February 2021


The emperor’s new robe

By Lech Blaine
Image of Paul Pisasale announcing his resignation, 2017

Paul Pisasale announcing his resignation, 2017. © Stuart Layt / AAP Images

When four-time mayor Paul Pisasale was jailed for fraud and corruption, ‘Mr Ipswich’ left behind a fractured city ruled for the benefit of developers and mates

Paul Pisasale resigned as the mayor of Ipswich in a white hospital gown, red socks and star-spangled pyjama pants, three weeks after sniffer dogs located $50,000 cash in his luggage at Melbourne Airport. It was June 6, 2017. “Mr Ipswich” was 65, with dyed brown hair, a face like a smashed crab, and the uncomfortable frown of someone who usually never stopped smiling.

“I love this city,” he said, voice quivering as the cameras clicked. “I think it’s one of the most exciting cities on Earth … Where do you start?”

Approximately a year earlier, Ipswich – 40 minutes west of Brisbane – had elected Pisasale its mayor for the fourth time, with a Putin-esque 83.45 per cent of the vote. Now, “Australia’s most popular politician” stood from a wheelchair to announce a shock resignation, citing a long-term battle with multiple sclerosis.

“To my wife and family,” he said, “I just want to say thanks.”

A fortnight later, Pisasale was arrested for indecent assault and trying to extort $8400 from the ex-boyfriend of an escort. As mayor, he had been introduced to the woman via Brisbane barrister and ex-police officer Sam Di Carlo, a former member of Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s Licensing Branch, and the kind of guy generally described by journalists as “colourful”. Pisasale had phoned fellow Sicilian Di Carlo to thank him for the hot tip, not realising that Queensland’s Crime and Corruption Commission had wiretapped his phone calls for proof of nefarious activities.

“The first night I fucked her she was real good,” said a chuffed Pisasale, none the wiser to the extra sets of eardrums listening. “But she was so naive, mate.”

In a letter to department of immigration officials, the woman – a Chinese national named Yutian Li – later claimed that a man from Hong Kong lured her from Melbourne to Brisbane with work as a masseuse. She was delivered to an apartment where Pisasale anticipated sex. Li confessed that she consented out of desperation for money.

“I was frightened and stood away from him in the corner of the room,” wrote Li. “He expected to have intercourse with me and I began to cry.”

Pisasale took Li for a dinner of Chinese hotpot, where she told the mayor a heartbreaking tale about her betrayal by a Sydney taxi driver named Xin Li. Yutian Li claimed the cabbie had promised marriage during an overseas holiday, before she found out he already had a wife.

Paul Pisasale was an ageless Catholic schoolboy with an insatiable appetite for midnight sins and daylight shenanigans. On a road trip to the Gold Coast with Yutian Li, he impersonated a market researcher named “George Robinson”, and called Xin Li to confirm that the taxi driver had a wife and kid. Then he phoned a second time pretending to be a private investigator, and asked Xin Li to pay for his investigation.

 “She’s got a husband,” said the extortion target, brusquely, sounding more puzzled than worried. “Okay? … How can I marry her?”

Pisasale offered Xin Li a stream of non sequiturs, splicing sincere relationship advice and backhanded compliments with blackmail attempts.

“You must be a very nice person, ’cause you broke her heart – she’s devastated,” he said. “Anyway, maybe I could convince her to drop from $10,000 to $5000 … One thing you don’t want to ever do is upset women.”

Pisasale built a political career from making nonsense sound extremely convincing. But unlike the city of Ipswich, Xin Li promptly called bullshit.

“What’s that mean?” asked the taxi driver.

“What that means, buddy, is women are people that never forget, and when you break their heart…” said Pisasale. “I’ll tell her this: You’re very pleased we tried to resolve this together, and that maybe you’ll put a little bit of money into helping her with the costs.”

“I pay nothing!” shouted Li, before threatening to call police.

Then the mask of a fake PI slipped to reveal a well-connected politician.

“This is Australia, buddy!” roared Pisasale. “Stop trying to blackmail her. We’ll get you exported out of Australia the way that you’re talking … I know the government, and I know the immigration minister.”

This was one of Pisasale’s least egregious exaggerations that day: a card-carrying member of the Australian Labor Party, he maintained a host of controversial associations to conservative politicians and donors, both state and federal.

“She cheated first!” protested the cabbie.

“You’re a married man,” said the mayor – himself a married father of three – with a tone of moral superiority. “And you’ve cheated many women.”

Ipswich is an old coalmining town with a chip on its shoulder and fear of recession in its soul. My trade-unionist grandfather was a blacksmith at the railway, where my father later worked as a fettler. As a settlement on the Bremer River halfway between the all-important ports of Moreton Bay and the lucrative woolsheds and wheat farms of the Darling Downs, it held ambitions to be Queensland’s answer to Canberra, a capital of geographical convenience, before Brisbane snatched that honour. “Limp-wristed wimps”, my father called white-collar Brisbanites.

The Pisasale family arrived in Ipswich from the Italian city of Syracuse. Giuseppe Pisasale taught his son Paulo how to fight as a coping mechanism for casual racism.

“If [the Coalition] government were the government when my parents came over in the big boats from Sicily,” Paul Pisasale said to Inside Story in 2017, “I’d be the mayor of Manus Island.”

In the late 1980s, then an entrepreneurial publican and ALP member, Pisasale started a company called the Young Unemployed People of Ipswich as a way to monetise the de-industrialisation hastened by then treasurer Paul Keating.

“If [Ipswich] was a Liberal Party city,” former Labor state MP Jo-Ann Miller tells me, “he would have joined the Liberals.”

Pisasale was elected to council in 1991, the same year that Ipswich’s unemployment rate hit 11 per cent courtesy of Keating’s necessary recession. He then quit the council for an ultimately unsuccessful run for mayor in 1994, the same election in which Pauline Hanson was elected to council as an anti-library candidate.

In 1995, the councils of Ipswich and the adjacent rural shire of Moreton merged to create a super-council, triggering a byelection. Pisasale won his way back into chambers with preferences allocated at the expense of Hanson. She blamed Labor, and won preselection with the Liberal Party for the federal seat of Oxley to seek revenge.

Ironically, Hanson’s political prospects skyrocketed when she was subsequently disendorsed by the Liberals for attacking Aboriginal Australians. This provided Labor voters in Ipswich with a hall pass to supply an electoral beating to Keating in 1996, putting the now independent Hanson in parliament. Hanson’s One Nation then swept up 11 seats at the 1998 state election, including the electorate of Ipswich West.

“Pisasale took out of the One Nation phenomenon that sticking up for low-skilled and semi-skilled blokes was a ticket to political power,” says former state MP Rachel Nolan, who became the youngest woman ever elected to Queensland’s parliament when she won Ipswich for Labor in 2001.

“Paul Pisasale sold us all a dream that he was going to do great things for the working-class people of Ipswich,” says activist Jim Dodrill, the president of both a protest group named IRATE (Ipswich Residents Against Toxic Environments) and the Ipswich Ratepayers and Residents Association.

In 1977, at the age of 12, Dodrill and his family fled from Dublin to a comparatively civil Ipswich. Inspired by the revolutionary tenor of Poland’s Solidarity movement, they were arrested in 1989 while successfully protesting against a radioactive waste facility in the Ipswich suburb of Redbank. Jim’s father, Mitch, was a local metalworkers’ union and Labor Party powerbroker, and later became Pisasale’s campaign manager before they fell out.

Pisasale was appointed deputy mayor in 2000. His council’s answer to industrial decline was unfettered development. A hinterland of redundant open-cut coalmines was converted into dumps. Like something dreamt up by Montgomery Burns, the waste companies – some of which were future campaign donors to Pisasale – filled the former mines with rubbish transported from other states and cities, a practice that became the subject of a Four Corners investigation.

“Pisasale put on conferences in Ipswich, hosted by council, that had the slogan ‘Ipswich Welcomes Waste’,” says Jim Dodrill. “There were about a dozen different waste operators doing horrendous things.”

The other unlikely source of economic optimism was a new nearby satellite city named Greater Springfield, which sat within the administrative area of Ipswich City Council. Maha Sinnathamby – a Malaysian-born property developer of Sri Lankan descent – began subdividing 2860 hectares of bushland 25 kilometres from the city Pauline Hanson had attempted to save from globalisation.

“Forget about what’s happened,” said Sinnathamby, “look for what’s going to happen tomorrow. And it’s going to be a bright day!”

Sinnathamby razed a koala habitat for the largest master-planned community in Australia, turning an $8 million loan into a billion-dollar fortune. He too became a donor to Pisasale, as well as to both major state parties, and helped turn Hanson’s imagined community of white nationalists into a honey pot for multicultural capitalists.

“From the day I met Maha,” Pisasale said in 2015, “we sort of became very good friends. And I think what united us was our shared vision.”

Cameron Murray, an economist at the University of Queensland, believes that Ipswich had plenty of capacity for expansion, and it would have been more cost-effective to improve the existing city than build a new one. Murray co-wrote a book called Game of Mates: How Favours Bleed the Nation, about the way Australian billionaires tend to make their fortunes via political decisions, such as the granting of mining licences and the re-zoning of land.

“[Sinnathamby] just lobbied like crazy until he got the state government to write an act of parliament to let him do whatever he wanted,” Murray says. “He brags about how successful he is at getting the rest of the community to pay for everything.”

In 2004, Pisasale was finally elected mayor, presenting a Good Bloke persona – and his ALP membership – to cloak a radically laissez-faire economic agenda. He also enjoyed the image of Ipswich as a forward-thinking regional powerhouse, with university campuses and a technological centre in Springfield. Ipswich was declared one of the world’s most “intelligent communities” by a global think tank.

“Ipswich has been called a two-head city in the past,” he said, referring to that peculiar Australian insult about in-bred yokels. “The brain power of those two heads has combined to make us twice as smart.”

Pisasale stuck up for local bogans against the snobs in the big smoke, but he did so while supporting the construction of a glittering new Ipswich for Brisbanites and southerners who didn’t want to live in the original.

Post-election, the avuncular mayor butted heads with confrontational state MP Jo-Ann Miller. Miller is the daughter and granddaughter of Ipswich coalminers. Five-foot tall with flaming red hair, she was one of the initial recipients of Whitlam’s free degrees.

A stream of whistleblowers began raising concerns about Pisasale and his council secretly allocating themselves ratepayer-funded salaries, travel accounts and electorate offices befitting federal politicians. Miller made a series of speeches in parliament advocating the establishment of a local government remuneration tribunal, which was introduced under then premier Peter Beattie in 2007.

“I had the guts and tenacity and honesty to expose their corruption,” Miller tells me. “So they continuously and assiduously made my life hell.”

As a result of Miller’s public opposition to Pisasale’s council, she claims that trespassers strangled her daughter’s guinea pigs, and that someone tried to “blow us up” by setting fire to the gas bottles at their suburban home. Cars followed her from work, she says, and goons threatened her at shopping centres.

At the 2009 state election, Miller was unsuccessfully challenged in the seat of Bundamba, adjacent to Ipswich, by a serial candidate across all three levels of government named Patricia Petersen, a glamorous philosopher now lawyer who would become a thorn in the lives of Pisasale’s biggest local opponents.

Petersen also ran twice as an independent against Tony Abbott in Warringah, an experience she wrote about in a Brechtian theatre production called Victory, where actors stared at the audience while screaming neoliberal buzzwords such as “Restructure!” At the time of her first tilt at Abbott’s seat, she told the ABC that she had won a Victorian karate tournament with eight cracked ribs.

Three days before the 2009 state election, Petersen clashed with Jo-Ann Miller at the Goodna rugby league club, turning a seniors event into a slanging match between candidates. Petersen accused the MP of physical assault. “[ Miller] whacked me,” she told the Brisbane Times news site. “She gave me a backhander on my right arm.”

Miller retained the seat of Bundamba in 2009 with 71.2 per cent of the two-party preferred vote. Miller and others believe that Petersen ran to deliberately split Labor’s vote. “Petersen has always been a great supporter of Pisasale,” she says.

Petersen denies suspicions she acted as a stalking horse for Pisasale, and calls their relationship “complicated”. “Unlike many,” she tells me, “I don’t blame Paul Pisasale for Ipswich having morphed from being a thriving working town to a welfare ghetto.”

The local media depicted Rachel Nolan as a schoolgirl with pigtails and a skipping rope, due to her young age upon entering state parliament as the member for Ipswich. She climbed the ranks while maintaining a diplomatic relationship with Paul Pisasale, although there were some early signals of that strategy going awry.

“Pisasale, with his spectacular ego, used to tell me how to do my job,” she says. “And I’d be, like, Dude, you don’t even know that you’re alive.”

The first open conflict between the pair was over a proposed development. Pisasale’s mate Steve Williams bought disused railway yards in North Ipswich from the state government, and got approval for a shopping centre across the river from the city’s central business district, before selling the development to billionaire Bob Ell.

Nolan supported Ell’s development on the proviso that he fund a pedestrian bridge to help generate foot traffic into Ipswich’s struggling CBD. During construction, Nolan believed the Riverlink Shopping Centre was becoming a lot bigger than the approved plan, and that the bridge wasn’t getting built. Nolan’s concerns were resolutely ignored by Pisasale’s council and the local Queensland Times newspaper, so she ratcheted up criticism of Ell’s development within parliament.

Bob Ell threatened to sue Nolan, and told another Labor MP she needed to “shut the fuck up”. Nolan was also lobbied by Dave Hanna, vice-president of the Queensland Labor Party and of the state’s Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU), who strongly supported Riverlink.

“I just wanted them to build the bridge,” Nolan tells me.

In 2007, at Nolan’s urging, the state government sought a last-minute injunction against Riverlink’s official opening until Ell’s Leda Group provided a $4 million bond for the bridge. The planning court rejected the request, but Leda paid a $5.8 million bond to the Ipswich City Council to resolve the standoff.

“If Rachel Nolan had her way, Riverlink would never have been allowed to open,” said Paul Tully, a beefy councillor with a goatee and moustache evoking Shane Jacobson’s Kenny.

In 2008, Pisasale was re-elected with 81.31 per cent of the vote. Voters saw a correlation between his leadership and their proliferating land values. Subdivisions and shopping centres were a form of economic methadone, weaning working-class people off the sense of security derived from coalmines, railway workshops and wool mills.

“The ‘Born in Ipswich’ certificates, I’ve given out thousands of them,” Pisasale later told The Queensland Times. “But you know what I’ve given out more of? ‘I Wish I Was Born in Ipswich’ certificates.”

The identity of Pisasale’s supporters fused with his, making the ritzy dinners and overseas junkets he and his council undertook seem like theirs. And the more brazen the mayor’s behaviour became, the more invested voters became in maintaining the charade of his greatness – otherwise what would their support say about them?

In 2012, Pisasale publicly endorsed the Liberal National Party’s Campbell Newman as the next premier, and Patricia Petersen entered a rancorous state election battle against Rachel Nolan. When Petersen was dismissed by some critics as a sexologist without political credentials – with reference to her book Morality, Sexual Facts and Fantasies – she sought to establish some credibility.

“I wrote that book,” she told The Queensland Times, “but in the same year at the London School of Economics I gave a talk on Georg Simmel’s philosophy of money that had nothing to do with sexuality.”

Petersen received just 8.84 per cent of the primary vote, but Nolan believes that the independent’s preferences – and the resources required to respond to her campaign – were enough for the LNP to narrowly claim the safe Labor seat. This knocked out Nolan, who, having been the minister for finance, natural resources and the arts, would otherwise have been the most senior member of a depleted caucus; Labor ended up with just seven from a possible 89 seats.

“I would never say that I lost just because of Petersen,” says Nolan. “But I think that her campaign was the critical factor that tipped me over into losing.”

Before Ipswich’s council elections a month later, Jim Dodrill led a group of IRATE protesters on a public march against toxic waste. But Pisasale was re-elected mayor with a personal-best 87.81 per cent of the vote, secured with a $126,000 election fund. That included a $7500 donation from Australian Water Holdings (AWH), which had also donated $5000 to Campbell Newman’s second successful Brisbane lord mayoral campaign.

AWH – the company later made infamous during a New South Wales ICAC investigation – aimed to provide $100 million worth of water infrastructure for a new $2 billion satellite community in nearby Ripley Valley. It signed a deal with Ripley developer Sekisui House, a Japanese conglomerate, which recruited Pisasale’s close friend Steve Williams as director. In 2008, Pisasale met for dinner with AWH boss Nick Di Girolamo and investor Eddie Obeid Jr.

Pisasale’s Forward Ipswich Inc. fund raised a total of $144,000 in the 12 months following his 2012 re-election, including $12,000 in donations from Maha Sinnathamby’s Springfield Land Corporation and $5000 from Sekisui House. Pisasale later brushed away concerns about impropriety, defending the acceptance of donations from “poor old property developers”.

“People give to churches, but they don’t expect divine intervention,” he said.

The thin lines between mayor, mate and professional lobbyist were becoming increasingly blurred. In 2013, Pisasale encouraged now Premier Campbell Newman to approve a controversial six-star, $2 billion resort that Sekisui House wanted to build at Coolum on the Sunshine Coast, two hours from Ipswich. At the time, Pisasale co-owned a $1.15 million Brisbane penthouse with the wife of Sekisui director Steve Williams, where the two men entertained their respective mistresses.

“The ingredient for [Sekisui’s] success lies in the commitment to the philosophy: ‘Love of Humanity’,” wrote Pisasale in a letter to Newman.

In 2014, revelations by The Courier-Mail about the donations from AWH to Pisasale led to a probe into his affairs by the state’s Crime and Misconduct Commission. A year later, he was cleared of any major wrongdoing. Peter Chapman – the pro-Pisasale editor of The Queensland Times – called for his rival editor at The Courier-Mail, Chris Dore, to be sacked.

“He led his paper in a bid to destroy an honest man,” wrote Chapman, whose newspaper entered a commercial relationship with Sekisui House to produce a monthly newsletter for Ripley Valley.

“Journalists who tried to do proper reporting on Pisasale were bullied, or their stories were just buried,” says Mark Solomons, an investigative journalist who has reported on corruption allegations against Pisasale for News Limited, the ABC and Fairfax. “It never occurred to anybody that the fourth pillar of a democracy could so easily be switched off.”

Solomons rebuffed what he calls Pisasale’s “pathological” flattery, but he watched other reporters get seduced by the goofy mayor – who offered personal tours of his Guinness World Record collection of 1500 espresso cups – or be steered away from reporting controversies.

In 2015, at the Ipswich Civic Centre, Labor’s Annastacia Palaszczuk launched her seemingly unwinnable bid to end the LNP’s massive dominance of Queensland’s parliament. Campbell Newman was punished at the election for a flurry of cuts to the public service with a stunning 14 per cent two-party preferred swing, making Palaszczuk the unlikely premier, and Jo-Ann Miller the even unlikelier police minister.

Acting on advice from the Queensland Police Service, Miller promptly attempted to shut down the “archaic” Ipswich police communications centre, and centralise operations in Brisbane. The animosity simmering between Miller and Pisasale for a decade spewed into full view. “Mr Ipswich” launched a vociferous public campaign against the police minister, claiming she was sacrificing Ipswich jobs.

“I will do anything to get rid of her,” Pisasale told The Sunday Mail.

Later, it would be alleged in a document tabled in the state parliament that Pisasale had a mole at the police centre, and was using the CCTV footage for political purposes.

“If there was going to be a raid,” Miller tells me, “he might be able to find out about it through people he knew who worked in that centre.”

At the height of the public stoush with Miller, Pisasale appeared on a podcast for the local youth group GenY in which he ad-libbed a misogynistic skit about the police minister, subsequently urging her to “have some fun”. The segment was filmed and posted online. In it, the mayor dons a pair of sunglasses, a hi-vis work shirt and a blonde wig, given to him by the three male hosts, and clutches a can of XXXX Gold.

“I’m really Jo-Ann Miller’s sister,” Pisasale says, assuming a head-wobbling alter ego called Paula, to the laughter of the panel, “and she wants to beat up the mayor of Ipswich.” As the panel wraps up, he adds: “My final thing: I slept with the mayor.”

This was the schtick of a larrikin autocrat who approached politics as a dick-measuring competition. According to council driver Stephen Potts, Pisasale was getting chauffeured to brothels and massage parlours two or three times a week in the mayoral car. “I felt like his pimp,” Potts told journalist Mark Solomons. The mayor once took the piss out of Potts – a gay man – for not accepting a “happy ending”.

Jo-Ann Miller was then accused of bullying for allegedly telling an Ipswich councillor that they should stage a coup against the mayor because he would be going to jail one day. Pisasale was staunchly supported in his victimhood by The Queensland Times.

“What Ms Miller needs to consider is how much damage she is doing to the Labor Party,” Peter Chapman editorialised. “If she truly loves the ALP … she should write her resignation letter today and stop the blood letting.”

Facing a local backlash over the police centre, Palaszczuk publicly sided with Pisasale and The Queensland Times over Miller, who was soon referred to an ethics committee by the LNP for not satisfactorily disposing of sensitive documents unrelated to Pisasale.

“Palaszczuk told me I had one option,” Miller tells me, “which was resign or she was going to sack me … I told her, ‘What I’ve been telling you about the corruption in Ipswich is true, and one day it will all come out.’ ”

Rachel Nolan had decompressed from the swift end to her political career by hiking Spain’s Camino de Santiago. There, she tells me, she had an epiphany about returning to Ipswich and buying a cafe, to provide a life raft to the shrinking island of cynics who hadn’t been brainwashed by Pisasale.

“The people of Ipswich were living in a cult,” she says.

A restored Nolan moved a motion in 2015 at the Ipswich Labor branch to expel Paul Pisasale from the party for his past endorsement of Campbell Newman.

“This branch expresses its grave concern about the ongoing gross disloyalty of Ipswich Mayor Paul Pisasale to the values and electoral interest of the ALP,” read Nolan’s motion, “and requests the commencement of formal disciplinary action leading to the expulsion of Paul Pisasale from the party.”

The Queensland Times depicted the former minister on the front page as a witch, and the Labor Party did nothing to distance itself from Pisasale.

It might’ve been easier to pull the wool over Nolan’s eyes if she didn’t have a front row seat to Pisasale’s malfeasance. Her cafe was in Ipswich’s CBD, where foot traffic had evaporated since the controversial opening of Bob Ell’s Riverlink in 2007.

In 2009, Pisasale had intervened with a plan to revitalise the CBD: his council started a company called Ipswich City Properties, and borrowed $45 million from the state government to buy the central Ipswich City Square for redevelopment. Pisasale and councillor Paul Tully – both staunch supporters of Riverlink – were installed as directors of an enterprise that seemed a potential competitor to Ell’s shopping centre.

“I’ll never forget the morning I rang Tully and said: ‘Mate, I want to buy the CBD’,” Pisasale told The Queensland Times. “He said: ‘Have you been drinking red cordial again?’ ”

In 2010, Pisasale flew across the United States on a private jet with Paul Tully and council chief executive Carl Wulff on a ratepayer-funded research mission. Other destinations for Ipswich City Properties directors included Italy, France, the United Kingdom and the United Arab Emirates.

“The old saying ‘what goes on tour stays on tour’ had an Ipswich connotation: ‘No tales past Gailes’,” Tully later quipped to The Courier-Mail, in reference to an Ipswich suburb.

Through Ipswich City Properties, the council spent $51.3 million on three commercial properties in the CBD between 2009 and 2018. But tenancies lapsed, buildings sat empty and storefronts were boarded up. The main sources of foot traffic were a junk shop and a methadone clinic.

“They just momentously buggered it up,” says Rachel Nolan. “They set up a board of councillors and their mates – never had a woman board member – and over time they just ran it down and cleared it out completely.”

In the 2016 council elections, Pisasale’s fiercest rival for mayor was a One Nation sympathiser named Gary Duffy. Pisasale threatened to sue the businessman for scathing Facebook posts, leading Duffy to switch all his assets into his wife’s name. Duffy tells me he never expected to get elected, but says that being a candidate provided him more legal protections under which he could broadcast essential criticism of Pisasale.

“He was so far up himself,” Duffy says, speaking slowly due to a stroke and softly due to a recent a thyroid operation. “You had to make it so that every morning you were the stone in his shoe.”

During the 2016 campaign, an industrial-complex of spin from Pisasale and the council was contradicted by the sight of the run-down town centre, the smell of toxic fumes wafting from suburban waste dumps, and a cacophony of whispers about nefarious activities.

“Everyone in Ipswich knew,” says Miller. “The corruption was so entrenched that it became normalised.”

Pisasale – perhaps drawing inspiration from Donald Trump’s purported wall on the US border with Mexico – then produced his most virtuosic rendition of bullshit: he promised to build a lagoon in the heart of Ipswich.

“A lagoon could be anything,” he said. “People think of a swimming pool, but it is not going to be that.”

It evoked the episode of The Simpsons in which the town is convinced to spend a windfall not on fixing potholes, but on the construction of a monorail. The Queensland Times photographed Pisasale with councillors Paul Tully and Andrew Antoniolli giving the thumbs up between Woolworths and the railway line, alongside an artist’s impression of an extravagant aqua park.

“These turkeys pulled this ridiculous monument completely out of their arse,” says Nolan. “But the paper reported on the lagoon as if it was real.”

At the March election, Pisasale won again, with 83.45 per cent of the vote, after raising a record-breaking $219,255 from donors. Duffy received a pitiful 8.91 per cent, and Pisasale delivered on his promise to sue him.

“I am sick and tired of dirty and grubby politics,” the four-time mayor said gravely.

In June, a developer named Richard Turner received council approval to build a $550 million golf resort in Springfield. The hotel would be built by Turner’s Brookwater Resort Investments and operated by Thai hospitality company Dusit Thani, which flew Pisasale to Singapore and Bangkok for meetings. The mayor was accompanied by Queensland Times editor Peter Chapman.

A couple of months later, Pisasale shovelled dirt at the project’s ground-breaking ceremony with Turner, Springfield’s Maha Sinnathamby and new deputy mayor Paul Tully.

It turned out Turner’s main creditors had taken possession of the site two days before the ceremony, and Brookwater went into receivership shortly after, leaving mum-and-dad investors in the lurch and triggering a fraud investigation.

“This resort will bring great benefits to Ipswich,” wrote Chapman, “and as such it deserves our total support.”

Amid such scandals, Gary Duffy kept lobbying Queensland’s Crime and Corruption Commission (the successor to the Crime and Misconduct Commission), the Australian Securities and Investments Commission and the federal police to investigate allegations of money laundering and corruption. He amassed extensive files about donors and developers connected to Pisasale, forging unlikely alliances in the process.

“I got a phone call one morning at 1.30,” Duffy tells me. “He says, ‘I’m the brother of the Saigon Tiger’ … I says, ‘Aw, so you’re a member of the Triads?’ He says, ‘Yeah.’ I says, ‘Well, what can I do for you?’ He says, ‘I want to talk about Brookwater.’”

Nam Van Nguyen – “the Saigon Tiger” – is a Vietnamese Australian who spent almost two decades in prison for heroin trafficking and armed robbery. Duffy recounts that Nguyen’s brother called from Vietnam to ask him for help identifying a businessman who owed him money. Duffy obliged. He claims that the man soon arrived in Springfield and got his missing $3 million from a property developer there.

The bankrupt golf resort wasn’t Pisasale’s only headache. Maha Sinnathamby paid for a four-page wraparound of The Sunday Mail adorned with pictures of him and Premier Palaszczuk grinning above the headline “FUTURE CITY”. Inside was advertorial about Springfield that neglected to mention Ipswich once.

“Maha owes the people of Ipswich an apology for trying to secede from the city,” said Paul Tully, “after all we have done to help him.”

Ipswich City Council was shitting bricks and mortar. Springfield had a monopoly on new infrastructure and the next generation of jobs in the area (not to mention a lagoon, which Pisasale never delivered for the city centre). If Springfield broke away, Ipswich proper would be left with the coalmine-cum-dumps and a crumbling CBD, without the rate base to fund renovations or the donors to enrich the politicians.

“That would cost a fortune,” said Pisasale, regarding the prospect of Springfield getting its own council. “I’ve been inundated by people fearful they are going to get another mayor … But they want me.”

Without a vibrant CBD to gravitate around, the suburbs of Ipswich had begun to appear like the disconnected western slums of Springfield, a paragon of the way real estate development replaced Australia’s class solidarity with individualism. Investors were willing to pay higher prices to bypass mutual obligations within a post-industrial community.

By allowing Springfield to eclipse his city, Mr Ipswich committed identity suicide.

Despite Pisasale’s protestations of innocence over allegations of shonky deals, Jim Dodrill, Jo-Ann Miller and Gary Duffy kept directing whistleblowers to the Crime and Corruption Commission (CCC).

“Pisasale attracted a lot of big business to Ipswich,” says Dodrill. “The problem was that they wanted something in return.”

On October 18, 2016, Pisasale and councillors Paul Tully and Andrew Antoniolli went for dinner at Cucina Vivo, an Italian restaurant at Star Casino on the Gold Coast, where they crossed paths with flamboyant barrister Sam Di Carlo and a Melbourne pizzeria owner named Chris Pinzone.

“Pisasale was a perfect gentleman,” said Pinzone.

Pinzone was the mastermind behind a proposed $40 million service station and childcare centre in Ipswich scrubland. Di Carlo had a 10 per cent stake. Pisasale was offered a substantial financial reward once the development was sold. Tully posted a photo online of Pisasale presenting Di Carlo with a birthday cake containing a single lit candle.

Following the dinner, the CCC launched Operation Windage, tapping Pisasale’s phone and staging round-the-clock surveillance across three states. The investigators quickly stumbled upon an extortion attempt. In January 2017, Sam Di Carlo organised for Pisasale the fateful two-hour massage in Brisbane with Yutian Li, who told the mayor how she’d been jilted by her former partner, the taxi driver Xin Li.

“You need to punish my ex-boyfriend,” Li told Pisasale in a taped call.

“Yes, we’re going to do that,” promised Pisasale, before organising for Cameron McKenzie – a local solicitor with political aspirations – to write formal legal threats to Xin Li after he rejected Pisasale’s initial demands by phone.

In February 2017, Pisasale went on a ratepayer-funded trip to Melbourne to see Bruce Springsteen and again meet with Pinzone. Police listened to Pisasale asking Pinzone to organise a threesome involving an escort named JoJo.

In April, Pinzone was questioned by police at Brisbane Airport about $15,000 cash he was carrying, which he said was for his lawyer. He was later observed lunching with Pisasale at Gambaro Seafood Restaurant. Pisasale was seen leaving the restaurant with a plastic bag, which prosecutors would later allege contained $15,000, although there was no concrete evidence of money being handed over.

A month later, Pisasale flew to Melbourne, ostensibly to gift a boomerang to chef Jamie Oliver, who was in town for a promotion, though that handover never took place. Instead, he met with Pinzone at the Westin Hotel. A man named Hui Tian – a client of Sam Di Carlo, and now serving 10 years’ imprisonment for fraud – walked into the lobby and handed Pisasale a bag containing five hundred $100 notes wrapped in black tissue paper. Tian was otherwise in the process of defrauding nearly $8 million from various victims to fund a gambling habit.

“Oh, fuck,” Pisasale muttered, according to Pinzone, who claimed to be an innocent bystander to the cash handover. Pinzone and Pisasale then decamped to a hotel room, where Pisasale called Di Carlo to chew the fat, without mention of the $50,000. Pinzone teed up a second rendezvous for Pisasale with JoJo.

On May 13, at Melbourne Airport, federal police using a sniffer dog discovered $50,000 in Pisasale’s carry-on suitcase and questioned him. They seized the cash as suspected proceeds of crime, though he was permitted to continue his travels.

CCC investigators then descended on Ipswich on June 5, 2017, locating a bag containing condoms and Viagra underneath Pisasale’s desk at council chambers. That night, Pisasale checked into St Andrew’s Ipswich Private Hospital. He announced his resignation the next day in the white robe, a few hours before the CCC publicly confirmed its corruption probe circling in the background. The mayor denied there was any connection between the police raid and his hasty resignation.

“After 25 years, and not having a weekend off and not having a holiday, and getting so engrossed in the city, it does take its toll,” he told the media. “Now it’s my time to look after my health … When multiple sclerosis starts affecting your judgement and your ability to do your job 100 per cent, it’s time to look after it.”

The next day, Sam Di Carlo came forward to claim that his client Hui Tian’s father provided the $50,000 for a legal settlement, and that Pisasale was transporting the money to Brisbane simply as a favour for a good mate.

“If you are anything like me, you will know a little about friendships,” Di Carlo told the Nine newspapers. “They are the most special thing in the world … I am Sicilian, I’m Italian, and loyalty among friends is most important.”

On June 13, 2017, independent Cairns MP Rob Pyne – who had quit Labor a year earlier – used parliamentary privilege to table a document titled “Ipswich Inc”, collating allegations of corruption against Pisasale and his council. It had been leaked to Pyne by Jo-Ann Miller.

Acting mayor Paul Tully was unimpressed. “This is a very low act from the coward’s castle of parliament. I think Mr Pyne should consider his position.”

The Crime and Corruption Commission made its move on June 20, arresting Paul Pisasale for extortion and two counts of attempting to pervert the course of justice. Pisasale traded the white hospital robe for a brown tracksuit, and his luxury penthouse for a claustrophobic cell in the Brisbane watchhouse. The next day, when he was released on bail, he was escorted from the watchhouse by Patricia Petersen.

“A number of people are wondering if I have had a relationship with Paul,” Petersen told The Courier-Mail. “I can categorically say no.”

“I knew from Paul’s brother that he was suicidal,” she tells me via email. “Paul’s kindness to me with respect to my own history of depression morally demanded that I support him when he needed assistance.”

On June 23, 2017, Rob Pyne appeared at a press conference outside Parliament House in Brisbane with activist Jim Dodrill and Gary Duffy, the men responsible for much of the material in the “Ipswich Inc” dossier. Pyne called for bans on political donations from property developers, and the establishment of a Queensland franchise of the NSW ICAC, arguing that he lacked confidence in the CCC.

Two days later, on a Sunday, an elderly man approached Dodrill outside a Catholic church in Ipswich, and complained to the community organiser about illegal trail biking on nearby bushland. They arranged to meet at 4pm to do a reconnaissance mission.

That afternoon, Dodrill’s 74-year-old father, Mitch – Pisasale’s estranged campaign manager – was taking his dog for a walk, and joined the pair. The concerned resident led them to a drainage reserve, then suddenly disappeared, and a mob of at least 15 men ran or rode trail bikes towards the Dodrills. They wielded rocks and iron rods while yelling: “Kill the cunts!”

Jim Dodrill, a karate instructor, believes he would be dead without the presence of his father. Though suffering from asbestosis, the former fitter-and-turner could still swing a punch hard enough to slow down the men who tried to smash his son’s skull.

“I felt a split-second cessation in the blows,” says Jim. “I stood up and belted a few guys who were still trying to hit me.” For his bravery, Mitch was stabbed three times with a sharpened screwdriver. Only two people were charged over the attack. The ringleader – a 19-year-old who also faced charges for drug and weapon offences – spent less than a month in jail.

Meanwhile, the train wreck of Ipswich politics showed no sign of getting back on the tracks. In September 2017, Paul Tully and Andrew Antoniolli – once united to spruik a lagoon – faced off against each other in a byelection to decide who would replace Pisasale as mayor. Antoniolli, an ex-copper running on a platform of changing a culture of corruption, won with 34.57 per cent of the vote, less than half of Pisasale’s worst result. Polls showed Pisasale would have romped home to a fifth triumph, despite being under arrest.

In October, the CCC added six more charges against Pisasale: corruption, misconduct in public office, perjury, possessing a restricted drug and two counts of fraud. And Operation Windage continued to claim scalps in the Ipswich council. In June 2018, the CCC slapped new mayor Antoniolli with seven counts of fraud. Carl Wulff, former chief executive of the council, and his wife, were jailed for offences relating to his receiving $241,000 in kickbacks. Ultimately, Operation Windage charged 16 people with 91 criminal offences, including two mayors and two council chief executives.

“Pisasale and others created a criminal gang,” says Jo-Ann Miller, “to take over the administration of Ipswich City Council for their own benefit.”

In October 2018, the Palaszczuk government passed a bill to sack the Ipswich council, and appointed an administrator until 2020. Miller’s coalminer father was dying of black lung – like her grandfather before him – but she left his deathbed to cast her vote.

“There were many, many people who were burnt by the corruption in Ipswich,” she tells me. “They lost houses. Marriages broke down. People ended up in psychiatric facilities. A council employee committed suicide. Some of them are still on antidepressants and will probably never come off them.”

British-born journalist Mark Solomons believes there is a higher tolerance for political kickbacks in Australia than in the UK. Despite being a key public disseminator of tip-offs about Pisasale, Solomons is pessimistic about the capacity of a declining media to uncover corruption.

“It’s hard to foresee the media giving a shit about anyone who didn’t have Pisasale’s charisma and popularity,” he says. “There are lots of low-profile mayors who will never be exposed because people have never heard of them.”

That is, Pisasale’s appetite for publicity was his greatest asset and fatal flaw.

Corruption allegations shone national attention on Pisasale’s lack of scrutiny from the Ipswich media. The Queensland Times became the subject of an ABC TV Media Watch episode. Former editor Peter Chapman drew heavy criticism.

Media Watch has been told that [Pisasale] boasted about his influence over the paper,” said host Paul Barry, “and threatened to withdraw advertising dollars if journalists didn’t fall into line. So, is that why Chapman – who’s no longer in journalism – was such a sycophantic supporter?”

By that point, Chapman had moved on from The Queensland Times to become a public-relations director for developer Bob Ell’s Leda Group, owner of Riverlink. Riverlink’s site had been developed by Wingate Properties, owned by Steve Williams, ex-Sekisui House director. These details are not meant to insinuate that Ell, Chapman or Williams were privy to Pisasale’s corruption, but illustrate the tightknit relationships between politicians, journalists and property moguls that promulgated a feel-good public attitude towards development in Ipswich and Springfield.

Indeed, Rachel Nolan believes that proof of illegal kickbacks or sexual infidelities is actually unnecessary to judge Pisasale’s leadership as a disaster, and that his corruption was underpinned by a sincere ideological commitment to development. She quotes lyrics from the song “Oh My God” by Michael Franti: “I don’t give a fuck who they screwin’ in private / I want to know who they screwin’ in public.”

“A lot of what Pisasale did wasn’t driven by corruption,” says Nolan. “It was just philosophically shithouse public policy. The tragedy is that there’s been a profound harm done to Ipswich, and the town might never recover.”

The salaciousness of Pisasale’s behaviour offered an immaculate smokescreen for the public-administration clusterfuck of Ipswich City Square. By 2018, the value of the council-owned Ipswich City Properties’ three commercial assets had slid from approximately $51.3 million to $32.53 million in the space of nine years.

“Never complain, never explain and never resign,” Paul Tully had said at a council press conference.

After sacking the council that included Tully, the state government appointed a planning and development expert named Greg Chemello as interim administrator. In 2019, an independent accounting report pinpointed Ipswich City Properties’ net losses at $78.74 million.

“Buildings are empty, which means we’re not receiving rent,’ said Chemello. “So, [the council is] moving forward with the redevelopment [of the CBD].”

Developer Bob Ell launched a blistering attack on Chemello’s attempts to commence renovations in the city centre, arguing that more retail in Ipswich’s CBD could send at least 20 of his Riverlink tenants bankrupt – similar to the effect that Riverlink had on the Ipswich CBD originally.

“They want to build shops and eight theatres in competition to our theatres across the creek,” Ell told The Queensland Times. “It’s about time local government woke up to itself. Tell the council to pull their heads in.”

Former CFMEU boss Dave Hanna – who had lobbied Rachel Nolan to stop obstructing the construction of Riverlink – was convicted in 2017 of receiving a $161,000 kickback in the form of home renovations from Mirvac, a construction company that built a shopping centre in Springfield. The development was unrelated to Ell.

In 2014, Hanna had received a subpoena to appear at the federal royal commission into trade unions. Later that day, Hanna took boxes of files from the CFMEU offices in Brisbane to an Ipswich dump, where he attempted to burn them. At the commission, Hanna claimed that the urgent incineration of documents was routine spring-cleaning. He was also asked why a Mirvac executive would pay for the home renovations of a trade unionist.

“Because I’m a good bloke,” responded Hanna. “He’s a good bloke.”

This was the other side of the boom: a nation of “good blokes” reshaping our way of life for profit. In the lucky country, what matters isn’t what you know, but who you are mates with.

In 2019, Hanna was convicted of raping a woman he’d met at a bar.

Paul Pisasale was himself facing charges of sexually assaulting a 23-year-old whom he’d lured for a personal tour of council chambers in 2016. The allegations were initially kept secret due to a suppression order by the court.

Pisasale’s legal bills were being partly paid by Russian-born Lev Mizikovsky, a motorbike-riding millionaire with a history of property interests in Ipswich. Mizikovsky owned 30 per cent of ASX-listed sunscreen company Antaria when it appointed Pisasale, while he was still mayor, as a director, for which Pisasale received $80,000 a year.

“Yeah, I did help him out a bit,” Mizikovsky admitted when asked by The Courier-Mail about Pisasale’s legal fees. “I think he’s a great bloke.”

In July 2019, Paul Pisasale, Yutian Li and solicitor Cameron McKenzie simultaneously faced trial for their ham-fisted extortion attempt on Xin Li. The taxi driver also made an awkward appearance in a courtroom brought together by a history of rash affinities and brash blackmail attempts.

“Listen to me,” says Pisasale in a recording played in Brisbane District Court. “I’m not going to be fucked around like you fucked her around.”

Before the jury deliberated, Pisasale was sitting beside me in the hallway of the District Court, so laidback I didn’t notice him until the rest of the crowd filed through the courtroom doors. He was calmly reading documents from a blue folder. Crossed legs publicised navy socks with grey spots. Patterned black shoes matched the veins on his tan hands.

Barristers wheeled luggage towards us. Heels clicked behind them, revealing Yutian Li. Pisasale and I were the only two people left in the foyer, as Li directed a polite but tight-lipped smile at her former client. Inside, Judge Brad Farr SC repeated the charges, and reminded the jury that there was no presumption of guilt against Li for acting as a prostitute, or Pisasale for utilising her services.

“She was a naive person who poured her heart out to a good samaritan,” said Li’s barrister, “and she got misinterpreted.”

Pisasale’s legal team described him as “a sucker for a damsel in distress”. After eight hours of debate, the jury found Pisasale and Li guilty on two counts of extortion, and McKenzie guilty on one count. The next day, the guilty trio was led back into the courtroom. A new interpreter was sworn in for Yutian Li. She clutched at a scrunched-up tissue as the interpreter translated: 15 months in prison.

Judge Farr asked Pisasale to stand. The former mayor had spent the night defrosting, blankness replaced by the body language of defeat, shoulders slumped and mouth suggesting a bitter taste.

“Your fall from grace has been from a great height,” said Judge Farr, before sentencing Pisasale to two years in prison. McKenzie received 18 months for following the emperor’s orders. None of Pisasale’s family was present.

In March 2020, Ipswich elected an LNP-affiliated candidate named Teresa Harding as mayor, but the light at the end of a long tunnel was lit by a matchstick. Paul Tully was returned to council for his 40th year of public service, despite having outstanding matters against him with a local government watchdog. The CBD development Tully cooked up with Pisasale remains a decorated drain on the purse of ratepayers.

Construction had nearly finished on CBD renovations. The city centre remained a ghost town, but was about to get an expensive new library and council offices, along with a water feature that looked more like a showerhead than a lagoon.

Around the corner, a super-scrupulous Gary Duffy refused to accept my offer to pay for a ham sandwich. He lifted a green shirt with the slogan SCIENCE DOESN’T CARE WHAT YOU BELIEVE to show me the scar on his chest from open-heart surgery.

“I want to get back to fixing cars,” he said.

Jo Ann-Miller retired from politics due to a breast tumour, which she believes metastasised from the stress of fighting for justice. She bemoaned the Labor Party’s hijacking by an “inner city elite”, believing that only a coalminer’s daughter like her could have withstood Paul Pisasale’s persecution.

“I’m sad my parents weren’t alive to see him charged,” she says elegiacally, before bursting into laughter. “But I tell you what: when I get to heaven, that’s the first thing I’m going to tell them. ‘Remember that bloke?’ ”

Patricia Petersen had unsuccessfully run as an independent against Jo-Ann Miller at the 2017 state election, and later unsuccessfully sued Rachel Nolan for $6.8 million for sabotaging her political career and damaging her mental health. The case “had such a remote prospect of success that it should never have been brought”, the presiding judge said.

Having taken up law, Petersen was admitted as a lawyer in the Northern Territory last year. She tells me that Pisasale has been made a scapegoat for corruption in Ipswich.

“The worst offenders have not been brought to justice,” she says. “They are sociopathic, manipulative and dangerous.”

Rachel Nolan lives in a Queenslander in the Ipswich suburb of Sadliers Crossing, the antithesis of Maha Sinnathamby’s vision for a city without imperfections. Nolan had made peace with the end of a political career, the closure of her cafe, and getting sued by Petersen.

“There is no glorious white, shining light on the other side,” Nolan told me. “But I take heart because I know how the story ends: the bastard does go to jail. I’m still alive. And I give the prison a little wave on my way to Brisbane.”

In August 2020, Paul Pisasale faced 35 criminal charges, including 25 counts of fraud and two charges of sexual assault. Among the offences detailed in his trial were his receipt of $28,500 from a developer who bought discounted land from a council-owned company. Police additionally suspected Pisasale and the developer were engaged in unlawful prostitution. Pisasale was also found to have championed Chris Pinzone’s development project in return for dinners, escorts and a “substantial” kickback when the property eventually sold.

“These offences have the capacity to undermine public confidence in how fundamental institutions of government operate for the betterment of society as a whole,” said Judge Dennis Lynch QC, in the Ipswich District Court.

It was also alleged that the mayor intercepted a barbecue, tools, whiskey and sporting memorabilia destined for a Men’s Shed, and kept the fraudulently obtained items padlocked in a donga at the business premises of his mistress, Kaitlyn Moore. Moore once had a key to the $1.15 million Brisbane penthouse Pisasale shared with developer Steve Williams. Later, Pisasale directed Moore to make a fake $30,000 invoice for George Cheihk, an Ipswich developer and political donor (who was once arrested for holding a flick knife to someone’s throat at a nightclub, whereupon he was discovered in possession of ecstasy). The money was to assist with buying machinery for her building materials business.

“I have done a lot of things for George,” Pisasale had told Moore, justifying the $30,000 sweetener, according to The Courier-Mail. “George owes me.”

Pisasale had called Moore after getting caught with the $50,000 cash at Melbourne Airport, reportedly stating: “I’m fucked. I’m fucked.”

The sexual assault charges Pisasale faced were for two assaults on a 23-year-old woman in December 2016, shortly before he’d imagined himself a moral crusader when threatening to “export” cabbie Xin Li from Australia.

Pisasale had met the woman at an employment conference. He praised her during the keynote speech and promised further professional opportunities, before getting her number and providing a tour of the council chambers. During the excursion, he showered the visitor with gifts, and took photos of her wearing the heavyweight mayoral robe. Then he forced his tongue through resisting lips, lifted the girl’s shirt, and groped her breasts.

“All the while she was expressing her unwillingness,” said Judge Lynch.

Pisasale had twice convinced his council driver to lie to police about the assault, and tried to paint the girl as a willing participant.

“This conduct was persistent,” said the judge, “and involved the abuse of the authority of your position as mayor for your own sexual satisfaction.”

By the time of his final court case, Pisasale had shed the stages of denial, anger, bargaining and depression like snakeskins. He had broken his collarbone doing chin-ups on his opening weekend in prison. The swagger was absent, perhaps a side effect of a cocktail of mood stabilisers and antidepressants. He pleaded guilty to fraud, perjury, official corruption, receipt of secret commission by an agent, unlawful possession of a restricted drug, disobedience to statute law and sexual assault.

“Some of the most influential people all over the world would seek my advice,” he said, tearfully apologising for his narcissism. “My mind and ego took over and my behaviour was out of control now. I wanted more and more boosts in my popularity.”

A week later, Pisasale faced Judge Lynch for sentencing via videolink wearing demeaning prison greens.

In total, he was sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in prison. Paul Pisasale was a criminal, wrapped in a capitalist, wrapped in a larrikin. His bizarre reign of lust and corruption was facilitated by a tsar-like willingness to attack those who resisted his cult of charisma.

“Most people in Ipswich would still say, ‘Well, up your nose with a rubber hose,’” says a former local associate of Pisasale. “‘So, he took some money off us. Bad luck. We don’t give a shit what you think about that. Suck it up. We’re Ipswich.’”

The city Pisasale put on the map remains divided.

“Pisasale did a lot of good for Ipswich,” a retiree sinking schooners at Norths Leagues Club tells me. “It’s just a shame about all the hoo-ha that went with it.”

“He did a lot for himself, too,” responds his tradie companion.

Lech Blaine

Lech Blaine is the author of Car Crash: A Memoir and the Quarterly Essay Top Blokes: The Larrikin Myth, Class and Power.


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