Breaking bread with Greg Piper

2nd June 2018

Source: Newcastle Herald | By: Scott Bevan | Posted: June 2, 2018

FROM his seat, he has a water view, but Greg Piper is concentrating on the menu at Hughzies’ Lakeside Brasserie in Toronto. Perhaps he is looking for a dish involving kangaroo. But no, he orders crumbed lamb cutlets.

“I’m a kangaroo king, but I don’t eat it,” declares Piper. “Well I don’t not eat it; it doesn’t normally hop onto my plate, so to speak.”  

Anyway, the state Member for Lake Macquarie has had his fill of kangaroo.

Piper has been speaking a lot recently about the kangaroos in the grounds of Morisset Hospital. The roos have become a major tourist attraction, but they can also be a hazard. Visitors have been attacked. Piper raised the issue in parliament and made a video for his website.

As a result, it wasn’t just Morisset’s kangaroos ending up in the spotlight. Piper’s video has had almost 50,000 views, and the parliamentarian has done interviews with media outlets around the globe.  

“I really thought I’d get some local interest, but the international interest has been crazy,” he says.

Those hospital grounds that have been the scene of so much tourist and media interest is somewhere Greg Piper knows very well.

Piper worked at the hospital for more than two decades, and it was where he set off on his journey from psychiatric nurse to politician.

BORN in 1957, Greg Piper spent his first few years in Coffs Harbour, before the family moved to Newcastle. Beyond their backyard in Charlestown was Flaggy Creek and a bush wonderland, where Greg, his older sister and older brother and their friends would play.

“We spent all of our time in the bush in those early years, and so much bush to explore, like the 100-acre wood in Winnie the Pooh; we had our patch and we knew every bit of it,” Piper recalls.

The freedom found in the bush felt distant from the Catholic school education that Greg Piper received. The former St Pius X high school pupil is scathing of the religious system he grew up under. As a student, Piper had no idea of sexual abuse occurring in the diocese.

But, he says, “I’m very angry with the established Catholic Church – not with Catholics - who have failed dismally. They still, in my mind, have not done enough to address the damage they did through that very, very black period.”

From his school experience, Piper feels that among the priests and lay teachers were those who were “dispassionate and quite cruel in the way in which they approached discipline … corporal punishment was seen as some kind of an art form”.  

“I rebelled against the hierarchy or the system there. I tend to think it’s because I didn’t respect them. I think I understood the principles of the teaching of Christ … and I think I came to the conclusion this was not what Christ was about.”

That experience “shook my faith”. Piper says he is no longer a Catholic; “Am I Christian? No. Am I religious? No.”

When Piper finished school, the keen surfer (“Redhead became my home break”) thought about chasing waves up the coast but instead worked at the BHP steelworks for a year. He was a labourer, “a fitter’s mate in the coke ovens”.

“As a young bloke, it exposed me to the union movement - I was in the FIA, the Federated Ironworkers’ Association - in a highly charged environment in the workplace there at the time. We spent a lot of time on strike.”

Piper saw his future not in the steelworks but as a pathology technician. So, as a “holding pattern”, he took a nursing job at Morisset Hospital. He would work at the mental health facility for about 26 years. 

That career continues to shape Piper’s observations of how the community approaches the issue of mental health. 

“As a society we are getting better at it,” he says. “We’re more understanding. I recall in my early days of nursing, it was still common place for people to be derided, to get the derogatory terms.

“I went into nursing because it was an opportunity to earn a pretty good living, get some training. Then you start to learn about what you’re doing, and who these people are. And they are people, they’re human beings who have been dealt a rotten hand in life often. There but for the roll of the dice goes anyone of us. And there’s no reason to disrespect them.”  

Piper met his future wife, Lyn, at Morisset. She was a fellow nurse. They’ve been together for almost 40 years and have two sons. Piper has another son from a brief earlier marriage. 

As well as being “a great support”, Lyn is “a good nurse, a better nurse than me”. Asked what makes a good nurse, Piper replies, “Empathy”.

“A nurse who has empathy and kindness, they’re going to make all the difference.”

Piper hopes being empathetic is something he’s carried as a politician, “but I’m sure there are people who believe I’m not! Sometimes there are issues that I just can’t help people with. That’s the reality.”

Working at Morisset Hospital also introduced Greg Piper to politics: “There was no grand design. Pre-1989, I had no inkling or view that I’d go into any kind of local government, state government.”

Piper had become involved in union activity at the hospital and was fighting facility closures and job cuts. Piper argued that the site itself should also be fought for – “nobody was talking about that this was a really important piece of bushland, and it had a historic role in the local area”. So at a protest rally, he stood on the back of a truck with a loudspeaker, “like an old-school politician; never done it before”.

In the crowd was local environmental campaigner Leif Lemke, who was fighting to stop a road being cut through bushland on nearby Wangi Point. Lemke enlisted Piper to his cause, and then to stand as a candidate as part of the environmental community group in the 1991 council elections. Piper “fell over the line … I surprised myself and surprised a lot of people”.

For then Alderman Piper, there was no shortage of environmental issues in the Lake Macquarie council area. Problems from urban development, land clearing and erosion were literally pouring into the lake and sullying its future. It had become, Piper says, “close to [being] a dead lake, atrophied”. The long campaign to remediate the lake, and to improve people’s attitudes towards caring for it, is what Piper is most proud of during his time in council.

Piper was in Lake Macquarie City Council until 2012. From 2004, he was the mayor. As if that wasn’t demanding enough, he held not just that political role but another for about five years, as the state member for Lake Macquarie. While it was “hard pedalling” doing two jobs at once, Piper says the pairing worked well, because “here I am the Mayor of Lake Macquarie, sitting in the parliament, raising the name ‘Lake Macquarie’. I could just bang that drum.”

And what did his wife think of that crowded time, rarely seeing her husband?

“She’s stoic, mate.” 

Piper’s move towards Macquarie Street had come in 2006, when there was talk of an open-cut coal mine being developed on the western side of Lake Macquarie and there was anger the Labor government hadn’t ruled it out. Piper was approached by locals to run against the Labor member for Lake Macquarie in the following year’s state election. 

“Why do I want to do this?,” Piper thought at the time. “My life’s pretty good at the moment. I’m the Mayor of one of the biggest councils in Australia … and I’ve got a fair bit on my plate. Why would I want to do this?

“Reluctantly I agreed. Because elections are tough. They knock me around, they knock my wife around. They’re emotionally draining. We ended up winning by 106 votes.”

Piper had seized what had been a safe Labor seat for more than half a century. Just as he was in council, he was an Independent. While he describes himself as left-leaning and socially progressive, and he’d had dealings with the union movement, Piper didn’t join the ALP, or any other political party. 

“I just decided I couldn’t be part of that, and I would survive or wither based on my own position,” he says, dismissing the argument that you need to be in a party to secure wins for your electorate. “This thing of having to be in a party is just a nonsense. The bottom line is if I’m in a political party, I’m going to spend half my time in the wilderness [in the opposition].”

In parliament, Piper has talked passionately about palliative care. It is an issue that touches his past as a nurse, and his heart. His brother, Colin, died from liver cancer, aged just 31. The passage of more than three decades has not diminished that painful loss for the little brother. 

“It was a time, particularly when he got ill, that we became very close,” says Greg, who was 25 when his brother died. “It was a really pretty awful death, very rapid. 

“The palliative care issue for me, it was more about reflecting on later when I thought back about people I’d cared for [as a nurse], and the fact that our system really didn’t allow for what I would consider to be a good death. It wasn’t disrespectful, it was just matter-of-fact, it was a medical model of passing.

“It’s not what death’s about. It shouldn’t be what death’s about. Death should be about making that person feel respected to the end.”

For Colin, Greg was there to the end.

“My brother, he died in my arms.”

Greg Piper intends to stand again at the next state election: “Absolutely. I’ve got nothing left to prove, but what I’ve got to offer is a lot of experience.” The next election, he forecasts, will be close, and “if we’ve got a minority government of either persuasion, I think I’ve got something to offer”. 

What’s more, Piper says, he wants to keep fighting for the health of the lake and those who live by it. As the population grows in the electorate, he says the lake’s biggest threat is “complacency”.

“I’ve always said, particularly when I was mayor, we want to make sure this is a place where people want to live, not where they have to live,” Greg Piper asserts. 

“I want us to continue to look after this place, because it’s beautiful.”

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