Wes Hartley: advocate of change

Reverend Wes Hartley, Uniting Church Minister and recent arrival to the Hunter, is a former mayor.

Upon Jeff McCloy’s election as mayor of Newcastle, Hartley made a prediction.

Hartley and wife Beverley Biggs were in Newcastle for an interview with Uniting Church representatives considering a new Hunter Region leader – the Uniting Church’s equivalent to a Catholic or Anglican bishop.

Hartley heard McCloy talk about the council’s ‘‘red tape culture’’ and its ‘‘bureaucracy’’ and predicted Newcastle general manager Phil Pearce would be gone within six months – and so it came to pass.

‘‘The moment you say something like that you’ve effectively undermined the confidence of those who have been sworn to uphold the Local Government Act,’’ said Hartley.

He was mayor of Busselton in Western Australia before moving to the Hunter.

As both church minister and mayor, Hartley favours communication over a ‘‘My way or the highway’’ approach.

And while still unpacking boxes in his Mayfield house only a few hours before his induction on Tuesday this week, Hartley showed his willingness to speak on public issues in his new patch, even if he runs straight up against McCloy.

‘‘Why on earth would you rip up a rail line?’’ he said, wading straight in to the deep end of the Newcastle rail dispute.

The rail line was described by McCloy last week as the ‘‘dingo fence’’ responsible for Newcastle’s ‘‘dying’’ city centre.

‘‘As a former mayor I think it’s madness.

‘‘Why would you take out existing infrastructure when the rest of the world is killing itself to put it back in?

‘‘For whose benefit?

‘‘My impression is that people are saying ‘We’ve allowed that end of Newcastle to die’, but that’s not the fault of the people.’’

In his first formal week in Newcastle, Hartley has shown a willingness to speak for the ‘‘powerless and voiceless’’ by acknowledging his own ordeal as a victim of child sexual abuse.

He chose the Hunter Region, which has experienced its own trauma because of child sexual abuse, to speak in public about his childhood experiences for the first time.

‘‘I’m hoping it will help others who are carrying inappropriate guilt because they were sexually abused as children,’’ he said.

He warned that revelations from Australia’s two inquiries into child sex abuse – the federal royal commission and NSW special commission of inquiry on specific allegations in the Hunter – would shock Australians.

‘‘People have no idea of what’s to come,’’ he said.

But like Catholic bishop Geoffrey Robinson, who also revealed he was sexually abused as a child, Hartley is hoping the inquiries will bring about changes both within churches, and more broadly across society.

Making scapegoats of sexual offenders was not the answer when cultural attitudes contributed to silencing children for decades, he said.

He hoped the royal commission would illustrate other problem areas in society where people were ‘‘powerless and voiceless’’.

The sexualising of children, pornography, the reality of a visa system that supported bringing women into Australia to work as prostitutes, the treatment of asylum seekers and ‘‘rampant’’ gambling were just some problem areas that Australians knew about, but chose to ignore, he said.

‘‘We have to start facing the fact that we live in a dual world,’’ he said.

‘‘We have a tendency to tell others how they should live, while we can go off doing whatever we like.

‘‘As a society, we know there are things that are wrong and inappropriate, but we allow them to happen anyway. Our track record ain’t good on a lot of issues, and sometimes others can teach us a lot.’’

He tells the story of an Indian man at a citizenship ceremony in Busselton.

The man had had a difficult life, and experienced hardship to make it to Australia.

‘‘The moment I declared him an Australian citizen he broke down in tears, kneeled before me and said ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you’,’’ Hartley said.

‘‘At the post office you see people with Australian passports in their hands, and they have no comprehension of the significance of the document in their hands, and how others would give their lives for it.

‘‘We don’t value what we’ve got, but we’re happy to tell other people that we decide who comes into this country and we don’t want you enjoying what we take for granted.’’

In his first interview this week Hartley had strong and considered opinions on a range of issues including ‘‘the tragedy of the scandal that’s becoming clear in terms of the Hunter and coal’’, and the negative impact of fly in/fly out arrangements in Australian mine areas.

Hartley thinks Kevin Rudd will replace Julia Gillard before the federal election, and he believes that church representatives can become good mayors.

Which begged the question, would he consider repeating his Busselton minister/mayor double by running for Newcastle mayor in future?

‘‘I love local government because it’s about creating the essence of community, but I’ve got other things to worry about.’’

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