FOR as long as Greg Piper is its MP, Lake Macquarie will never be a seat of the government.
But neither will he ever be in opposition, with an electorate automatically maligned by the party in power for four years.
It’s the mixed bag of being an independent MP, but at a time when Labor holds most Hunter seats and the Coalition controls Macquarie Street, it’s a role that has an added relevance, as a conduit between the government’s political interests and the region’s needs.
“So that does mean that as long as I play the ball and not the person then typically I do get a pretty good hearing from the government. I can get in, I can speak to the ministers,” he said.
Piper has sat on the very back benches of NSW Parliament since snatching Lake Macquarie from Labor in 2007. He has watched on as Premiers have been rolled or resigned and numerous Hunter colleagues have been replaced, most recently following the Independent Commission Against Corruption’s Operation Spicer inquiry into political donations.
In other words, he’s seen it all.
“I have to say I’m frustrated with the NSW political system, it’s so formulaic. You win government and you basically use your numbers to brutalise the other side. It’s a winner-takes-all system. It’s played out by both sides,” he said.
He likens the major parties to ‘gangs’, and scorns in particular the politicisation of the Community Services ministerial portfolio by both sides.
“The attacks that tend to try and intimate that perhaps that minister doesn’t care, that that minister didn’t do enough [to protect neglected and abused children]. Well that’s unfair. I’ve never seen a minister who doesn’t care about kids in those circumstances,” he said.
Does that gloomy outlook make him a cynic or an idealist?
“I’m a realist. I know that as people get elected they come into a system, that’s the culture.”
Yet he holds out hope that Premier Mike Baird-“probably one of the most significant leaders that NSW has had for many years”- may use some of his political capital to reform the system and give the opposition “more genuine opportunity to ask questions and actually hold government to account”.
Piper’s path to politics is a distinct one. He grew up in Kahibah and went to high school at Adamstown’s St Pius X, then a Catholic boys school that is now infamous for the callous abuse and corporal punishment meted out to many students by some priests.
“It was a brutal school in many ways but I have to say I was really shocked and quite disturbed later to hear of it being really at the epicentre of the sexual abuse,” he said.
“I don’t want to go into that too much but I’m so angry, so angry about what happened out of that school and out of this region [with] the Catholic Church.”
The area at the time was dynamic as growth brought about change.
Piper got a job at Morisset hospital as a psychiatric nurse, working with patients who had varieties of schizophrenia, bipolar, depressive illnesses, dementia, and people with problems from long-term alcohol or drug abuse.
“I put myself in a holding pattern, just earn some money while I was waiting to do something else.
“When I got down there I found that I quite enjoyed it. The income was good at the time. It’s like anything else, you turn the page expecting something to happen, and something else happens.”
He stayed instead for about 25 years, although left on two occasions to work for himself and a Newcastle computer supply company.
“In some ways mental health and developmental disability particularly of the types of clientele that we had at that time was quite confronting,” he said.
“But really you were looking after people’s health and managing them.”
“We weren’t talking about people with acute reactive illnesses. They were quite chronic a lot of the people there. It was really about just helping them get through their life. That was their home for many of them, many of them had been there for many years. You get to know them, you form bonds with them in that situation.”
He still recalls the challenges and frustrations of only being able to make seemingly marginal improvements to their skills.
“You have to realise that what they’re going to get out of life are going to be different to other people in the community and even the smallest additional skill can be a huge thing for somebody with a developmental disability,” he said.
His says his background taught him to try not to be judgmental.
“What I learnt through my nursing is that on a given day there’s a whole host of things that can be affecting someone’s emotional situation and the way they’re thinking.
“It might be that they’ve had a bad night the night before. Maybe they’ve got sick children, maybe they’re sick. Maybe they haven’t been sleeping. Maybe there’s a break up in the family. There’s something happening in their life and they just need to be heard. And they can’t be heard so they’re frustrated with that.”
“…I’m a pretty good listener. And after they’ve vented, you can try and help them. You can sort it.”
It is independent MPs who have made the biggest difference in NSW politics, he says.
“I’ll tell you the names that people might remember- and I don’t put myself in this category. But they will remember names such as Ted Mack, John Hatton, Peter Macdonald, Clover Moore. And even more recently, Tony Windsor, Rob Oakeshott. Whether they like them or not, they remember them and there’s a reason for that.”
Whether he stands again for Lake Macquarie is something about which “I truly have not made up my mind. “It’s something that [wife] Lyn and I have to think about. I don’t think I’m old enough to retire. I think that I still have something to give to the community. But whether it’s [through parliament] I’m not sure.”
“There’s always something to fix or something that could be improved,” he said.