Labor wins big in Newcastle City Council election

The idea that party politics has no place in local government is a fallacy, Newcastle’s newly re-elected lord mayor says.

When looking back on the achievements of the previous term of council – and when gazing into the future to describe her vision for the city – Nuatali Nelmes frequently references the labour movement and the Labor Party, of which she is part.

In an age when leaders at state and federal level are often criticised for getting bogged down in politics, some have questioned the place of party politics in local government.

But Cr Nelmes sees things differently.

“Considering the success of this Labor council, I would say that the argument is a complete fallacy,” she told the Newcastle Herald.

“It actually doesn’t make any sense, because what we bring to the table is a collective with a collective vision.

“It has been an absolute team effort. Sometimes that has been with Greens councillors, sometimes that has been with independents, and sometimes that has been with Liberal councillors – and sometimes it has been everyone together on the same page.”

After more than 79,000 votes had been counted on Sunday afternoon, Cr Nelmes held an unassailable lead of 42.12 per cent of first preference votes, with her closest rival, independent Kath Elliott, on 20.89 per cent. It was the crowning achievement for Labor’s campaign in Newcastle, which will likely result in a member from the party being elected into each of the city’s four wards.

Cr Nelmes had served on Newcastle City Council for six years when she was first elected lord mayor in November, 2014, after the departure of Jeff McCloy triggered a by-election.

At 38, she became Newcastle’s youngest lord mayor – and the second woman to hold the city’s top job.

On Sunday, as Cr Nelmes reflected on being returned to office for a second term as Newcastle’s civic leader, she said council’s collaboration with key institutions, the community and all levels of government had been a key success since late 2014.

She cited the University of Newcastle’s city-centre masterpiece, NeW Space, as an example.

“This building was delivered through a partnership between three levels of government as well as the University of Newcastle,” she said.

“It was delivered as part of a key city revitalisation strategy. We are a university city in Newcastle and we needed to acknowledge that.

“The partnerships going forward, with industry and business, I think are exponential. I think we’ve only just tapped the point of collaboration with the university.

“The more we partner with key institutions in the city, like the university, the better the outcomes will be."

As results from the ward voting shape up, it appears Labor will have a majority on council – possibly with five councillors plus the lord mayor, ahead of Ms Elliott’s independent team, which looks likely to have four successful candidates.

In Cr Nelmes’ sights for the coming term are improvements to the city’s cultural infrastructure, including funding the redevelopment of Newcastle Art Gallery.

She also wants to push on with the masterplan for the Broadmeadow sport and entertainment precinct around McDonald Jones Stadium.

“That is a really key component of the city,” she said.

Looking back, Cr Nelmes believes overcoming the city’s “well-known, large infrastructure backlog” and getting council into “a financially fit position” was a key achievement of her previous term as lord mayor. 

“We had approved traffic and pedestrian upgrades for throughout the city worth over $50 million sitting there, but we never had the money to be able to fund those works,” she said.

“If we can’t balance our books, we do not have the resources for us to do what the community wants us to do.”

While the lord mayor points to the “amazingly resilient” people of Newcastle as the city’s biggest strength, she said housing affordability was the greatest challenge.

In the week before the election, she announced that a Labor-controlled council would introduce policy that would mean 15 per cent of development applications on private land – and 25 per cent on state-owned land – would go towards affordable housing.

“It’s absolutely vital to ensure that this is a just and inclusive city 10 years from now, otherwise you will not have key workers being able to live and work in Newcastle,” she said.