Rob Pyne: Political Trailblazer

Rob Pyne in his mofified parliamemt chamber "seat"

Rob Pyne sitting in his modified parliament chamber “seat.” (Original photo from here)

The late Stella Young’s hilarious “inspiration porn” speech reminds us how overusing the word “inspirational” can seem cheesy or even condescending. However in the case of Rob Pyne, Member for Cairns in the Queensland Parliament and the first quadriplegic MP, the title of “inspirational” may just be appropriate. At the very least, Rob is in many ways impressive.

How so? Consider the travel itinerary of up to fifty flights between Cairns and Brisbane Rob estimates he’ll make in his first year in parliament alone. While this may be routine for any regional MP, these MPs don’t have the extra ‘joy’ of wheelchair travel. Wheelchair flyers will know that negotiating check-in, aisle chairs and shepherding crucial equipment is no trivial task. Doing that on a regular basis when parliament is sitting frankly boggles the mind.

Rob adds that estimate is not counting the regional trips on top of that. However, his Cairns electorate is geographically small and relatively accessible compared to some of the nearby larger electorates. In proof that he is mortal, Rob readily admits he’s not sure how he’d cope with the additional travel (on small planes) required in the big rural electorates.

A good thing then that Rob is a Cairns local. Rob grew up in Gordonvale, just south of Cairns in Far North Queensland. While his father Tom was a prominent local politician, Rob was more interested in sport than politics prior to his injury in 1991. A diving accident off a boat in Trinity Inlet leaving him with C5-6 quadriplegia led to a realisation that education was the key to his future.

Since then Rob has completed a Bachelor of Arts in history and politics at James Cook University (JCU) and a law degree at the Queensland University of Technology. Rob married his wife Jenny in 1992 and they have a daughter Kate who is just finishing high school. University life gave Rob a taste for politics becoming president of the student association.

Rob was elected to the Cairns Regional Council in 2008 and re-elected in 2012. As a councillor and now state MP, Rob is interested in the regional development of Cairns, particularly in the areas of health, education, small business, public housing and local infrastructure.

Heritage access adventures

In his maiden speech, Rob made special mention of the Clerk of the Queensland Parliament, Neil Laurie, for “providing him with ‘reasonable accommodation’ to allow him to contribute to this parliament on an equal footing with other MPs.” Rob felt the access changes were done proactively and without fuss, especially considering the heritage building restrictions of Queensland Parliament House. Heritage requirements mean any changes must be undoable.

An expert consultant was engaged to assess both the Queensland Parliament and Rob’s electorate office. Rob’s Cairns electoral office needed a new accessible bathroom as well as installing electric sliding doors with swipe card access.

The Clerk of the Parliament said the parliamentary chamber was made accessible by reconfiguring some of the seats to create a space for Rob to maneuver his wheelchair into (see photo at top of the page). Logistics demanded that this occur at the front (and therefore ground level) of the chamber, so Rob is in one sense already a ‘frontbencher’. Rob also moved into a deputy whips office for quicker access to the chamber.

In sitting weeks regional MPs stay in rooms in the parliamentary complex. As a previous MP had injuries affecting their mobility there was already a room mostly modified for Rob. The remaining modifications were, according to the Clerk of the Parliament, mostly just “lots of little things.”

If this sounds too good to be true, there is a catch. Wheelchair visitors to Queensland Parliament should know the public gallery, however, is still one of the least accessible areas, due to its steep, narrow steps.

Social media and feeding the trolls

Rob has a plain speaking communication style in person and on social media. Rob believes people from a regional electorate wouldn’t tolerate anyone mouthing talking points and sound bites, so he doesn’t. Moreover, being outspoken has its drawbacks, particularly on social media.

As reported in the Brisbane Times recently, Rob sought an apology over remarks his predecessor made on Facebook. Gavin King, the previous Member for Cairns, remarked in a post about as graceful as it was witty: “Not really sure the current Member for Cairns knows much about preventative health or is an advocate for the many benefits of running and walking”.

Just before this incident, Rob had taken a short, self-imposed leave of absence from social media when things got particularly heated. Rob stated he worked quite hard building his online presence and it shows. His social media posts seem authentic rather than the sanitised PR many serve up. This is the likely reason his social media absence was a temporary one.

Future possibilities

Many politicians will deflect tricky hypothetical questions with the good old “I don’t engage in hypotheticals”. However, Rob was happy to accept a hypothetical future position as Disability Services Minister assuming it became available. His main caveat was that his first term was 100 per cent about representing the people of his electorate. Cairns absolutely came first.

Rob is aware of his minor celebrity status as a role model for people with disability. Rob’s advice for anyone contemplating following his footsteps is to have a go as he believes politics and public life in general need more people from diverse backgrounds. While not mandatory, a degree or two and considerable volunteer work (as in Rob’s case) certainly can’t hurt.

Finally it should be acknowledged that ‘Rob Pyne the MP’ is a team effort, with his wife Jenny travelling with him every sitting week of parliament. Jenny complements Rob’s role as a personal organiser.

So here’s to Rob Pyne, may he be the first of many!

(Click on any image in the photo gallery below for a larger image.)

Many thanks go to Rob Pyne for making time in his busy schedule and to Jenny Pyne for supplying the above photos

*An edited print version of this article will appear in Accord Magazine, published by Spinal Cord Injuries Australia. Check them out and become a member.

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