Mark Graham
Tue, January 3, 2012 at 15:13
Stephanie Hunt in Coffs Coast, Coffs Harbour, Interesting, Interesting Person, Jesse Taylor, Mark Graham, Shelley Townshend, The Most Interesting Person I Know

Jesse Taylor tells me that Mark Graham is the most interesting person he has met in Coffs.  He's on the Coffs City Council explains Jesse, but that's not what makes him interesting. Jesse tries to explain what makes Mark different.  "If you gave him a fist full of leaves he could name all the trees they came from."  OK, I'm getting the idea, he must be a botanist or an ecologist or a greenie....

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It Isn't Easy Being Green

By the time I meet Mark Graham in the Coffs Harbour Botanical Gardens I have googled him and discovered that he is indeed an ecologist, and his "Green" platform has made him a very controversial member of the Coffs Harbour City Council.  I've prepared myself for a tree-hugging extremist complete with soapbox.  But it is a cheerful young man dressed casually in an open collar shirt that waves to me from the gates and ambles over to shake my hand.  As we wander amongst the tropical trees Mark talks about his love of the Gardens and his attachment to the Coffs region.  "My parents gave me a sense of the land.  They would often take my sister and I off into the bush.  It's an amazing landscape to be brought up in because there's so much of interest and inspiration.

Now 35, Mark's family moved to the Coffs area when he was 4 years old and he has spent most of the ensuing years deepening his relationship with this land.  After receiving an Applied Science degree from SCU Lismore he spent more than a decade researching and learning from the north coast environment.  From endangered frog research in the Tweed Valley, to conservation assessments and wetlands work for National Parks in Coffs to being the Manager of Natural Resources of the Coffs Harbour City Council Mark has dedicated his career to the land.

Then just over three years ago Mark stood for election to council and everything changed.

He says it was his desire to give back to the community that motivated him to run.  And at last the soapbox comes out.  "There are a lot of signs that coastal sprawl and unsustainable developments are causing a decline in our quality of life.  The creek here is polluted, our roads are getting busy, we don't have a functional public transport network," he rails.  He became a member of the Greens Party and ran for councilor and for mayor.  "I had a huge vote," Mark recalls.  "I almost became the mayor.  I was just pipped at the post."

But while Mark found many backers in the community he has found few friends in Council.  "I'm very alone," says Mark.  "My visions and my approach are quite different to my fellow councilors."  His isolation has put Mark on the losing side of most Council battles.  He sites Beacon Hill as an example.  "We're about to spend $50000 clearing the rainforest from the top of Beacon Hill.  It's an area with one of the rarest types of rainforest in the world and we're spending Council money to bulldoze it."  He looks frustrated.

Although he acknowledges that yes he does get frustrated, he remains defiant.  "I've got a pretty thick skin and I'm a lot younger than my fellow councillors......so I'll keep forging on."  I ask him if this means his strategy is to wait for his fellow councillors to retire.  Not quite, but he hopes that if he stays on message and works to educate and empower the community that his position will gain political traction.

Where he most needs political traction at the moment is in his fight against the open cut mines proposed for the Orara and Nymboida Valleys.   "A couple of those mines have a heap of toxins in the ore bodies - mercury, arsenic, lead.  In an area that has the highest rainfall in the state...I'm fearful for the implicatons for our drinking water supply."  But he's being thwarted here too.  "I moved a motion seeking Council to express opposition to the mines, but sadly Council moved to delay pending more information."  More frustration.

Yet he keeps bouncing back.  He's not sure if he'll run for mayor again at the next election but he does intend to vie for a State or Commonwealth seat.  "At this stage it's not imminent, but I'd like to stand for higher office and there's a fair bit of support to do that."  Mark's remains enthusiastic about the potential to change the world from within the political system.  This despite the fact that he found the last campaign "gruelling" and then discovered that political participation "tainted" him for the government contracts that had been his bread and butter.  "Sadly, once you are an elected representative opportunities dry up...political baggage causes alot of trouble."  Mark had underestimated the impact of his political ambitions on his professional options and he and his partner Gerry faced some tough times financially for his first 18 months in Council. 

Fortunately he has found a three-year contract with the Hot Spots program that really excites him.  Funded by the Rural Fire Service and the Nature Conservation Council, the program runs workshops, does research and educates landowners with a view to reducing fire risk and protecting biodiversity.  Mark says it's pretty close to a dream job and it does distract him from his work in Council which may have fellow Councilors sighing with relief.

But it doesn't seem to matter whether Mark is in the Council office full time or part time, his confident, unbending approach does not go down well with fellow councillors.  "It's highly adversarial, very aggressive," says Mark. "And primarily the aggression is aimed toward me."  As a result he remains a lone wolf, able to make a lot of noise, but not a lot of difference.  Yet Mark remains fixed on his goals: some would say 'stubborn', others 'committed'.

For those in Council who despair of ever softening Mark's views, the pending birth of he and Gerry's first child may just offer up a glimmer of hope.  "I was an avowed non-breeder for sustainability reasons," Mark explains.  "Then bit by bit I guess I shifted my outlook.  We're in the third trimester now and it's been a beautiful experience for both of us."  But even the joy of welcoming his first-born is somewhat shadowed by harsh political realities.  I ask Mark how fatherhood may affect his career and his answer is telling.  "I don't want to speak about it too publicly because my political adversaries may use it against me."

Whether or not you agree with Mark's policies it's hard not to admire the courage of his convictions.  There aren't many of us who genuinely fight for what we believe in.  It's not that we don't care and it's certainly not that we don't have opinions.  It's just that....well we're busy, we don't really want to rock the boat.  Mark Graham has fought innumerable battles, struggled financially, made many enemies and scored very few wins.  Being 'Green' has been anything but easy for Mark and yet he soldiers on, certain that he is right and confident that the world will eventually see things his way.  Right or wrong, better or worse, it is people like Mark Graham that change the world.

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Mark Graham says that the most interesting person he knows on the Coffs Coast is Dr. Sally Townley.  It’s the remarkable breadth of Sally’s interests and experiences that Mark finds fascinating.  “She is one of Australia’s foremost native rodent experts, a brilliant circus performer, a tireless worker in the bush…..”  His list continues but I’m not listening anymore.  I’m busy trying to set up a time to meet this amazing woman.

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