The socialist with rosary beads


'Public intellectual' has become a tired, even debased term. It now too often describes someone who is adept at contriving appearances on television panel shows such as Q&A, rather than a person who has made a substantial and original contribution to the understanding of human beings and the world they have shaped.

But Paul Mees, who died last week from cancer at the age of 52, was a public intellectual in the best sense of the term. Paul was a scholar and teacher with an international reputation in the field of urban studies. He was an activist who never shrank from a fight, whether with politicians, bureaucrats, or academic hierarchies.

And he was also a man of deep faith, evidenced not least in his contributions over the years to Eureka Street, and before that to the defunct Catholic Worker.

Many who admired Paul ignored this last aspect of his life or regarded it as an eccentricity. 'The socialist with rosary beads' is an affectionate tag he acquired during his years as an undergraduate at the University of Melbourne and as an industrial-relations lawyer in the 1980s.

Those who knew him best, however, understood that his faith was as much a part of who he was as his relentless campaigning for the improvement of public transport in Australia's sprawling cities.

But neither was he the sort of political Catholic whose attitude to involvement in public life was always to take his cue from the pronouncements of bishops, or to seek conformity in every respect between the teachings of the Church and secular law. Paul understood what was God's and what was Caesar's. Indeed, he insisted that the distinction between the two should not be blurred.

During the '90s Paul gave up practising law to complete a doctorate in urban transport planning at the University of Melbourne. His thesis, subsequently published as A Very Public Solution, challenged prevailing orthodoxies and laid the foundations of an academic career that took him briefly to ANU, then back to the University of Melbourne and ultimately to RMIT University.

Along the way his name became familiar to Victorian newspaper readers in his role as president of the Public Transport Users' Association, a position he held from 1992–2001. And he lived what he preached: Paul possessed a driver's licence because it was a useful form of ID, but never owned a car.

Paul was a gadfly who frequently annoyed and embarrassed transport and planning authorities with his incisive analyses of Melbourne's ailing rail and tram networks.

His readiness to speak frankly about transport bureaucrats eventually embarrassed the University of Melbourne, too, and the university began disciplinary action against him. The action was dismissed after an investigation but led to his departure for RMIT and remains a touchstone for debates about academic independence.

Had he imperilled that independence by his prominence in public controversy? Many would say, on the contrary, that his informed, relentless advocacy was an exercise of academic independence.

Paul's arguments, set out in A Very Public Solution and more recently in Transport for Suburbia: Beyond the Automobile Age, contested the common assumption that only by moving to higher-density living could Australian cities have public transport systems that would provide affordable and effective alternatives to the car.

He turned this theory on its head, citing international examples such as Zurich and Toronto: it is not higher population densities that make good public transport possible, but effective transport planning and provision that make lower densities sustainable.

In a Eureka Street article published in the same year as Transport for Suburbia, 2010, Paul again sketched a comparison between the unreliable public transport networks of Australia's east-coast cities and the smoothly operating network in Zurich. The Swiss city had a low population density by European standards and much lower public funding per passenger than Melbourne. So what made the difference? Paul wrote:

Zurich has achieved public transport success by combining efficient public enterprise with a liberal dose of 'subsidiarity'. The canton-wide public-transport agency only has 36 staff, who concentrate on financing, marketing and planning services. Their job is to knit trains, trams, buses and ferries into a network that offers the same kind of 'go anywhere, anytime' convenience as the car.

Readers acquainted with Catholic social teaching would have recognised the resonances in the term 'subsidiarity', the principle that authority should be devolved to the lowest agency capable of wielding it effectively. Paul did not routinely invoke Catholic teaching in public debate, but would have rejected suggestions that it could make no contribution to the debate.

Left-leaning progressive though he was in politics, Paul's views, especially in theology, were never easily pigeonholed. He was a trenchant critic of those within the church who, he believed, were so eager to accommodate Catholicism to modern (and postmodern) mentalities that they were in danger of leaching all substance from its teachings.

In a letter published in Eureka Street in 1992, he took issue with an article in the previous edition of the magazine by the biblical scholar Frank Moloney. What did Moloney mean by saying that what happened to the disciples at Easter was more important than what happened to Jesus? If Moloney was offering a Catholic version of the demythologising project of liberal Protestantism, Paul maintained, it was doomed to failure.

The Church, he wrote, needs a faith that avoids the Scylla of liberalism while shunning the Charybdis of fundamentalism. Paul was an exemplar of such a faith, and of faith in action in the public sphere. There will be many who will mourn his passing, but we are all the richer because he shared this life with us.

Paul is survived by his wife, the journalist and education writer Erica Cervini.

Ray Cassin headshotRay Cassin is a contributing editor.

Topic tags: Ray Cassin, Paul Rees



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"If Moloney was offering a Catholic version of the demythologising project of liberal Protestantism, Paul maintained, it was doomed to failure." Thanks for the informative article. I'm a Hayekian, economics-wise, and unfortunately I hadn't heard of this guy, but he was certainly on to something there. RIP.
HH | 25 June 2013

Thank you Ray for the news and the tribute. Paul Mees was indeed one of Melbourne’s great champions of informed thought that used its imagination, not just its pragmatic reason. The transport cause will continue to be a central issue in our urban lives and we need more people like Paul who can expose the deceits and prevarications of politicians and bureaucrats when it comes to our systems of mobility. He was fearless in his public statements. He talked to anyone but knew quite well who should be listening most, the decisonmakers and people with influence and power. Paul was an admirable and courageous person with a ready wit; he was skilled in rhetoric. I found his defences of Catholicism sometimes a little too self-defensive, with even a tinge of paranoia at times, but he needed to stake out his position. I read his criticism here of Frank Moloney, for example, with wry scepticism. It was obvious in his public debates that Paul was great lover of life, of human reason and of human potential for good. Being who he was, Paul had therefore to be a fighter. When we reflect on his works we can see the moral core of his thought. Thank you for all you have done on our behalf, Paul.
PHILIP HARVEY | 26 June 2013

Thank you Ray, for reminding me of Paul's unique contribution to public debate. He had such a characteristic tone – unforgettable– and he always made sense: there was convincing logic in his deep belief in equality, the public good, and how to achieve it. I rarely catch a train anywhere in the world without thinking of Paul. Now his voice and legacy will inhabit every carriage and sound through every mile of track.
Morag Fraser | 26 June 2013

Ray I'm so pleased and consoled that you've paid such an appropriate tribute to Paul. I loved the bloke. I think he was such a rich amalgam of the best of decent Catholicism, self-mocking whimsy, curious eccentricity, stringent scholarship, moving humility and human goodness that the world is so much the poorer for bios passing. I haven't seen him for ages, having left Melbourne 15 years ago and Oz now moving on to five years ago. I blessed his marriage to Erica which was one of the most madcap weddings I've been in, one whose hilarity was not lost on Erica, his witty and very sensitive wife, now widow. May he rest in peace and may his loving and his passion for the good and the true endure. Thanks for this tribute.
Michael Kelly | 27 June 2013

Ray, if I might be allowed another word about such a terrific bloke as Paul, can I say my enduring image of him is Paul's TV news interviews when he was Bill Hartley's solicitor during the Dollar Sweets case. The look of anxious intensity as he spoke to the microphone, ignoring the journalists and the viewers, about "my client", Baghdad Bill as he would call him, was surpassed only by the leering aggression on the face of "my client" peering over his right shoulder into the camera. Those were the days of the lunatic Left in Victoria! And who better to both mock and support them at the same time!
Michael Kelly | 27 June 2013

Thanks for that Ray. I recall Paul held Dorothy Day in high esteem for the reasons you mention: she practised an uncompromising social radicalism along with a traditional, devotional spirituality. I think he wrote about this in the Catholic Worker at some stage. BTW, the driver's licence wasn't only for ID: Paul once drove me and some friends from a student catholic conference in Ballarat to Melbourne,without incident. At same conference he sang Tom Lehrer songs accompanying himself on the the piano, with greatest gusto given to Vatican Rag
Name | 01 July 2013


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