The Noosa yacht club member who led the hemp party to its best result yet in Queensland

·5 min read

Legalise Cannabis Australia’s Bernie Bradley is in with a sniff of winning Queensland’s sixth Senate spot – and he doesn’t even smoke dope.

The criminal defence solicitor likes to play a little golf and go to the Noosa Yacht and Rowing Club to hit the water on his RL24 “sailer trailer”.

Bradley, 52, went to the Anglican high school of Churchie, played a bit of rugby union and describes himself as “pretty conservative”.

“My mates are mainly stockbrokers,” he says.

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Counting Australia’s Senate vote is notoriously complex. But as of Tuesday, Bradley’s party looks likely to outpoll billionaire candidate Clive Palmer.

Few predicted the marijuana-focused micro-party would be jostling for the state’s last Senate spot in what was tipped as a race between rightwing populists: Palmer, Pauline Hanson, former premier Campbell Newman and the Liberal National party’s Amanda Stoker.

Even Bradley concedes he is “quite shocked” at how little reward Palmer got for his campaign splurge of close to $100m.

Bradley estimates Legalise Cannabis spent about $10,000 in its campaign for a Queensland Senate spot, $4,000 of which went towards registering its two candidates.

“We ran one radio ad on the Wednesday before the blackout on an Ipswich FM station and we printed seven shirts,” Bradley says. “The rest was just corflutes and how-to-vote cards and a guy driving around with a box trailer.”

The solicitor says his party’s favourable position on the ballot and distinctive hemp leaf logo helped his cause.

He remains unlikely to pip Hanson. However, regardless of the final outcome, which may not be known for weeks, Bradley is already claiming a moral victory: a small party with a “good platform” outperforming a political advertising “machine” in the United Australia party.

“It’s great for democracy,” he says.

In deciding to run for the Senate, Bradley was not so much motivated by a drug taken for recreation, but by its medicinal use. It’s not for his own sake, but those of the clients he has defended for decades against drug-related charges.

Bradley tells the story of a man in the Sunshine Coast hinterland in his 60s who self-treated his serious and debilitating PTSD with a homegrown crop of marijuana, from which he produced CBD oil.

“It was a life-changer for him,” Bradley says.

And a Sunshine Beach woman, in her 70s, who did similar to treat chronic arthritis.

Not only did both cop fines, they now pay regularly for over-the-counter prescriptions.

“It’s a weed,” Bradley says. “Why are people paying their hard-earned cash for it? They might be on a pension or unable to work because of injuries and you can literally grow it in your own back yard? It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.”

If Bradley is the new face of the movement to legalise marijuana in the sunshine state, it has come a long way since Nigel David Freemarijuana outpolled the Greens in the 1996 Lytton byelection.

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But Freemarijuana is still on the frontline of the movement. He changed his name back to Nigel David Quinlan, “put on a suit” and ran for the seat of Longman.

In an electorate at which the LNP, Labor and One Nation all suffered swings against their primary vote – with 67% of ballots counted – Quinlan had won 5.5% of the vote. That was the largest percentage swing any candidate received and only 176 votes fewer than the UAP candidate.

Quinlan’s was hardly a grassroots campaign in Longman. He lives outside the electorate in the outer south-western suburbs of Brisbane and caught public transport past its northern fringes a few times to campaign around Caboolture.

He chose the seat with strategy in mind – it was marginal, LNP-held and Quinlan didn’t want to dilute the Greens’ inner-city vote. But there is nothing “paper” about Quinlan the candidate.

Quinlan has been standing in elections in Brisbane for more than 25 years, since legally changing his surname to that bequeathed to him by one John Freemarijuana, who ran for the Senate in 1996 but wanted to revert back to his original name to start a family and pursue an academic career.

Quinlan, too, suffered stigma for his adopted surname of seven years, being constantly knocked back by landlords.

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“I decided I can’t keep martyring myself,” he says. “So I changed my name back to Quinlan and got a lease straight away.”

In hindsight, Quinlan thinks the provocative last name didn’t help his political fortunes much either.

“In my head it’s Freemarijuana to free it, like you would free Nelson Mandela,” he says. “But people think it’s free marijuana: give me some.”

But if some laughed off the name, for Quinlan, the cause has been deadly serious.

He has devoted his life to what he sees as a 70-year struggle against a “racist drug war” that is destroying people’s lives, locking them up and giving them criminal records for “putting a seed in the ground”.

He recognised, though, that Bradley, with his legal background, was exactly “the sort of person” the movement had to have “to step up to a different level”.

So if a lawmaker in the parliament of Australia is that next level, what sort of senator would the solicitor be?

On non-cannabis-related policy matters, Bradley says he would be free to use his own conscience on a case-by-case basis, “almost as an independent”.

He says he is “somewhere between Labor and the Greens, backs a republic and the Uluru Statement from the Heart “100%”. A federal Icac “can’t come soon enough”, the Murugappan family “should be returned to Biloela tomorrow” and he backs LGBT people’s rights.

Given the results of Saturday’s election, that all appears broadly in line with the mood of the country.

And Bradley believes his party’s eponymous issue is no longer radical either.

“This result demonstrates that [legalising cannabis] is not a fringe issue any more,” he says.

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