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Speech: Irene Doutney

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 18 Aug 2015

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (22:19):

Irene Doutney, a Greens councillor on Sydney city council, has made a major contribution to progressive policies of that city, that council and the rich activist life of inner Sydney. At the Greens' preselection meetings in early 2008 Irene felt she was an unlikely candidate. She was new to public speaking. Many of us that know Irene regard her nomination for preselection as one of her many courageous acts. Although she was relatively new to the Greens when she was preselected, members recognised her strength and authenticity as a community advocate. Irene was surprised to be preselected as second on the Greens ticket for 2008. Then she was thrilled to be successfully elected to the City of Sydney in September of that year. She was subsequently elected again in 2012.

Since her election, Irene has been a tireless advocate for disadvantaged people in the inner city. She is well known in the community for her work supporting public housing tenants, including in their fight for basic maintenance and safety work. With Irene's assistance public housing tenants have successfully challenged Housing NSW on maintenance issues in the Consumer, Trader and Tenancy Tribunal. As a public housing tenant herself, Irene understands the positive impact that public housing can bring to people's lives. Irene challenges the notion that those receiving basic support services should be passive recipients. She values the diversity that these services bring to inner-city communities.

Irene's political journey began in the 1970s at an anti-war sit-in protest on George Street in front of Sydney's city council. It was in front of that town hall where she started her political work and it was almost 40 years later that she would take office inside that town hall as a city councillor. The challenges that she endured in these decades made her an unlikely political aspirant while she was also an effective political activist.

In Irene's early work she was confronted with the loss of her father at the age of nine and her mother at the age of 16. Irene has battled depression since the age of 12. Her journey with depression led her to a number of psychiatric units, where in the 1970s she was introduced to narcotics. Although depression dominated many years of her life, she managed to complete her tertiary studies at the University of Sydney and worked in Sydney's arts and theatre scene in the 1970s and 1980s. Irene would spend the latter half of the 1980s in a long struggle with addiction, which she conquered after her fifth attempt on a methadone program. Irene also survived abuse by a treating psychiatrist and several years in a violent relationship.

In 1996, after 11 years on the waiting list, Irene received a public housing tenancy in a Redfern unit. Although Irene's struggle with mental health would continue, this move would have a big impact on her life. After moving into her Redfern flat, Irene became part of a nursing team that cared for a friend who was dying of AIDS. She contributed three days per week, coordinating with three other carers. Not long after this, Irene entered another period of severe depression, which took her to the end of the 1990s. In the early 2000s, Irene began to find her feet as a community activist. She became active in several Redfern-based community organisations and was elected as a tenant representative of her building, liaising with Housing New South Wales over various issues.

Since joining the Greens in 2006, Irene has been active on a large number of committees and working groups in our party. Her commitment to an inclusive city has seen her champion the rights of people with disabilities, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, the LGBTI community, refugees, older people and Sydney's homeless. She has led campaigns against the culling or removal of native animals in the city and has supported local volunteers who care for abandoned domestic animals. As someone who understands firsthand the benefits of public housing, Irene is a tireless supporter of the Millers Point tenants who are fighting the New South Wales government to remain in their own homes. One of Irene's favourite topics is explaining that, if Sydney is to remain a diverse and inclusive city, it is critical that public housing has a strong presence.

In 2012, during the New South Wales local government elections, Irene was forced to make public some of the details of her past, due to a smear campaign that was being planned by political opponents. By placing her story on the public record, Irene hoped not only to disarm her opponents but also to demonstrate to those who are facing hardship that a better future is possible. It took great courage to speak so openly about her own difficulties. Irene has told me how overwhelmed she is at the positive response. This courage and determination to overcome adversity is what makes Irene so effective as a councillor and a community activist. In 2014, after a period of illness, Irene was diagnosed with inoperable cancer. Despite this significant setback, she has vowed to serve her term on council and continues to advocate for an inclusive, sustainable and diverse city and work just as hard as she always has. Thank you, Irene, for your outstanding community work and friendship.


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