IT may be a Sunday, but Scot MacDonald says he has time for only a quick lunch. The unceasing demands of politics?
“No, I’m going to see the Knights play,” explains the state government’s Parliamentary Secretary for the Hunter and three-game membership holder with the Newcastle Knights.
When we meet a couple of hours before kick-off at the GR Brasserie at New Lambton, the predominant attire of diners is a red and blue jersey. A few brave souls are wearing the colours of the opposing team, Wests Tigers.
MacDonald is discreet in a dark windcheater. From appearances at least, no one would identify him with one side or the other. Which is kind of like how he plays it in politics as well.
Scot MacDonald is a Liberal MP responsible for an area that has a string of Labor strongholds. As we line up to order our meal, Sonia Hornery, the Labor Member for Wallsend, stops to say hello, and the two politicians speak warmly to each other.
“It’s great working with Sonia,” he says later. “She’s the other side of politics. It’s your own side who are frequently the ones that challenge you. Some more than others.”
While he won’t say who he finds challenging, MacDonald is complimentary of Premier Gladys Berejiklian.
“I love working for Glad,” he says.
Scot MacDonald was appointed Parliamentary Secretary for the Hunter by the former premier, Mike Baird, in 2015. When there was a change of leadership in January, Berejiklian appointed Catherine Cusack as the government’s senior representative in the Hunter, much to MacDonald’s disappointment. Less than two months later, Cusack resigned as parliamentary secretary over an email criticising the new premier, and MacDonald was reappointed to the role.
“I had to chase it,” MacDonald explained of his return to the Hunter. “I chased her [Berejiklian] about three times and said, ‘I’d like to do it, I want to go back’.”
Before we talk about why he wanted to return to Newcastle and the Hunter, there is a meal to be ordered. MacDonald, who insists on paying for his own lunch, goes for the lamb risotto.
“Hopefully it’s some fine New England lamb,” he says.
Through that selection, MacDonald indicates where his home - and, in many ways, his heart - is. He and his wife Aileen have lived in Guyra since 1989. The couple moved there soon after they were married to operate a rural supplies business, which they owned for 20 years. Yet he’s not a country boy.
Scot MacDonald was born in Brisbane in 1961. Indeed, he resolutely, defiantly, remains a Queenslander for the State of Origin matches.
He didn’t grow up with a burning desire to be a politician. “I was pretty ordinary at school,” he recalls, adding that he wanted to be a jackaroo. His mum convinced him to study farm management at Queensland Agricultural College at Gatton. MacDonald went on to gain degrees and qualifications in financial administration, natural resources management and environmental management. So on paper, MacDonald has done what the Hunter region has to do every day, walking that tightrope between economic development, particularly through mining, while managing the environment and affected communities.
MacDonald says there will be coal mining, “a hugely important industry”, for decades to come, and he knows that will have an impact on the Hunter. More than know it, he feels that impact - for better and worse - whenever he is in the valley.
“It is really conflicting,” he says. “There are a couple of things. One: don’t pretend there won’t be conflict. There is conflict and there will continue to be conflict for a long period of time. So number one - don’t be in denial about that, it is there. You can’t deny there aren’t losers out of it. People are losing their land, their village, their community, in some respects.
“Number two is to manage the impact and balance the impact as best as possible without being dishonest with people, and just saying, ‘There will be winners and losers out of this’.”
MacDonald says he finds it frustrating when he raises the issue in Parliament because “I don’t see a strong appreciation of it down in Sydney”. What’s more, he believes successive governments have failed those whose lives and communities have been affected by mining by not being frank with them.
“I think most governments have given false hope,” he says. “And it’s not solved by lines on the map, and that puts me in conflict with some of my colleagues who think, ‘there should be the mine, there should be the farm, the national park, there should be your village’. I think it’s a lot more dynamic than that.”
For a time in the 1990s, Scot MacDonald also had to confront an uncertain future.
Government policy decisions affected the wool industry, the boom ended, farmers’ debts mounted, and his business struggled – “we were touch and go there for two or three years”. It stoked in him a belief that governments should largely stay out of business, but it heightened a desire in Scot MacDonald to get into politics.
He was living in National Party territory, but MacDonald felt the party was too socially conservative. His own business experience also steered him towards the Liberal Party. MacDonald was elected to the NSW Legislative Council in 2011.
Scot MacDonald has brought that “small government” attitude to Parliament, and to the Hunter.
“I hate this idea of just splashing cash around and thinking you’re going to fix a region, or fix a community, or fix a business, or industry, or sector, or whatever,” he argues. “I think there’s a role for government in being a stimulator, an activator, but not a player, not in there running the economy.”
I hate this idea of just splashing cash around and thinking you’re going to fix a region, or fix a community, or fix a business, or industry, or sector, or whatever."
I ask him how he sees the NSW government’s Revitalising Newcastle project fitting into that philosophy.
“Given the state of the CBD, given the state of the transport, given the potential of closing the old [rail] corridor and moving something onto Hunter Street, I think that is supportable. But then we’ve got to get out of it.”
When asked what he considers the most endearing traits of Newcastle and Hunter people, MacDonald replies, “tribalism, great pride in the Hunter”.
“Knowing they’re different, thinking they’re different. Determination to succeed almost against the odds. It’s almost got a bit in common with the Queensland thing. ‘We’re not the centre of the universe, we’re the next one out, and we’ve got to work hard for it. We don’t always get what we’re entitled to’ - I get that a lot - ‘our fair share’, all that sort of thing.
“On the negative side is that ‘we’ll never get our fair share, there’ll never be a government that looks after us enough, of any persuasion’; that I find a bit puzzling sometimes.”
I point out the most recent state budget, and how comparatively little was directed to the Hunter, gives weight to the argument that this region doesn’t get its fair share.
“I guess our argument to that is we’re in the stage of delivering what we promised before, so the light rail, getting on with the city bypass,” he replies, later adding “there’s going to be a lot coming down the pipeline . . . So there will be plenty to do”.
Which is why MacDonald chased Gladys Berejiklian to be reappointed Parliamentary Secretary for the Hunter. The area, he says, is “growing up, lots to do, lots of potential, lots of good issues, some of it very, very challenging, I just wanted to see some of those big things finished, wrapped up, or at least underway.”
We talk about whether the Hunter should have, as it used to, a minister in state Cabinet, rather than a parliamentary secretary.
“I guess the question is does the region suffer for it?,” muses MacDonald, as he sips on his water (he doesn’t drink alcohol). “I really don’t think so. I guess I’ll be bound to say that. But Gladys is at the end of the phone, end of a text. She prefers texts rather than phones. She’s a mad texter. So that’s good. She gets back to you.”
“Are you a good texter?”
“Yeah, getting better. You’ve got to be with her.”
The MacDonald family
Scot and Aileen MacDonald have three adult children. The middle child, 24-year-old James, is a champion boxer, and that quietly terrifies his father - “it never gets any better”, he says of watching his boy fight.
With his schedule and the amount of travel involved, MacDonald is only home one or two nights a week, but the household is about to get even busier. Aileen MacDonald is looking at having a tilt at local government in Guyra, and Scot MacDonald intends to stand for election again in 2019.
“I’m still pretty keen,” he says. “I still find most of it good. There are parts of it I still find very frustrating. Coming from a small business background, in particular, you pull this lever and something happens, whereas in government, it’s so layered, so many personalities involved . . . I find the process of government agonisingly slow sometimes.”
When the political career ends, MacDonald says he hasn’t ruled out living in Newcastle. Watching the property prices rise, he wishes he had already bought in.
“I said to my wife, ‘We’ve made a mistake, two years ago, three years ago, we should have bought here, when I first came here’,” MacDonald says, finishing his coffee. “It’s a good area, good beaches, good city, university, good health system. It ticks all the boxes. And a lot warmer than Guyra.”