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LOCAL government elections rarely capture the imagination.
Candidates typically walk from door-to-door, introducing themselves to voters and promising to fix potholes and collect the garbage on time.
The old cliche – ‘‘roads, rates and rubbish’’ – wins votes because those things are, for most people, the way they interact with the council.
But while conventional wisdom says that candidates should avoid divisive arguments like the plague, a curious thing is happening in Newcastle. They’re talking about ideas and issues. They’re taking sides on the debates that divide the city.
One councillor, who is not in the lord mayoral race, gave a blunt insight into this phenomenon: ‘‘At least four candidates – five if [lord mayor] John Tate runs – will appeal to certain sections of the community and should receive a solid base vote. In the past, the winner has been a diplomat; the least worst candidate that appeals to everyone by making motherhood statements and not really standing for anything.
‘‘That won’t work this time around. It might not even matter if three-quarters of the city hates you, or disagrees with you. The dynamic is different because there are so many people in the race and so much at stake.’’
The battle lines are drawn around several key issues: development, the rail line, cuts to costs and services, financial sustainability, consultation, decision making and the Laman Street figs.
The election on September 8 provides Newcastle with a chance to solve some of these questions. It will be a de facto referendum on the future of the city.
JEFF McCloy thought seriously about running for state parliament two years ago. But he backed away from the idea.
‘‘I don’t think I’m cut out for politics,’’ he told the Newcastle Herald at the time. ‘‘I couldn’t handle all the political rubbish.’’
His announcement last week that he would run for lord mayor left many perplexed. Why would McCloy, a successful businessman and developer, campaign for a job where a main responsibility is dealing with the ‘‘political rubbish’’ that piles up around City Hall?
McCloy told the Herald this week that he had reached the end of his patience with stalled progress in the city and region.
On top of his agenda would be works on Hunter Street, more parking spaces in the city, a tracking system for development applications, and removing ‘‘unnecessary’’ layers of bureaucracy.
“[Newcastle] has become a ‘can’t do’ city with almost no commercial activity,’’ McCloy said. ‘‘Our graduates leave the city while there should be work for them here.
‘‘The ratepayers of this city have not been getting value for money.”
He looks over the council’s Hunter Street Revitalisation Masterplan documents and shakes his head. There are notes scribbled in the margin at sections that raise his ire. ‘‘What does that mean?’’
‘‘This is mostly rubbish,’’ he said. ‘‘If you fix Hunter Street and you provide enough parking in Hunter Street, then it will attract businesses. This masterplan was approved by council in 2010 and nothing has been done. It’s not hard.’’
McCloy said that a council under his leadership would be decisive and efficient.
Council meetings, he said, ‘‘should last no more than an hour’’ and grandstanding would not be tolerated.
AARON Buman, who shares many of McCloy’s views, has been a confirmed candidate for two years.
Buman beat Labor on primary votes in 2008, and scored early campaign headlines when he pushed for council amalgamations and announced jockey Allan Robinson as his candidate for ward four.
His blunt style of politics is sometimes controversial, but often popular in the city’s west and draws votes from Labor in working class areas.
He said the city needed someone like him: ‘‘A bulldog, not a show dog.’’
‘‘I get told constantly that I don’t have the diplomacy skills needed in a mayor,’’ Buman said. ‘‘Well, we’ve had diplomats in the roles for years now, and what have they delivered? All they’ve done is diplomatically tell us why we keep missing out and I’m sick of it.
‘‘I’ve run successful businesses and I know how things work. The reason my businesses succeed is that I work hard. I don’t sit around waiting for someone else to do something. If it needs fixing, I fix it.’’
Buman has argued strongly about the need to cut services and balance the books. He wants to find $10million in savings and reduce the number of administration staff.
‘‘We can’t afford to keep going down the same road,’’ Buman said.
A Buman-led council would probably revive the long-running argument about entry fees at pools, compared to the art gallery and the museum. He said it was unfair to slug families to visit the pool when cultural facilities were free to use.
WITH a Melbourne Cup field of contenders – including several strong independents – the advantage naturally falls back to the established parties.
The Liberals risked losing the momentum gained at the state election during a bungled preselection process. They decided not to run a lord mayoral candidate, but will contend in all wards.
The Greens, buoyed by issues such as the handling of the Laman Street figs, expect to increase their 14per cent lord mayoral vote from the last election. If the numbers fall their way, John Sutton is a real chance The early front-runner, however, is Labor’s Nuatali Nelmes.
The 18per cent vote at the last election was considered rock bottom for Labor in Newcastle. The party is already running a strong grassroots campaign and Nelmes is a young, fresh face. She could win back traditional Labor voters who deserted because they thought the party was stale.
The poll will be a stern test of the party’s credentials in its recently fractured heartland. More shenanigans at a federal level would damage the local ALP brand.
Labor has positioned itself firmly behind ‘‘non-essential’’ social and cultural services; keeping city-backed childcare centres, libraries, The Loft youth venue and others open, but opponents have said this approach ignores the council’s financial pressures.
Nelmes and Labor have also made a big play for the youth vote – getting behind the push for small bars in the city and seeking to encourage more live music venues.
She will be campaigning primarily on achievements during the last council – progress on a masterplan for Blackbutt Reserve, coastal revitalisation works and other projects that she said would leave ‘‘a good legacy’’ for the current council.
‘‘Labor councillors ensured that the animal enclosures were kept against the advice from the sustainability review that wanted to remove council resources out of Blackbutt completely,’’ Nelmes said.
She said she was able to work in a collaborative fashion with fellow councillors. ‘‘It shouldn’t be one side against the other. Once you’re in there, you’re in there together,’’ Nelmes said.
As for Sutton, a former councillor and the first Green elected to public office in NSW, his campaign effectively began behind the fences of Laman Street, as a prominent member of Save Our Figs.
Where other candidates have called for more decisive leadership, the Greens promised more consultation with grassroots community groups.
The battle between councillors who preach the need to consult and those who see their role as sometimes making an unpopular decision in the interests of the city, was at the heart of the fig saga and has been a common thread in many a heated debate during the past term.
‘‘Our view is that it’s an issue of local democracy and the role of government," Sutton said. He said council officers were ‘‘a bunch of bean counters who want to get what they see as liabilities off the books, when the community sees these things as assets and services’’.
‘‘We haven’t had a debate about what does local government exist to do,’’ Sutton said. ‘‘We’ve never had a discussion in the community about whether this is the sort of council they want – a service-cutting council, an asset-stripping council.
‘‘I appreciate that these things cost money and that local government is squeezed ... but, still, you need to have a debate about that sort of stuff so there’s some genuine prioritisation.’’
THE Clean Sweep team was in discussion months before it announced its campaign, with former Macquarie Generation human resources manager Col Peebles as lord mayoral candidate.
Anxious councillors were whispering about discussions, apparently led by prominent businesspeople at the Newcastle Club, with the intention to stand a team of cleanskin independents.
From May, comments began appearing on the Herald website that the city needed a ‘‘Clean Sweep’’ at the next election.
The ticket is the direct result of those discussions, and frustration felt by many during the past four years. Clean Sweep’s aim is not to point the finger at specific councillors or voting blocs, but to give the city a fresh start and remove all incumbents from office.
Peebles said the ticket was the result of six months of conversations between candidates who hoped to work together.
‘‘One of the things the Clean Sweep team brings is we have experience at the level required,’’ Peebles said.
‘‘We have experience in big business, in strategy, in small business.’’
Peebles stood for Liberal preselection before the 2011 state election, but has been quick to stress that the ticket is independent and not driven by politics.
The group’s policies are strategic rather than specific. Peebles said the group would revive the rejected concept of CCTV in the city and address parking problems, but most of its stated aims are to change the way the council does business.
These include working with the administration on ‘‘how we can better interact with them and get better results’’, improving the governance of the elected council and working with other levels of government on issues such as public transport.
THE biggest unknown at the moment is also the most familiar face.
Nominations close on Wednesday at noon, and it’s not known whether lord mayor John Tate will re-apply for the job he’s held for 13 years.
After a disappointing state election result last year, most observers expected Tate would bow out. But indications are his name will be on the ballot paper.
In February, Tate said he’d made up his mind but wouldn’t announce a decision until the council’s budget was finalised in June.
He has put a ticket together, but won’t say whether he’ll lead Team Tate to the election until after nominations close.
He was, however, keen to be included in this story.
‘‘The campaign is very quiet,’’ Tate said. ‘‘There has been a lot of to-ing and fro-ing from candidates.’’
Tate has been at war with the council’s administration for the past few years. He was forced to apologise to senior managers for public comments in 2010, and soon after was widely blamed for the resignation of then general manager Lindy Hyam.
‘‘One of the most significant issues is for the council to reconnect with the community,’’ Tate said. ‘‘It’s lost that connection.
‘‘There are a number of examples where the council told the community what was going to happen rather than work with the community to get cohesion.’’
Tate will have to reverse the trend of his recent election results and stand out from a crowd of independents to win office. Regardless, his decision to stand or not will have a dramatic impact on a race that is too close to call.
THE candidates are all able to agree on one thing – Newcastle’s next council could also be an absolute disaster.
With so many polarising views and promises of radical change, there is a risk that ratepayers and residents deliver a chamber with an unworkable dynamic.
If Newcastle doesn’t deliver its election winners a conclusive mandate, or at the very least a council capable of working together towards a common goal, then September 8 will do little more than start the same frustrating process over again.