John Kaye Obituary: NSW Loses A Formidable Force For Climate Action And Public Education

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A trailblazing MP, John Kaye has been remembered for his intelligence, energy, and commitment to the public good, writes Wendy Bacon.

NSW Greens MP Dr John Kaye died aged 60 this week after being diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer earlier this year.

John was an engineer who did a doctorate on renewable energy long before climate change became the massive issue that it is today. He was a unionist and tireless supporter of public education at every level. Since 2007, he has been a Greens Legislative Councillor in the NSW Parliament.

‘Energy’,’ intelligence’, and ‘dedication’ were words used repeatedly by friends remembering Kaye this week.

Greens MP for Newtown Jenny Leong began a post on her Facebook page with these words

“I can’t say for sure the first time I met John Kaye – but my clearest memory of first coming in to contact with this incredibly passionate and highly intelligent man was the night of the state election 2003 – we were all at the Greens Warehouse on Eve st – John was pumped.

As someone who had handed out HTVs on a polling booth for the first time that day for the Greens, I didn’t know then, that over a decade later – John Kaye and I would both be running in another state election – and that I would have the privilege of becoming John’s colleague in the NSW Parliament.

I will never forget a breakfast I had with John just after I was preselected to be the candidate for the state seat of Newtown – we were in Surry Hills. He could obviously tell I was feeling a bit daunted by what lay ahead.

He gave me some very solid – albeit a little intense advice about my role. He said, it’s like running at a solid brick wall, as fast, fearlessly and with as much determination energy as you can – and convincing as many people as possible to join you as you do so – knowing that there are two possible outcomes. One that you will gather enough momentum and enough support that you will knock the wall down – and on election day you will have succeeded and won. Or alternatively that you won’t and you and all those with you will be very sore, and then it’s your job to stand up and pick everyone up again. But the only way you will gather enough momentum – and succeed in knocking the wall over is if you give it everything you’ve got and convince everyone else to join you and give it everything they’ve got – that’s the only way you will ever have a chance of succeeding.”

John put his own words into practice and played a key role in developing NSW Greens policies. By 2004, he was the lead Greens candidate for the Senate. While the Greens vote rose 4.3 per cent to 7.3 per cent, he missed out on a Senate spot by 0.5 per cent. He picked himself up again and was elected to NSW Parliament in 2007 and was easily reelected in 2015.

John’s energy was formidable. But he also used it in very focussed ways to campaign for the issues that he cared passionately about, which were all linked to a radical vision of a more equal, sustainable and humane society.

John himself grew up in the Eastern suburbs of Melbourne where he attended Scotch College and later studied engineering at the University of Melbourne. He obtained his doctorate from the University of California Berkeley. He taught and researched electrical engineering at the University of NSW where he specialised in renewable energy and greenhouse issues.

John’s family valued education very highly. He went on to become a champion of public education. As Greens MP for Balmain Jamie Parker told parliament this week: “Anyone who has seen John in action – with the 5am phone calls (the ABC will have trouble filling their 5am slots in future), making those media calls, waving the flags in the street, distributing leaflets, speaking at Teachers’ Federation events knows this is somewhat an understatement.”

John told parliament in 2007, “Our great public school system and TAFE colleges knock some of the rough edges off socioeconomic disadvantage and create a celebration of diversity… If there is one achievement that I would like to meet …over the next eight years it would be to keep alive the debate over the funding of private schools.” He more than succeeded in doing that.

He railed and campaigned against the privatisation of TAFE. He warned against the disastrous consequences of undermining Australia’s strong vocational education system when attacks on it began years ago, even before the LNP government was elected in 2011.

Writer, commentator and fellow supporter of public education Jane Caro told New Matilda, “John was a brilliant and dogged advocate for public education. He had a great understanding of what really makes a great teacher (hint; it isn’t UAI) and fought hard for teachers to be respected as professionals. He had particular empathy for kids and particularly those kids who were unlucky in the lottery of birth. He fought for their rights to an excellent education hard. His commitment to TAFE & opposition to the catastrophe that privatising the sector has unleashed was unstinting. Every child, every teacher, every young person with a dream has lost a fierce, funny and humane advocate. I feel I have lost an ally and a friend.”

The TAFE community alliance posted on their Facebook page:

“John Kaye was a prodigious intellect, a tireless battler for public education and TAFE…. He used the facts to attack opponents. He did his research and he spoke with passion and commitment. He will be deeply missed by all of us.”

Like his friend the independent journalist, Guardian columnist and author of Disaster Capitalism, Antony Loewenstein, Kaye was Jewish. On Tuesday, Loewenstein sent this message through to New Matilda:

“John was a friend, a trusted, funny, witty and principled man who also happened to be a politician. It’s hard to find that combination especially in an age of opportunistic political leadership. I fondly remember visiting John at his parliament house office over the years to discuss any number of issues. We never had a particular reason to meet except to share ideas, thoughts, and a laugh. Like me, he was appalled at Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and wasn’t afraid to say so. His Judaism didn’t become blind tribalism for the Zionist cause, like for so many Jews.

“He was a politician in New South Wales, and cared deeply about the marginalised and less fortunate in our society, but he knew and understood issues far beyond Australian borders. Since the news of John’s passing, I’ve looked over our email correspondence and it’s filled with humour and affectionate mocking of Judaism and its traditions, passion for human rights and no tolerance for bigotry (from Christians, Jews or anybody else).

“During our dinners and lunches together (often with his partner, Lynne), John would regale me with news and gossip from inside the political beltway and we would laugh at the absurdity of it all, realising that a life in politics should be more than allegiance to dogma. I will miss his wit and dedication and know that Australia is much poorer without his fire and commitment. In my thoughts, John”

John grasped well the importance of the media and was a joy for a journalist to deal with as he understood what a story was and how it depended on sound information and a fresh angle – and when he could grab a moment, he loved ‘a chat’. He was a strong opponent and campaigner against corruption and hidden deals. In recent years he led the Greens parliamentary campaigns against the unhealthy influence of the gambling industries in NSW. When I was investigating the O’Farrell government deal that delivered a second casino to gambling mogul James Packer for New Matilda, Kaye was a strong voice prepared to speak out publicly against the combined power of the major parties and corporate media that supported the casino’s approval. He was offended by the secrecy of the casino deal which, rather than being in the public interest, he saw as being in the interest of the people he called the “big business mates.”

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John Kaye joins fellow Greens MPs at a climate rally las year. (IMAGE: Facebook.)

Jeff Angel of the Total Environment Centre told the ABC that Dr Kaye understood the economics of environmental sustainability. “He was quite unique in bringing that perspective,” Mr Angel said. “He particularly worked on climate change renewable energy, water conservation, these are not just green issues, they’re actually fundamental economic drivers of a sustainable economy.

“Greens often get accused of being economically irresponsible … but you have to engage with the economic argument in order to help win that push for environmental sustainability.”

Fellow Green, friend and journalist Hall Greenland, picked up on Angel’s comment and took it further. “John’s campaigning flowed from an analysis of capitalism which he saw as essentially destructive of the environment and the public good,” Greenland said. “He fought the effects but he was aware of the causes. He was always an eco-socialist avant le mot.”

A strong unionist, John firmly placed himself in the tradition of the 1970s Green Bans which combined community and union action to prevent the destruction of large swathes of inner Sydney including the Rocks, Woolloomooloo, parts of Redfern, Kelly’s Bush, and parts of Centennial Park. In his first speech, he said, “Emblematic of the men and women who created that tradition is [1970s Secretary of the BLF] Jack Mundey. His vision forged new connections between creating a more just and equitable society and protecting the environment. His work gave name and direction to a movement that grew from green bans to the Greens party. It is this tradition that those great people created that the Greens are today committed to making a living reality, both in this Parliament and on the streets.”

John’s own research had been in the area of greenhouse emissions. Long before many others he saw the crucial importance of the issue of climate change in the context of economic exploitation. His first speech continued:

“Now, more than ever before, we need that tradition. For the first time in human history the tragedy of the commons—the overexploitation of that which is publicly held—now threatens the very existence of civilisation. We are in the first decade of the greenhouse century. For at least the next 100 years, if not longer, every decision, every choice and every consequence will be tempered by our impact on the climate, and its impact on us. We cannot duck this reality with the blind faith that we will be rescued by some yet-to-be-proven technology, such as so-called clean coal or supposedly safe nuclear power. They simply may never work. Even if they do, they will be available far too late to avoid disastrous consequences for the climate.

“Pretending that we do not have a problem might well help the coal corporations to continue to make massive profits. Making token gestures to renewable energy while continuing with business as usual might help big parties win elections, but there is now only one way that we can respect our obligations to the future and that is to recognise that the era of carbon-based fuel dependency sooner or later must come to an end.

“This State faces two distinct choices: we can either work together and prepare for a future that takes us beyond fossil fuels, or we can put our heads in the sand and hope that something will turn up. If we ignore the warnings we are risking economic and environmental devastation. It is highly likely that some time in the next 15 years other countries will say to Australia, “We do not want your coal any more.” While Australia has been concentrating on developing ever cheaper and more efficient ways to extract coal, other countries have been putting their productive efforts into developing post-carbon technologies such as renewables and energy efficiency.”

If John was alive and well today, he would have wanted to be in Newcastle supporting this weekend’s anti-fossil fuel climate change direct action at the coal port. Last Sunday, he very likely would have have joined thousands of residents as we rallied and defended hundreds of trees not far from his home in Eastern Sydney. His friends hope that the knowledge that the campaigns he believed in are growing stronger provided some consolation and hope to John in his final days.

Many would agree with how Jamie Parker summed up the loss of John. “We have lost a brave, tireless activist and a wise, fearless mind,” Parker told Parliament. “For the Greens, I can genuinely say we have lost an elder. We have lost a comrade, a colleague, a friend. And the community and this world has lost a champion for renewable energy, for public education and one of the greatest advocates against the privatisation selloffs.”

John is survived by his partner of many yearsLynne Joslyn, a renowned public school biology teacher and environment campaigner, and his family in Melbourne, including his sister Dina and two brothers, Andrew and Stephen. There will be a private funeral but details of a public celebration of his life will be announced soon.

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Wendy Bacon

Wendy Bacon is a contributing editor to New Matilda, an activist, media researcher and blogger at WendyBacon.com. She is on the board of the Pacific Media Centre and a Professorial Fellow at the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism.

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