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Vale Dr Paul Mees - Adjournment speech

Speeches in Parliament
Penny Wright 26 Jun 2013

Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (23:11): I rise tonight to remember and to pay tribute to Dr Paul Mees, who died last week on 19 June 2013 at the age of 52. Paul was a remarkable Australian and he was also a friend of mine. As a tireless champion of sustainable transport planning, he will be greatly missed by many. There are people all over Australia and internationally who are mourning his untimely death.

Paul made a lifelong contribution to the field of public transport and urban planning, building on a passion that he developed from a young age to become a renowned academic, thinker and, crucially, an activist. I first met Paul in 1979 when we were both first-year students at Melbourne University. He went on to graduate with an honours degree in law and arts and practised as an industrial lawyer for some years. But it did not take long for his passion for public transport planning, originally from a strong social justice, and  increasingly from an environmental perspective, called to him and he completed a doctorate in urban transport planning, back at Melbourne University in 1997.

Paul's doctoral research compared the relative success of Toronto's public transport system with that of Melbourne and found Melbourne greatly wanting despite the physical and demographic similarities of the two cities. His dissertation was published in 2000 as the book A Very Public Solution: Transport in the Dispersed City and is a seminal work in the area.

Paul went on to teach urban planning at Melbourne University, attracting affection and respect as a stimulating and inspiring lecturer and mentor for many of his students. Paul's standing as an academic grew, with his analyses of transport problems in Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra and Adelaide; his articles; and his subsequent book, Transport for Suburbia: Beyond the Automobile Age, published in 2009.

Paul also developed an international reputation. His work provided the basis for the European Union's 2005 HiTrans project on improving public transport in medium-sized cities and towns. And he was also a member of the international advisory council for Paris's new Mobility Agenda project.

Despite his notable academic work, Paul was a campaigner at heart. He was the president of the Victorian Public Transport Users Association from 1992 until 2001. During that time he became Victoria's most recognised "go-to" person on all matters public transport. It was his fearless advocacy for good transport planning, often in the face of concerted opposition from powerful vested interests, that endeared to him to many and also made him unpopular in other circles.

It has been said of Paul in an Age newspaper article that for more than two decades he repeatedly embarrassed Victorian transport operators and authorities with his research and commentary on the state's road, rail and urban planning systems.

In the late 1990s, Paul questioned the legality of aspects of the largest urban infrastructure project in Australia's history, the CityLink tollway system in Melbourne, in a legal case that ended up going all the way to the High Court and predicted the subsequent ongoing million dollar compensation claim from Transurban against the Victorian government. He pointed out that if you privatise the road system, the private operators will, in general, demand to be protected against revenue risks such as improvements to the road system or improvements to the public transport system, effectively tying the hands of future governments on transport policy for decades and decades to come.

In 2008, Paul was at the centre of a very public dispute over academic independence, when Melbourne university, his employer of 10 years, took action against him on the basis of public remarks he had made about the Victorian government transport officials, casting doubt on their honesty and competence. The Victorian government lodged a complaint against him and it came to light that the university had been concerned about their relations with the government. An investigation dismissed the university's complaints against him, but he resigned and joined RMIT university later that year. He was appointed associate professor in 2012.

Despite battling cancer for over a year, Paul was still active in pursuing his vision for excellent public transport planning up until his death. As recently as six weeks ago, he spoke to the 7:30 Report about the Napthine government's proposed East-West tunnel, arguing there was little substantial research behind the six to eight billion dollar project and citing evidence from around the world that, as a city gets bigger and bigger, you have to prioritise rail and public transport. As noted by Matthew Burke, senior research fellow at Griffith University, Paul was a brave researcher, frank and fearless. He was not afraid to shine spotlights in dark corners or even to question what our community perceived as good policy and practice. All of this information about Dr Paul Mees is on the public record.

I will now take a minute to share a little of the other side of Paul Mees, the quirky, funny, extremely moral man that his friends knew and loved. From our first meeting over 30 years ago, I was struck by Paul's wit, humour and idiosyncratic manner. He was, and remained, unconventional, resolutely unswayed by fashion. This was reflected in his dress sense. He was famous for always wearing skivvies, even as a university student in the 1970s and 1980s. This was reflected in his tastes, even at 18 preferring Scott Joplin and Bach to ACDC and Talking Heads. It was reflected in his ideas. He was always searching for the truth as he saw it, no matter how unpopular.

Paul was a remarkably talented debater and together with the other members of our Melbourne uni debating team, Rod Saunders and Robert Chappell, we shared some of the funniest, most intellectually stimulating conversations I have ever had the pleasure to experience. One of my colleagues observed that his debating style was "not anarchic; far from it. He did actually follow the team line extremely well, but he always threw in these pearls of thought that were uniquely his, and his thoughts genuinely surprised people. As a third speaker he was a genius. He had a tone that sort of said:

Yes, you've listened to my other team members, and they've had a few good things to say. But the guts of this topic is what I'm telling you and, while I know as a third speaker I shouldn't introduce new material, forget that, I'm going to do it anyway. The subject's too important to get hung up on petty rules .."

Because of his talent and humour, he got away with it. Paul went on to serve on the executive of the Debaters Association of Victoria and lent his considerable skills to coaching, adjudicating and mentoring young debaters in a pursuit he loved and excelled at.

I would like to end on a story that highlights some of Paul's most admirable qualities, together with his very individual view of the world and, yes, his passion for public transport. In about1983, a group of us had decided to take a canoeing and camping trip along the Murray River. To prove his theory that you could do anything on public transport that you could with a car, Paul took on the logistics of hiring canoes from Studley Park Boathouse in Melbourne and getting them, and us, up to the Murray and back again on public transport. His plan was to use a combination of buses, trains, postal services and taxi trucks.

I have to report he came very close to doing it-that was until he was finally stymied by the intractable attitude of VicRail, Victoria's then country rail service. Having no classification for canoes, they insisted on categorising them as the equivalent of an ocean-going liner and wanted to charge us thousands to use a small corner of a no-doubt otherwise empty goods wagon. Paul worked out that it would have been cheaper to travel in taxis the whole way, buy new canoes in Swan Hill, paddle them down the river and then set them free to float down to South Australia and into the sea. In the end, very unusually in my experience, Paul was forced to admit defeat and graciously borrowed his father's car and a trailer to get us there and back. I think it was the only time I ever saw him drive, but we did have a wonderful trip.

Paul's funeral is tomorrow morning in Melbourne, and my thoughts will be with his beloved wife and life companion, Erica Cervini, his family- mother, Roma, father, Tom, and brothers Peter, Bernard and Stephen-and his many friends and admirers all over Australia and internationally. Vale Paul.

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