Jan Bowman

Jan Bowman

Citizen journalist at No Fibs
Jan lives in Brisbane's West End. She began writing as a citizen journalist for No Fibs during the 2013 federal election, covering her electorate of Griffith. She has been a regular writer for The Westender for ten years and was editor from 2019 until January 2024. She has been active with local community groups and with her trade union.
Jan Bowman

COUNCIL ELECTIONS ARE typically overlooked by national news outlets, but Brisbane Council elections stand out, largely owing to the city’s distinctive political landscape.

The Brisbane City Council, Australia’s largest, serves 1.25 million residents across 190 suburbs with a $4 billion annual budget. Currently, the Liberal National Party (LNP) controls 19 of 26 wards, while Labor holds five, with one each for the Greens and an independent. A ward in Brisbane Council can be as large as an entire council in other cities.

Jonathan Sriranganathan’s 2016 victory in the Gabba Ward sparked the Greens’ urban rise in Brisbane, and despite being labelled an anarchist, radical, and polarising figure, he retained his seat in 2020 with a significant swing his way.

Then, in 2017, Michael Berkman became the first Greens member elected to a state government seat. He won again in 2021 and was joined in State Parliament by Amy MacMahon, who defeated the politically wounded former deputy premier, Jackie Trad, the Greens secured significant gains in the 2022 federal election, winning three inner-city seats and a second Queensland senate seat.

The wins in the traditional Labor strongholds and intersecting electorates of Gabba Ward, South Brisbane, and Griffith, previously held by a Labor mayor, a Labor premier, and a Labor prime minister, have unsettled the Labor Party. Their animosity towards the Greens runs deep.

Sriranganathan’s departure and mayoral candidacy

Sriranganathan stepped down from the Gabba Ward in 2023, succeeded by Trina Massey. He announced his mayoral candidacy later that year, with a vision for participatory budgeting and collaborative planning.

The costs of living, the housing crisis, and the 2032 Olympics are intersecting issues in the coming election. The Greens have been actively campaigning on all fronts and across the three levels of government. They have run a concerted campaign against the $2.7 Million Gabba Stadium rebuild for the Olympics. They are claiming responsibility for the recent pause and review initiated by the state government led by new premier Steven Miles.


Sriranganathan met me in his home – a houseboat moored on Norman Creek – for this conversation where he fleshes out his vision and prospects in the election.

You can listen to the interview here:

Birds of change: the symbolism behind Sriranganathan’s mayoral campaign

Sriranganathan has chosen the Ibis and the Bush Turkey as symbols for his mayoral campaign. 

He says despite being under appreciated by locals, these birds thrive and carve out space for themselves in hostile landscapes. He says he identifies with the birds’ ability to adapt and find agency from below, challenging established norms and structures. 

“I liked that idea of the denizens of the city taking agency from below – the Bush Turkeys always liked landscaping and subverting the will of gardeners and the Ibis is finding scraps in bins and abandoned plates, so you know, there’s all these themes of, recycling and adaptability and tactical urbanism. These birds are the original adapters and I liked that they’re kind of subversive and often sticking it to the man a little bit.

They’re a threat to the order of things. They’re continually defying the rigid strictures that people are trying to place on how landscapes should be structured.”

The Greens’ approach to Brisbane’s council elections

It has often been surprising to some that the Greens’ most prominent elected representative, certainly until the election of Max Chandler-Mather in Griffith, has stuck with local government.

But Sriranganathan has often commented on what he calls the radical potential of local government, arguing that local councils wield significant power in promoting positive change and shaping political discourse on social justice, environmental sustainability, and systemic issues by advocating for public transport and public housing and using its platform to amplify marginalised voices.

“You’ll often see examples of premiers and ministers who use the statements of the mayor of a region as a proxy for what the people want. So, they don’t actually have the time or skills or interest in talking to people directly. They just say, ‘What does Brisbane want?’, ‘Well, the Mayor says Brisbane wants this; I guess that’s what Brisbane wants,’ and that’s kind of how we ended up with the Olympics.”

Sriranganathan says several policy levers are at the disposal of councils, including their substantial budgets, power to set rates, and authority over zoning. He argues for strategically using these levers to drive positive change and shape political discourse. 

“If a Greens administration seized those levers, and rather than arguing for toll tunnels and stadiums, we started arguing for public transport and public housing, that would have a big impact on the people who live in the city but also on higher levels of government.”

Sriranganathan says he has drawn inspiration from the mayors of Barcelona and Paris, “who are embarking on massive social housing projects. Paris city council is building public housing and they’re not waiting for higher levels of government to do it.”

Democratising decision making

Sriranganathan envisions democratising decision-making processes in Brisbane but admits it won’t be easy.

“It will be a difficult process because right now, so many people are very accustomed to treating the government as the sole power holder, and so they focus lobbying and advocacy on decision-makers. It’s almost like the elected representative, or the council as a whole is the umpire and people are appealing to the umpire to decide in their favour. 

So, what we actually have to promote is a cultural shift where people realise that they don’t just have to convince the politician any more, they have to convince their neighbours. And that means strengthening skills of collaboration and listening and cooperation and negotiation, which a lot of people aren’t actually very practised at, sadly.”

At the administrative level, Sriranganathan says council could experiment with various inclusive processes, such as community meetings, online voting, citizen juries, and selecting neighbourhood delegates. He says the approach will be iterative, learning from other cities’ experiences and adapting accordingly. While Switzerland’s majoritarian plebiscites offer one model, he says the Greens favour consensus-based decision-making, aiming for broad agreement rather than a simple majority. The focus is on engaging citizens effectively and promoting inclusive governance practices.

Asked how he will find a way to express the city’s aspirations while working practically with the different levels or different groups of people and different levels of government to achieve tangible outcomes, Sriranganathan emphasises the importance of facilitating constructive dialogue and community conversations on significant issues, whether it’s regarding hosting the Olympics or making public commentary about international affairs like Palestine. He advocates for leaders to create space for diverse voices and opinions before taking firm stances. 

Despite Brisbane’s size and political dynamics, where the Mayor can function as a significant opposition leader to the state government, there is still room for moral leadership and broader signalling to the community beyond just service provision. 

He cites the debate over the Gabba Stadium, where political clout and community sentiment influenced decision-making. His approach seeks to balance expressing the city’s aspirations with practical collaboration among diverse groups and levels of government to achieve tangible outcomes.

“I think there’s a lot of scope there to show moral leadership and to send broader signals to the community rather than just being reduced to the role of the service provider.”

Brisbane City Council is a large council, and most other city councils are only responsible for the inner city. Sriranganathan says that while there may appear to be conflicting needs between Brisbane’s inner city and suburban areas, the deeper tensions lie more in issues related to wealth, race, and lived experiences rather than purely spatial considerations. 

“Someone living out in the burbs their travel patterns and their lifestyle might be a little bit different to someone living in a city. But a renter living in West End has a lot in common with a renter who’s living out in Kenmore or he’s living down at Calamvale. And a lot of the issues that people are most deeply grappling with in Brisbane, including housing justice and public transport accessibility are problems across the city.”

Labor’s campaign 

Sriranganathan suggests that the Labor Party’s low involvement in the Brisbane City Council election may indicate a strategic preference for having the LNP in control. While having another party to share blame with and creating constructive tension might serve some purposes, he believes it’s detrimental to Labor’s interests. 

He perceives Labor’s failure to allocate resources to contest the council campaign effectively as a strategic error. 

He says he hears of frustration from some Labor councillors that state Labor has yet to introduce compulsory preferential voting at the council level to stop splitting the left vote, as it did for state elections in 2014.

“They wouldn’t even make this basic change to the voting system.”

Sriranganathan’s reception on the mayoral campaign trail

Sriranganathan reflects on his reception in wards outside his known support base during the mayoral campaign. He describes the response as mixed, with some residents unaware of him or the Greens’ presence in local politics. However, he notes that others have shown enthusiasm, due to his public profile and engagement with community concerns.

Surprisingly, he says he hasn’t encountered as much hostile resistance as expected. 

“There hasn’t actually been as much hostile resistance or pushback as I thought. And there have been some really strong pockets of support. For example, in the outer southern suburbs, a lot of migrant voters who are really swinging towards the Greens and are really excited to support me, which has been really kind of reassuring and humbling.”

Sriranganathan attributes the Greens’ success in the Gabba Ward and in other elections to several factors, including bold policy positions that reject incremental reformism and advocate for a larger share of development profits. He also credits a sophisticated approach to field campaigning and community organising, building solid relationships with local community groups and activists. He believes his visibility and ability to address practical issues contributed to the swing to the Greens in the Gabba in 2020.

While he acknowledges a potentially more robust Labor campaign in this election, he believes there is not a strong mood for change against the Greens, with some voters still frustrated with state and federal Labor. Overall, he anticipates any swing against Massey will be marginal and insufficient for Labor to reclaim the seat.

Winning not the only measure of success

As to his own chances of secure the Mayorship, Sriranganathan says, 

“We’ve definitely got a chance if there’s a big swing on, and it’s not like anyone’s particularly excited about Labor and the LNP.

The one thing that’s really working against us is optional preferential voting because we don’t just need to win a big swing; we need a huge swing in order to have enough of a buffer for when people forget to number every box.”

Optional preferential voting to elect mayors and councillors in Queensland local government elections is the main barrier to both Labor and the Greens winning seats in the March election.

In the coming council election, the LNP is urging voters to just vote one for the LNP, but to have any chance in this election, both Labor and the Greens will be relying on preference votes.

The LNP has run a clever campaign against both parties, warning of an alliance between the Greens and Labor, branding them a ‘coalition of chaos.’ Labor continues to fob off any claims that they will work with the Greens in council, saying they aim to achieve a majority in their own right. That means Labor needs to hold its current five wards and win a further eight. A big ask. In his ABC election guide, Antony Green notes that “apart from one defection, the LNP hasn’t lost a ward since Campbell Newman was first elected Lord Mayor in 2004.”

Sriranganathan dismisses the fear campaign

“I don’t think the ‘coalition of chaos’ line is particularly resonant for swing voters because they can see who’s saying it and they can see the Liberals motivations, but also half of Brisbane now has a federal Greens MP. There are 400,000 Brisbane voters who’ve got a federal Greens MP and the city hasn’t caught fire… a lot of people have seen the Greens in action and we’re not as chaotic as the Liberals seem to be suggesting. We can also point to examples like the ACT where there has been a Greens/Labor coalition government for a long time, and the ACT is doing pretty well. So yes, I don’t think the people’s lived experiences or the evidence on the ground backs up the narrative the Liberals are trying to push.”

But Sriranganathan has not softened his approach over the years, often leading and organising protests on issues such as first nations and refugee rights, the climate emergency, and Palestine. The day before we met, he had led a rally against the eviction of a renter from the property she had lived in for over twenty years.

“In my first term as Councillor, the media was really hard on me, partly because I was the only Green around. But then we won again, with such a big swing, that it was no longer credible for media and political commentators to say, ‘this guy is a loony, who doesn’t have any support in the community on the ground.’ We had so much support in the community and on the ground. So that successful re-election in 2020, I think forced the political commentariat to take me more seriously, which in turn, meant that I got a slightly fairer hearing on some issues. I don’t necessarily think I’ve changed a lot in that respect. If anything, I’m much more critical of the colonial nation state and I’ve shifted over the last seven years from thinking that our governance systems can be reformed to thinking that they need to be completely transformed.”

Sriranganathan has used his media appeal in this campaign to promote a comprehensive policy agenda and raise the Greens candidates’ profile.

“I don’t think Schrinner is hated in the way that Scott Morrison was, but we’ve benefited from a lot more media coverage than any Greens local council campaign before and I’ve certainly got a bit of a bigger profile than any previous [Greens] mayoral candidate. So, we’ll see in four or five weeks what that translates to.

I measure my effectiveness not just on whether I win a seat or how many votes we swing, but whether the ideas I’m advocating are gaining wider currency, and they certainly are, and that’s been a key goal of mine, to deepen political education and get people to think more critically about systems and that feels really positive.”


Cover image by Jan Bowman

A word from Margo: Jan Bowman, then a veterans affairs public servant, dipped her toe into citizen journalism at the 2013 federal election in response to my request for volunteers to report on the seat where they lived. She set the scene in the Brisbane seat of Griffith before Kevin Rudd won back the leadership, then polling showed he might be in danger of losing a la John Howard. 

She covered the 2014 by-election when Rudd resigned from Parliament, then became a community reporter for Brisbane ABC radio’s experiment in the No Fibs outsider-in tradition while occasionally writing for us and for the local paper the Westender, before editing the paper until her recent retirement. Jan wrote a piece for us last election correctly predicting a Greens win by Max Chandler-Mather.

So I’m thrilled to republish Jan’s retirement piece for Westender and I look forward to interviewing her on her CJ journey for No Fibs’ first 2024 podcast.