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‘He’s broken the mould of what a politician should look like’: the Brisbane councillor who reshaped the Greens

02 Apr 2023 By theguardian

‘He’s broken the mould of what a politician should look like’: the Brisbane councillor who reshaped the Greens

In 2012, a punk collective was busking along Boundary Street in West End's Kurilpa Derby street parade and on the lookout for a new wind instrumentalist when they spotted a barefoot bloke playing saxophone on a rooftop.

In that instant, The Mouldy Lovers knew they had found their man.

Four years later, the bohemian art and music crowd on the south side of the Brisbane River would again pick Jonathan Sriranganathan, or Jonno Sri, this time to represent them in the Gabba ward.

By a narrow margin, Sriranganathan became the first Greens councillor ever elected in Queensland.

With his fondness for vibrant scarves and mismatched socks, a proclivity to break into spoken word poetry and a long history of getting arrested at protests, Sriranganathan could be dismissed as either a ratbag pollie or harmless eccentric. Reams of shrill headlines and front pages - 'Despicable Sri' among them - attest to those efforts.

But his 350 odd-vote victory in 2016 may have been something of a sliding doors moment - and not just in the history of local politics in Brisbane.

A year later the Greens would claim another first, this time a seat at state parliament. Three years later, a second. Then, after polls closed on 21 May 2022, came a moment that rocked Australian politics - Brisbane Greens candidates won three seats in the lower house of federal parliament.

Sriranganathan and his newly elected colleagues partied at a pub in their spiritual home of West End.

"To be honest, we got kind of lucky that we won in the Gabba ward," Sriranganathan reflects over a cup of chai on his houseboat in a muddy and mangrove-lined creek this week.

"But then that little green crack, we've been able to widen into something much bigger."

And despite announcing he was standing down last Sunday, Sriranganathan has no plans to stop crowbarring that gap even wider.

He believes at least 10 council wards are within striking distance at the 2024 council election and that his party has a shot at dethroning Brisbane's mayor, Adrian Schrinner, who now occupies the highest office in mainland Australia held by a Liberal. And that is just the beginning of Sriranganathan's ambition for the Greens.

"If we did win a bunch of seats at the next [council] election, that would then translate to winning a lot more state seats as well, which would in turn have significant ramifications for the federal election," he says.

No doubt, this vision of Brisbane "exerting a disproportionate impact on the politics of the country as a whole" may seem unrealistic to many. But Sriranganathan has never been bound by orthodoxy.

Scrawled above the cracked mirror in front of the composting toilet on the boat he shares with his partner and "co-conspirator", Anna, is a motto that encapsulates Sriranganathan's politics.

"Another world is possible".

And herein, he believes, lies a key ingredient to the success of this new wave of Brisbane Greens: "really bold, ambitious messaging".

"We have been willing to call for big changes that, a few years ago, might have been seen as a bit beyond the parameters of ordinary debate".

On that surreal night of the 'Greenslide' at the Montague hotel last May was another party figure used to being a lone voice in the corridors of power.

For the six years after she was first elected to the senate until the Gabba was won, Larissa Waters was the only Greens representative in Queensland.

Waters says Sriranganathan's seven years in office "helped break the community view" about what the Greens stood for.

He didn't just champion environmental causes, but called for rent cuts and free public transport. More importantly, perhaps, he knocked on people's doors, listened to his constituents and fought for their causes - from fixing potholes to abolishing the police - rather than taking a "that's not my level of government" approach.

"Jonno has been a trailblazer in Queensland, and he's broken the mould of what a politician should look like, and what they use their office resources to achieve," Waters says. "I reckon the rest of Brisbane wanted a bit of that, too".

For his detractors, it is this quality that is Sriranganathan's greatest political sin.

Griffith University political scientist Dr Pandanus Petter interviewed dozens of MPs and councillors for his thesis on the role of elected representatives in Queensland.

Many councillors saw their job as "apolitical" - "putting on nice events in parks" - and described Sriranganathan as an example of what not to do in office. The Liberal National party councillors who have dominated local politics in Brisbane for decades were particularly affronted by their rival.

"They prefer things to run smoothly," Petter says. "They feel it is sort of immoral, even, to be outside your lane, going around being political about things when they need to do the basic, running the city stuff".

But for Sriranganathan and his friends, everything is political.

Matt Hsu is a founding member of The Mouldy Lovers. Sriranganathan is also a member of his Obscure Orchestra.

"It's kind of a misnomer," Hsu admits. "We are more of an anti-orchestra. We take everything that is classical and hierarchical about an orchestra - the suits, the black and white uniform thing - and make it about community."

On one level, Hsu is surprised his long-term bandmate has taken this ethos into politics and enjoyed such electoral success.

"I didn't think the world was ready for a person like him," Hsu says.

But, he believes, "true leaders have always been about grassroots, community action".

"When I reflect on that, it completely makes sense that people adore Jonathan".

The esteem with which Sriranganathan is held within pockets of the city saw his portrait - 'The Guardian of Highgate Hill' - win the People's Choice award at the most recent Brisbane Portrait prize.

For its 25-year-old painter, Martina Clarke, this was a way to give back to Sriranganathan, who had facilitated her first exhibition through the "house conspiracy" project he set up prior to running for council.

"I feel like it was a good way to show my respect for everything that he does for the arts community in Brisbane," Clarke says. "And how everything he does for our community doesn't always have an immediate outcome."

Sriranganathan's successor in the Gabba, Trina Massey, believes the Greens are poised to reap the outcomes of Sriranganathan's radical groundwork.

"These things that are considered 'too dangerous to go there', Jonno has said a lot of stuff that other politicians wouldn't touch," she says.

Will Sriranganathan seek to become Brisbane's first Green mayor?

He smiles coyly at the question and pauses before giving "a bit of a politician's answer".

"A lot of people have been asking me to, and I'm thinking about it deeply," he says.

But that's where the similarities to the standard dodge end. Sriranganathan talks about the dangers of becoming a career politician, his concerns that a focus on electoral success may sap the energy from grassroots protest.

Whatever he does next, Sriranganathan will remain committed to what he considers his most radical form of political resistance: "thinking intergenerationally".

Sriranganathan ended his last speech as a councillor on Tuesday the way he began - with a poem.

Signing off, he spoke of planting "slow growing seeds" everywhere.

"They'll be a forest one day," he predicted.

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