Newcastle's 'crew' on the policy radar

September 10, 2008

Public discussion during Newcastle's council election campaign has shifted to the left.

In the weeks leading up to the election, a "law and order" campaign looked likely. After four years of petty squabbles, most of the current councillors had found something to unite against: young people.

The Lord Mayor, independent John Tate, supported by the business lobby, came out swinging with an anti-graffiti campaign, proposing a dob in a "graf" artist hotline. Even one of the Greens councillors bought into the issue, calling for more police resources.

Then two independent councillors, Aaron Buman and Helene O'Neil, attacked the council-funded youth venue "The Loft" after it put out a magazine that related to the Emo sub-culture. Meanwhile, the council supported the police's attempt to expand their creeping control over the city's nightlife by extending a 1am curfew and lock-down.

With hysteria about "anti-social behaviour" rising, publicity hounds Tate and ALP MP Jody Mackay tried to bring down the axe on the Newcastle beach skate park. According to them, the skate park meant graffiti, which meant an eyesore for the luxury apartments being built nearby.

But this open season on young people ended when the "the crew" turned up at the Newcastle beach skate park with a journalist and photographer from the Newcastle Herald. Announcing their nomination for the council elections, Socialist Alliance members Zane Alcorn, Laura Ealing and Tom Cameron pointed out that the offensive sight at the skate park was not the ramps and graffiti, but the coal ships dotting the horizon.

In a series of media profiles, public forums and interviews, "the crew" have succeeded in directing public debate away from the "war on graffiti" to the "war on climate change" by putting forward a number of practical proposals to reduce CO2 emissions. These include extending the currently free public transport system in Newcastle's CBD and a system of interest-free loans for households to install solar panels using the federal rebate scheme.

The centrepiece of the Socialist Alliance's strategy, a plan to take the city off the grid, modelled on Woking Borough Council in England, has won the support of several candidates in Ward Three. Greens Lord Mayoral candidate Michael Osborne has also obtained media coverage with calls for stronger practical action on climate change.

While the debate has shifted to the left, the ALP has shifted to the right. Abandoning past practice, it has done a preference deal with Aaron Buman, a maverick who has consistently voted against Labor and the Greens on the council. The ALP hopes that Buman will deliver them enough votes to wipe out all four Greens councillors and Tate.

The deal with Buman indicates the significant right-wing pressure on the ALP "left" in Newcastle. A number of local progressives, such as former MPs Bryce Gaudry, Allan Morris and Arthur Wade, have been expelled by the NSW ALP Right or resigned from the party, along with a swag of their supporters.

While the ALP is desperate to win at any cost, Ealing and the rest of "the crew" take a longer view. "We wanted to run in the council elections to put the important issues like climate change on the agenda", she said. "We don't have to get the most votes to change the policy focus, and we don't have to wait for Kevin Rudd to do something about climate change; councils can start making changes at a local level."

The Greens are facing an uphill battle to retain all their seats on the council given the ALP's dirty preferences deal. The Newcastle Greens were the first to win a local government seat, in 1991, and have maintained that representation ever since.

Therese Doyle, former deputy mayor of Concord and the Greens' candidate for Ward Two, told Green Left Weekly that the Greens prioritise climate change. In the outgoing council they successfully put a motion opposing the further expansion of Newcastle coal exports. Doyle emphasised that becoming sustainable also meant retaining public ownership and control of electricity generation in NSW.

The Greens and the Socialist Alliance are exchanging preferences in the Newcastle elections.

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