Geoff Wilson (2001 - 2003)

During the 1990s and early 2000s I was one of four or five of the most active members of the old chambers of commerce focused on the Mt Gravatt and Sunnybank districts, who decided in the mid 1990s to initiate the Southside Chamber of Commerce (SCC). We convinced our then small membership total of about 50 people in total (both chambers) to support us "part-time movers and shakers" for a better deal for small business. Aims were very simple. They are probably still in the constitution - but they were very broadly aimed at helping small business to make a better fist of things - especially in achieving a profit beyond mere wages.

My personal interest in joining the chamber in 1993 came from a much-criticised (by small business) attempt by Lord Mayor Jim Soorley to eliminate or heavily tax business signage. I recall that my own printing business sign of about two square metres was estimated to be taxed about $200 a year, and its wording "vetted" by BCC officers. Fortunately, this unreasonable bureaucratic intrusion was rejected and the program mostly abandoned. Ditto on a BCC printing industry committee that 12 of us chamber members around Brisbane were asked to serve on. It was based on the sad notion that the printing industry was a major polluter in Brisbane. We met only once, because we clearly proved that all those "polluting inks and chemicals " we bought were sold out the door on paper to ordinary people. The bureaucrats had wrongly thought they were mostly emptied into garbage, or were in chemicals drained into sinks.

The signage win was the first for SCC (although there is still a small BCC tax on signage, I understand). The "win" was in showing Jim Soorley and his cohorts that their wider ideas were quite silly, and that small business had a very real dependence on sound signage at low cost. I think it was this "win" that caused us to be regarded as a political force to consult - because in the late 1990s we enjoyed Jim and his councillors and staff as regular speakers and contributors to our discussions about future planning for both the Upper Mt Gravatt and the Mt Gravatt Central business precincts.

I cannot remember the exact names of the two old chambers which we replaced, but we felt that Brisbane's southside was our desired "future territory" and we set about recruiting southside business people to join us. I recall that the rising Sunnybank Chamber of Commerce and the declining Mt Gravatt Chamber of Commerce were merged into the new Southside Chamber of Commerce (but my memory might need someone's else's jogging on the exact details). Two Mt Gravatt Chamber members - the late Arthur Scurr, who owned the ground-breaking Mitre 10 store in Mt Gravatt Central, and innovative small business consultant Peter Weightman, of the Mt Gravatt Chamber group, were also our very solid supporters in the setting up of the SCC to replace Sunnybank and Mt Gravatt chambers. Like us, they saw a large, enlightened local chamber as an important innovator and a straight-talker to all three levels of government.

Key Sunnybank Chamber people with me in support of the SCC idea were the two former presidents of SCC before me (printing company supplier Geoff Curtis and then real estate entrepreneur Greg Jackson). My terms of office were as SCC secretary in the last half of the 1990s and then two years as SCC president in the early 2000s. Two office employees of Brian Byrt Ford in Upper Mt Gravatt were also important (the company encouraged them - and made company facilities available - to allow significant contribute in administrative and and treasury help to the SCC ). 

Our ideas and our joint energy worked well. I think the membership of SCC quickly rose and peaked at just over 300 within about six to nine months of the new chamber's establishment. It was euphoric progress for a "local chamber" and we saw our new strength further build our political influence at all three levels of government. We mostly enjoyed monthly, two-hour breakfast meetings at the now-defunct club under the Bronco's stadium. We were greatly supported by our keen and very active member Gary Hardgrave MP, who subsequently won the seat of Moreton (and went on to become a Minister) , and by our other politician member Cr Graham Quirk (who is now Lord Mayor of Brisbane). I greatly acknowledge their excellent contributions to our most popular program topics and the high quality of the speakers they helped recruit for us.

But we did not have solely a Liberal-emphasis (which would have been unconstitutional). We actively recruited good Labor members and speakers as well, one of whom is now prominent in Federal Parliament - Dr Craig Emerson MP, Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research. This two-party political contact greatly helped us maintain a sound independence of thought and action (which I thought was greatly respected by members Gary Hardgrave and Graham Quirk). However, I found that some members preferred a Liberal/National party bias - and this caused sad and silly problems which I think all local chambers should avoid.

Also, we tackled subjects that were somewhat controversial - such as the "Shred the Tax Act" program in which, at a half-day talkfest, we ceremoniously, publicly shredded a copy of the voluminous Federal Tax Act and had Gary Hardgrave present this to the then Federal Treasurer in Canberra to try to trigger Tax Act reforms that could help promote and develop small business rather than deter it. It attracted national publicity - and helped promote membership. Unfortunately (as many others have found) the Australian political process has a spineless reluctance to take advice on tax change matters from the great majority of small business - though there's now some regurgitation in Canberra of the strong arguments we put forward as the 20th Century closed.

However, I think the Southside Chamber of Commerce's best overall effort was in 2001, when it won significant Federal Government financial support for activities to celebrate 100 years since Federation. These were:

  1. Building a viewing lookout platform halfway up the walkway to Mt Gravatt summit. This enables walkers to rest and to enjoy a view over Upper Mt Gravatt and Wishart - particularly of the important Westfield Shopping Centre (which was a major supporter when it was owned by AMP). It is estimated that so far this viewing lookout has been used by an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 times by local walkers.

  2. Researching, commissioning the writing, and six productions (at Macgregor High School) of a play named "Mountain of Thunder", which explained why Mt Gravatt was so named, and how the times triggered the establishment of Brisbane as a city instead of it being a penal colony. The play was written by the late Barbara Stellmach, of Holland Park, and it was staged by the Villanova Players. About 540 local people attended the six sessions - raising funds for local charities. I was the principal researcher of historical information from London, Sydney and Brisbane.

  3. Staging of five public events around the Mt Gravatt district to briefly explain the history of the naming of Mt Gravatt - via scripted testimony from actors dressed as two governors of the penal colony in the 1820s. The events were at Upper Mt Gravatt Westfield Shopping Centre, Mt Gravatt Central's Plaza, Fairfield Shopping Centre, Sherwood's shopping strip and Sunnybank Shopping Centre. An estimated 5,500 local people viewed these presentations - which also attracted news media reportage.

These public activities were in addition to the chamber's regular monthly meetings and other events focused on helping small business better manage itself.

I believed a key SCC program in the early 2000s was Peter Weightman's preparation of our survey that revealed great inefficiencies in 85% of 14,000 or so small business operators on the southside suburbs of Brisbane. The majority of small businesses appeared to be doomed to low returns - and it came down to poor training or no training in many of the important small business skills.

Resulting from this appalling observation, in approximately 2002 the Southside Chamber of Commerce set up a small office in Mt Gravatt Central (almost above the Coffee Club) and aimed at further detailing the small business problems Peter Weightman's study had revealed. I worked in it two to three days a week, and we had the help of six "work-for-the-dole" people donated via the Upper Mt Gravatt-based not-for-profit company, Civic Solutions (of which my wife and former SCC member, Mary Wilson, was honorary treasurer). It led to the SCC management committee deciding to initiate a national conference on small business problems - with the aim of better informing all governments, but particularly the Federal Government's small business support organisations.

The conference was planned to be held at the Brisbane Technology Par at Eight Mile Plains, which could accommodate about 1,000 attendees. Financial support ($5,000) for initiation of planning for this national conference idea came via SCC members who were on government organisations trying to help small business improve its performance. However, strong (and quite stupid) opposition by the Queensland Chamber of Commerce and Industry led abandonment of this action - and my resignation in disgust. The opposition was, in my opinion, quite short sighted, and led the Southside Chamber of Commerce into a membership decline. But the concept is still valid (perhaps even more so) and it could be revived as an appropriate objective for the Southside Chamber of Commerce to consider.

Both Geoff Curtis and Greg Jackson were strong and effective chamber presidents who did much to keep the chamber on an upward path. They contributed greatly to the good relations and regular contact the SCC had with BCC on its long-term planning for Upper Mt Gravatt and Mt Gravatt Central business precincts.

- Geoff Wilson (2016)