers-out-of-his-mouth-up-himself-King for months. Not since I read his assessment of 2007 as being similar to his abysmal performance in the bedroom. (It put me off my wheaties for weeks.) His column is good to wrap the dogs scraps up in.

Anonymous said...

Gavin king, arthur c clarke, the dude that wrote fear & loathing in las vegas, and yes proust, there all in the once sentence.

Anonymous said...

The rantings of King and Peabody serve only to confirm that the choice voters made was the right one.