Steve O’Brien is running for Lord Mayor of Newcastle as well as Ward 1 councillor. He is a committed environmentalist who supports the need to transition from coal and other fossil fuels rapidly. He also opposes the privatisation of council and public assets.
How long have you lived in Newcastle?
After growing up in Broken Hill, I took a “short-term” job at the BHP’s Newcastle steelworks and ended up working there for about 10 years. So I’ve lived in Newcastle for about 40 years now.
Tell me a little about your family/family life?
My partner and I both come from big families where working together mattered more than possessions. Last year we celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary. We are blessed with two children who, like most young adults, are grappling with the difficult realities of securing affordable housing. I’m fortunate to have a partner who shares my world view and kids who put up with an activist father.
Your interests outside of work? Any hobbies? Do you manage to have any spare time? If so, what do you like to do in it?
I’ll read just about anything, and I also like to write. I’ve studied Spanish most of my life and love practising with Latin American and Spanish friends. I follow the local soccer. During the lockdown, we rehomed a feisty old Dachshund. I enjoy our daily walks as she sniffs around the lanes and parks of Newcastle East, where we live.
What did you do early in your career?
After BHP, I worked in Work Health and Safety, information management and spent 10 years working in development with poor communities in Latin America and Southern Africa. I’ve often served as the union delegate in my work, and from this, I’ve learned a lot about listening, organising and negotiating. I was recently elected as a NSW Vice President of the State Public Services Federation.
What is your current profession? How will this guide you in the role of mayor?
I’m a librarian in TAFE and teach Social Policy and Sociology as a casual academic. These experiences, plus the qualifications I’ve gained along the way (PhD in Health Sociology, Master of Fine Art, Diplomas in Information Management and Project Management) have helped me to see issues from various perspectives. I’ll put these skills to work in the role of mayor to provide positive and just outcomes for the community.
What is the Socialist Alliance, and what do they represent for those who may not know?
Socialist Alliance supports a more social and community-focused society, rather than extreme individualism and the excesses of “dog eat dog” capitalism. Our activist centre, the Newcastle Resistance Centre, is in Hunter Street. The mural on the Honeysuckle-facing wall of the centre sums us up pretty well: For the billions, not the billionaires. Within the council, this translates to councillors who would be focused on equity of services and our policies as set out in our People Before Profit Campaign.
What is the People Before Profit Campaign?
We want to put the interests of residents first, rather than those of big developers. Long-time Ward 1 residents, for example, are being priced out of their neighbourhoods as developers take over. So we don’t support more rate rises. Another “people first” idea is to promote a healthier city through better public transport and cycleways connections and free council pools.
I’m also standing as a councillor in Ward 1 with running mates who work in people-centred professions: Associate Professor Samantha Ashby is an occupational therapist who lives in Mayfield, and Darcy Lemmich is an aged care nurse who lives in Hamilton.
What do you think of Newcastle and its people?
I love that Newcastle people don’t take injustice lightly. I admire anyone “having a go” on behalf of their communities: campaigners who kept Stockton and Mayfield swimming pools open, the bathers fighting to save the Newcastle Ocean Baths and its natural features, residents and businesses campaigning against the Supercars race, communities along the rail line fighting to get coal trains covered and dust levels monitored.
I also admire local activists such as those campaigning for a faster transition from coal to renewable energy, the Save the Link Road environmentalists, Black Lives Matter activists, unionists defending public services and campaigners against poverty and gender-based violence.
If elected, what will be your number one priority? Outline a few plans you would like to see come to fruition and things you will focus on.
My number one priority will be to push for council to tackle big issues such as affordable housing actively. I support ideas like rent control and making big developers contribute to providing affordable housing. The council should also act on the climate emergency by planning to phase out the coal loaders and not support emission-producing events like Supercars. These actions would help build a fairer Newcastle.
What areas of the city do you think need significant improvement/attention?
We don’t need any more vanity projects. The $30M subsidy to Supercars and the $10M overspend on the new council offices could have been better used to deliver affordable housing, upgrade community shared spaces and measures to transition from fossil fuels. In addition, the coal trains need to be covered, and industrial pollution monitored more transparently.
What is Newcastle’s greatest asset?
Newcastle people’s sense of solidarity and their ability to network and build community. Experience tells us that it is only when we stand up for ourselves that we get listened to.
What are your reasons behind running for Lord Mayor? Why should voters elect you?
We need real consultation, which empowers people and puts people before profits. If we’d had genuine, not just tick and flick consultation, for example, we’d be repairing, rather than remodelling the Ocean Baths, and we wouldn’t have Supercars. I’d also like to reverse the situation where residents in some suburbs seem neglected and overlooked. I also think the Lord Mayor and senior council executives are overpaid and out of touch, so I’d only take an average wage if elected.
How do you see your fellow Lord Mayoral candidates? How do you think you differ from them?
I respect the other candidates and acknowledge their commitment. Nonetheless, they seem to be mainly about “business as usual”. If you believe that we are in a climate emergency and a time of serious social crisis, then you have to think and respond differently and with urgency. Our low-lying suburbs will be at risk of flooding. Many people have no job security and aren’t even sure they can keep a roof over their heads. We need a return to community first values and a U-turn on many policy fronts. I return phone calls, and I am always available on 0490 122 377.