Breaking Bread: Sharon Claydon, Federal Member for Newcastle, sits down with writer Scott Bevan

LOCAL: Federal Member for Newcastle Sharon Claydon at The Press Book House Cafe. Picture: Marina Neil
LOCAL: Federal Member for Newcastle Sharon Claydon at The Press Book House Cafe. Picture: Marina Neil

Sharon Claydon represents a city changing before her very eyes.

In crossing Hunter Street from her electorate office to the Press Book House Cafe, where we meet for lunch, the Federal Member for Newcastle has passed a section of the light rail project.  

Yet the city she knows so well is being changed in ways that can’t be seen and, she fears, won’t be heard. 

“I’ve been trying to save live music,” Claydon says, as she walks into the cafe.  

The MP has just attended a round-table meeting about saving music venues in a city where apartments are being built at a tempo faster than a Screaming Jets song. The loss of venues is not only muting local music, it is changing - arguably killing - a part of Newcastle’s culture, its renowned pub rock scene.

Claydon has fond memories of that scene from her teenage years in the late 1970s and early 1980s. She recounts seeing a band at the Ambassador nightclub in Newcastle West, “and I couldn’t pronounce the name, I called them Inks”. The world would learn to pronounce that Sydney band’s name: INXS.

“And I remember those Midnight Oil concerts,” Claydon says. “The Waratah-Mayfield RSL shows, the Bel Air Hotel, that was always full of musicians. And in the latter part of my secondary schooling, I was discovering punk music, and Pel Mel.” 

In wanting to save live music venues, Sharon Claydon isn’t on a nostalgia trip. She doesn’t reject change in a city draped in “Revitalising Newcastle” signs, and, in the long-term, “you can see good things that are going to come”. However, there are elements that make Newcastle what it is, such as a vibrant arts scene, and the “really interesting juxtaposition of work and play in the city”.

The challenge, Claydon argues, is “there’s a whole bunch of people living here who aren’t used to living next to industry”. She recounts how she once received a call from an irate new resident in a Honeysuckle apartment, telling her to “shut down those foghorns!”.

“And you’ve got to ask, ‘At what point did you not notice that was a working harbour when you purchased that apartment?’,” she says. “When I come home and I throw my door open and I hear that foghorn, I know I’m back in Newcastle, so to me it’s the most endearing of sounds.”

Claydon says as the city undergoes its transformation, the social and cultural mix has to remain a hallmark of Newcastle. 

“So that it doesn’t become just a playground for the wealthy few,” she explains. “That’s not Newcastle. That, for me, is the non-negotiable part.”

HONOUR: Sharon Claydon lays a wreath at a Remembrance Day service in 2016.

HONOUR: Sharon Claydon lays a wreath at a Remembrance Day service in 2016.

SHARON Claydon was born in Sydney. Her father, Kevin, was from Muswellbrook and had joined the army as a teenager. He met his future wife, Catherine, on a blind date at the Orana Hotel in Blacksmiths in the late 1950s.

“I have the photo of their first ever date,” their younger daughter proudly says.

Sharon was born on April 26, 1964. Her impending arrival disrupted another important day in the Claydon household: “My mother was at the Anzac Day parade, having to get to hospital.”

One motivation for Kevin Claydon being in the army was to put a roof over the head of his wife’s extended family.

“So I was raised with my grandmother, two aunties, my mother, father and sister [Christine],” Sharon says. “My grandmother raised me, because my Mum went back to work.”

That experience proved handy down the track: “When I went and worked in Aboriginal communities, it was not a challenge for me to get my head around kinship systems and the extended family, and the importance of that, and the way it described your place, where you belong.”

Even so, some were concerned for this single woman, so they tried to help by “offering to find me husbands ... because they were worried that you weren’t connected somehow”.

In 1970, Sharon’s family home was suddenly emptier. Her Dad served with the 7th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, in Vietnam for a year. She still vividly remembers saying farewell to her father at Mascot airport, as he boarded a civilian flight in the middle of the night to avoid protests. 

“I’ve got to say I thought he was invincible,” Sharon recalls. “I never thought for one moment he wouldn’t come home.” 

But living and going to school at Holsworthy in Sydney, she knew kids whose fathers were killed. So even as a six-year-old, Anzac Day and its significance were “very real, very tangible”. 

LITERARY LUNCH: Sharon Claydon and Scott Bevan - and a stack of words.

LITERARY LUNCH: Sharon Claydon and Scott Bevan - and a stack of words.

The Claydon family have returned to that time. About eight years ago, Sharon, her parents and her sister visited Vietnam, as Kevin returned to old camps and battlegrounds, appreciating the quiet and the land’s regeneration, and, in the process, allowing ghosts to finally rest.  

The ALP politician has “mixed feelings” about her father serving in Vietnam. But above all, she feels pride in him. Last year, she was invited as a parliamentarian to spend time with the army during the multi-nation Rim of the Pacific military exercise. She slept in a trench, watched the night sky being slashed with tracers and listened to the incessant boom of artillery fire. And she thought of her father.

“I was terrified, even though I knew it was just an exercise,” she recalls. “I stayed awake so long that night, thinking, ‘How did he do this?’.” 

The father’s service has also shaped the daughter’s approach to defence issues in Parliament. 

“It is probably the most huge decision you’ll ever make in Parliament, to send troops into danger,” Claydon asserts.  “I haven’t had to cast a vote to do that yet, but the one thing I know from my own family experience is that if you do so, you must be prepared to support those people for the rest of their lives. It doesn’t stop when they’re discharged.”

Soon after returning from Vietnam, Kevin Claydon left the army. The family lived in Bermagui on the NSW south coast for a few years, before moving to Newcastle for the girls’ high school education. They lived at New Lambton Heights, close to Blackbutt Reserve, where young Sharon spent a lot of time “tearing up and down through there”, riding a pushbike.

She attended Lambton High and particularly loved arts subjects. She wanted to be an artist. Then her mother sent her for work experience at what is now the Hunter Women’s Centre at Mayfield. The teenager was fascinated observing a lawyer helping clients at the centre.

“It just opened up another doorway, and I thought, ‘She’s doing great things!’,” recalls Claydon. “I didn’t know law could be used in this way, bringing about a good social outcome.”  

Sharon Claydon. Picture: Marina Neil

Sharon Claydon. Picture: Marina Neil

Sharon enrolled in Arts/Law at the University of Sydney, wanting to make a difference in society. However, she “didn’t like Law one bit”. One Arts subject grabbed her. Anthropology: “It was like this little window into all these other worlds out there, and I just wanted to know about it.”

Claydon decided to explore those other worlds. After two years, she left university and returned to Newcastle at a time when the jobs centre was filled with long queues, due to layoffs at the BHP steelworks. She had heard stories about the pain of job loss rippling through the community. Her father was working at the Federated Ironworkers’ Association of Australia’s local branch.  

Still, 19-year-old Sharon entered the crowded job centre. In a moment she now calls “serendipitous”, she picked out a job card that no one had grabbed. It was advertising for a domestic gardener in the Northern Territory. 

A week later, she was at the massive Helen Springs cattle station, owned by the Vestey Group, north of Tennant Creek. Sharon was in the middle of nowhere and way beyond anything she had experienced before.   

“It was a completely foreign environment to walk into, and having to learn a whole bunch of skills that I didn’t even know existed, let alone thought could be useful,” she says. 

The station manager believed Sharon should stay close to the homestead, polishing the silverware and picking bindiis out of the small patch of lawn. But Sharon wanted to break free of the homestead. 

“As much as I enjoyed polishing the silverware for Lord Vestey’s visit, I knew that I could do something else,” she chuckles.

Thanks to horse-riding skills she acquired as a girl at Bermagui, Sharon joined the team mustering stock. 

Most of the time, however, she was the stock camp cook.

“I didn’t know how to bake bread in a camp oven,” she recalls, “and suddenly I had to produce four loaves of bread for this stock camp every morning!”

Sharon Claydon at lunch with Scott Bevan - and a stack of words. Picture: Marina Neil

Sharon Claydon at lunch with Scott Bevan - and a stack of words. Picture: Marina Neil

As well as learning how to cook in a camp oven, Sharon Claydon came to understand being in her own company: “I spent weeks on end, often on my own for extended hours, in a very isolated part of the world.”    

After a couple of years, Sharon returned to the coast. She dipped her toe back into uni, before setting off to work with a friend at a disability service on the NSW south coast in the mid-1980s. 

“Again, it was all a new world to me,” she says. It was a time when psychiatric patients were being taken out of institutions and placed in the community, and Sharon recalled living with five people just released from a facility. It would be a couple of weeks before Sharon saw their files. When she did, she was shocked by the gap between the patients’ records and her comparatively uneventful time with them. It is a memory she has taken with her to Federal Parliament. 

“I’m pretty heavily weighted towards lived experience,” Claydon says. “I’ve got to be careful sometimes because obviously I haven’t experienced everything there is.

“I’m very cautious about accepting briefing documents at face value. I think they are an essential part of what we do, because we’re trying to get across a lot of issues on any given day. But if you don’t have some questions to ask after reading a briefing paper, I’d be worried.” 

Claydon mentions hearing a wide of range of questions being asked by committee members, when MPs can quiz experts, “people deeply invested in an issue in front of you”. The politicians’ questions, she says reflect their different backgrounds. 

“That’s why you want a parliament that’s got some diversity in it,” she says.

When I point out that the major political parties are often criticised for choosing candidates from very similar backgrounds, and who have been schooled in electorate offices, Claydon counters there are very few “training programs” for those wanting to enter public office. And even then, she says, there are barriers to gaining the skills to be a politician. 

Someone wanting to be on council, for instance, needs a flexible job and an understanding employer, or to be already financially secure, because a local councillor’s pay alone won’t be enough for most people to live on. 

Those barriers frustrate Claydon: “You want all of your elected bodies to reflect the communities they represent.” 

Sharon Claydon’s own training to be a politician continued in both the halls of learning in Sydney and in the red-dirt remoteness of the Kimberley. 

Federal Member for Newcastle Sharon Claydon. Picture: Marina Neil

Federal Member for Newcastle Sharon Claydon. Picture: Marina Neil

After working in the disability service sector, she returned to university and completed an honours degree, majoring in anthropology. She began her PhD, working towards a thesis about “contemporary political representation in the Bunuba Aboriginal community”. Rather than research that subject from afar, she lived it, moving to Fitzroy Crossing in north-west Australia.  

She halted her PhD – “I’ve still got to finish that” – and worked with the Bunuba community, helping deal with title claims. 

The journey of Sharon Claydon again intersected with an extraordinary moment in the nation’s, as this was the time of the Mabo and Wik cases. Everyone, from the communities in the Kimberley to the politicians in Canberra, were grappling with what those momentous decisions meant. 

Claydon criss-crossed the country, accompanying traditional owners to meetings with MPs, talking with Keating government representatives about native title, and giving evidence in front of Senate committees.

“So I got to experience Parliament from the other side of the fence,” she says.

The urge to become a politician was stoked. She thought to herself, “Well, you’re on this side of the table, but you could just as easily be on that side of the table”.

“I knew that’s where some big decisions get made,” Claydon says, “and if you want a slice of that action, you need to be on that side of the table.”

Sharon Claydon with her supporters on election night in 2013.

Sharon Claydon with her supporters on election night in 2013.

Not that she was in any hurry to jump the fence. For the best part of a decade, Claydon worked in the Aboriginal communities, absorbing life lessons. 

“I’m just deeply indebted to those people, particularly the Bunuba women, for teaching me stuff,” she says. “It’s such a privilege, I wouldn’t have got that from a book.”

She outlines some of the lessons: “Appreciation of family, of connections, of time. And it absolutely reinforces those things that I’ve searched for in my life, that there are many worlds out there, and it’s worth trying to understand those different points of view.”

Her experiences with the Bunuba women inspired Claydon to return to Newcastle, to be closer to her grandmother and reconnect with the city. She intended to work on her PhD thesis but was often at the office of then local Federal member Allan Morris, wanting input into policies concerning Aboriginal issues.

“I didn’t know how that worked, and he was very patient too, really!,” she recalls. “He encouraged me to put my policy hat on.”

CAMPAIGNING: Sharon Claydon outside a pre-polling booth in Hunter Street in Newcastle during the 2016 Federal election. Picture: Simone De Peak

CAMPAIGNING: Sharon Claydon outside a pre-polling booth in Hunter Street in Newcastle during the 2016 Federal election. Picture: Simone De Peak

Having avoided student politics “like the plague” while at university, Claydon joined the Australian Labor Party in 1999. She attended branch meetings with her Dad –  “good father-daughter time bonding over branch meetings!” – and became involved in policy committee forums. She worked as an electorate officer for Allan Morris, then for his successor, Sharon Grierson.

Even so, becoming an MP herself “wasn’t on my radar”. Sharon Claydon’s formal preparation for political office accelerated in 2008, when she was elected to Newcastle City Council as a representative of Ward 1.

“That was the training ground,” she says, but added her Novocastrian constituents provided plenty of lessons, “because they’re direct and let you know how you’re going”.

When Sharon Grierson announced her retirement in 2012, Claydon was selected to contest the seat for the ALP. She became the Member for Newcastle at the 2013 federal election, which was a brutal poll for Labor. 

Claydon says that election campaign was a “baptism of fire”, as she felt the heat and anger of an electorate fed up with not just the power plays between leaders Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, but politicians in general. She recalls while campaigning at Waratah train station, a man “just throwing it all at me”. 

“I pulled him up and said, ‘Mate, I don’t know you from a bar of soap, but I reckon if some bloke came and talked to your daughter like you just spoke to me, you’d be really pissed off’,” she says, adding the man just stormed off and caught the train. 

Claydon laments the public’s lack of confidence in what “should and could be an incredibly noble profession”, and she strongly advocates for more women in Parliament. Yet she views the job as a “pinch yourself” opportunity to pursue those issues she is passionate about. 

Sharon Claydon in 2016, after being elected to her second term as the Federal Member for Newcastle. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

Sharon Claydon in 2016, after being elected to her second term as the Federal Member for Newcastle. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

After lunch, Claydon will work on a motion regarding domestic and family violence leave. She is also deeply involved in policy work regarding gender, overseas aid and Aboriginal issues. She says not even her teenager self, doing work experience at the Hunter Women’s Centre, could have imagined this. She is also keenly aware how the job devours time, and how easily her world could be just inside Parliament House.

“It’s also a very tight anthropological field you can work around,” Claydon jokes about life in Parliament House. As part of developing friendships (“that has to be cross-party, you can’t stay in your own tribe there”), she plays on the parliamentary netball team.

“I’m out on wing defence these days; you know, crappy knees and ankles,” she says. “It’s taken me all my life to get to this point where I can say I play for my nation.”

But home is the great magnet, spending time with her family and friends. Claydon, who doesn’t have a partner, loves nothing more than going with her parents to watch the Newcastle Knights play. She has already bought her season ticket: “I think we’re a finals chance this year.”  

Sharon Claydon at The Press Book House Cafe. Picture: Marina Neil

Sharon Claydon at The Press Book House Cafe. Picture: Marina Neil

The woman who set out to find new worlds and experiences is very comfortable with where she is at. At the next federal election, Sharon Claydon will stand for a third term as the Member for Newcastle.   

“You get this amazing job that doesn’t even have a job description, and really you get to shape it,” Claydon asserts. “You have a community that’s hopefully going to hold you to account, and every three years, you ask for your job. But you can bring your life skills, your community needs, and opportunities come up.”

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