IT seems like an intriguing venue for lunch with a politician. A nut plantation.
As Sir Humphrey in Yes Minister might have said, a courageous decision.
But the state Member for Port Stephens Kate Washington is keen to show off a gem in her electorate: Medowie Macadamias.
As we take a seat on the cafe terrace, just beyond a row of luxuriant trees, Washington mentions she often brings visitors here.
Not that she has been here recently. As a local MP, along with being the Shadow Minister for the Hunter and Early Childhood Education, Washington spends a good deal of her time on the motorway to and from Sydney. Her meal, she says cheerfully, is often an egg and bacon burger from the “twin servos” near Wyong. At least this day, she can leisurely eat a chicken caesar salad.
It’s Friday when we meet, and Washington hasn’t been home since Sunday. At least she’s close to home. She lives in Medowie. Waiting to see her later today is her husband Andrew and their three children, aged 11, 14, and 17 - and 16 chickens.
“That’s the bit that is really difficult,” says Washington, about being away so much. “Even when I’m home, I’m everywhere.”
KATE Washington grew up on the move. She was born in Wollongong in 1970 to two teachers. Kate and her two older brothers followed their parents to teaching jobs in Mulwala, Tumut, and Albury.
“I still didn’t know what I wanted to do when I finished school,” Washington says, “so I certainly don’t put that pressure on my kids. I think it’s hard to know what you want to do when you’re that young.”
The teenager decided to study law at the University of Sydney, not because she wanted to change the world or make a stack of money: “It was about keeping options open for longer, while I worked out what path I wanted to go down.”
She finished her law degree “just to finish it” then headed back to her parents’ place in Albury, working as a poker machine attendant at a club and writing advertising copy for a local radio station.
“The clients would pay more to have [radio announcer] John Laws read the copy, and I didn’t really listen to the station,” she recalls. “The only time I heard it was when I went to the bathroom in the workplace, because it was piped into there. I heard John Laws doing one of my ads.
“Just last week I had an interview with John Laws, and I thought, ‘This is really weird for me!’.”
Washington left Albury to travel around Europe for nine months before heading to Sydney and beginning work in the law, steering towards litigation.
“You’ve got to like a good fight,” explains Washington. Asked whether she likes a good fight, Washington replies, “For a worthy cause, yes I do”.
“I think the advocacy side of things has been always what I’ve enjoyed, especially for the underdog.”
Kate Washington and Andrew Hardy moved to Newcastle in 2000, just before the birth of their first child. Washington didn’t feel like she fitted into Sydney, and both had enjoyed visiting friends in Newcastle, so they decided to head north: “We were both up for a breath of fresh air”.
The family moved a couple of more times around the Newcastle area, when Kate Washington was pregnant.
“The nesting instinct that people get when they’re having children, mine goes into override and I move house entirely. Each time!,” she laughs. “I’ve got no more moves in me!”
The move to Medowie was also prompted by a desire for more space and encouragement by a lawyer colleague who lived locally.
“This is like a little oasis,” she says of Medowie. “I've found my perfect fit. I genuinely love the community and environment in Port Stephens.”
She engaged with the local community, joining a playgroup and becoming the P&C president at Wirreanda Public School.
Politics, she says, had not been on her radar. But a local issue pushed her towards politics - the need for a high school in Medowie. Washington decided “why not have a crack?” and stood as the Labor candidate in the 2011 state election.
“I know it sounds really silly, but ... I was never going to be successful, because Labor was so on the nose,” she recalls. “It was awful. But it was so I could get a high school. If I could put pressure on in a campaign that they wouldn’t have had otherwise, then they [the government] might commit to us getting a high school.
“The 2011 campaign was pretty horrendous. The funny thing was my husband was away for most of it. He was doing construction work on mine sites… It was three months away. Before then, I’d been juggling, going to work and the kids, so him being away and doing all that and running a campaign, it was like ‘yeah, okay’. It was kind of mad but just doable.”
I ask her what her husband thought of her running for parliament.
“Not sure he knew,” Washington laughs. “It’s like buying a dog. Do it when he’s away. I did discuss it fully and frankly this time around [for the 2015 election].”
After the 2011 defeat, Washington returned to being a lawyer. She mainly practised health law. That gave her insight into what she believed were failings in the health system. She also “got so cranky” about a string of government cutbacks, so she decided to step back into the political ring for the 2015 election.
“To maybe get in, - as far fetched as that seemed at the time - I just didn’t want to walk past a door that was opened a little crack,” she said. “So I put up my hand.”
Washington won, achieving a huge swing. Anger may have initially motivated her to run, but that’s not what drives the Member for Port Stephens.
“Frustration founded on the knowledge that there are people who are seriously being hurt by policies and by a lack of services,” she explains. “It’s just knowing these people need more, and there’s a chance if I advocate, fight, whatever it takes, then their lives may be made a bit easier.”
The greatest source of frustration and anguish for her is only about 10 kilometres away from where we’re dining. That is where a community is suffering from the effects of contaminated groundwater around Williamtown RAAF base.
In her inaugural speech as the Member for Port Stephens in May 2015, Washington declared, “It is with a great deal of pride that I can class as one of my neighbours the Royal Australian Air Force Base at Williamtown”.
I ask her if she is still “proud” of the base.
“Yes, I’m proud of what we’ve got here,” she replies. “What I’m not proud of is the way it [the contamination issue] has been managed by Defence Canberra, the machine. What’s happening here, our community is a really beautiful RAAF community … But what’s transpired since I gave my inaugural speech, goodness, that’s been flooring.
“With the contamination it’s just been so awful, but it’s not the responsibility of anyone on the base, it’s decisions that have been made higher up by the machine that in so many ways, and on so many levels, have been so wrong.
Would she rewrite the speech, if she could?
“Oh, it would certainly be different. It would have to be different. Because this has altered people’s lives, many of them for good….. We’ve got to keep banging the drum and fighting to give the residents the support they need.”
The fight for those residents, Washington says, can leave her drained. To refuel, she goes bushwalking around Port Stephens, and she plays netball. And she seizes whatever time she can to be with her family.
While she keenly feels the frequent separation, Washington knows her family is proud of her. She was reminded of that recently, as she packed for another week in Sydney, which would include attending the Ernie Awards, where public figures are “recognised” for sexist comments (incidentally, the former Mayor of Port Stephens, Bruce MacKenzie, won the Gold Ernie this year).
“You were meant to come dressed [to the Ernie Awards] as a strong woman or a super hero,” explains Washington. “On Sunday night, when I was trying to leave to get to parliament, I was saying, ‘Guys, guys, I need to think of something to wear’. And each of them separately said, ‘Go as yourself’... It was a nice way to start the week.”
Kate Washington intends to stand at the next election, which is scheduled for 2019. She says there’s still plenty to fight for, including a Medowie high school. I ask does she aspire to be premier one day.
“No, I don’t. I can’t see that. I suppose all I do is work as hard as I can and do the best job I can…I’ve always taken the view - rightly or wrongly - that if you just do the work, and you work hard, then people may notice, and you may get something else from it - or not.”
Before she dashes off to her next appointment, I ask Washington has she told her husband she has been preselected for the 2019 election; has she had that conversation?
“That’s a good question!,” Washington says, then pauses. “I think so!”