Newcastle socialist candidate: It’s time to put people before profit

December 2, 2021
Steve O’Brien is the Socialist Alliance Newcastle candidate for Ward 1 and Lord Mayor.

Perhaps my favourite Newcastle story is that of the group of elderly women who helped shape local democracy.

Until the 1970s, local government was essentially the domain of the big end of town, not residents, and certainly not renters.

Only property owners could vote for mayors and councillors. In the City of Sydney, to this day, property owners get multiple votes.

Party machines and influential developers ensured that most councillors were either naive, compliant or somnolent, or perhaps all three.

Council transparency was minimal. For example, business papers for council meetings were only available to the media.

This lack of transparency meant that developers could play dirty. Some developers, for example, targeted residents in the Cooks Hill and Newcastle East terraces.

They would buy up the end terrace on a row of terraces and demolish it. The adjoining terrace was now only protected from the elements by what was only built to be an interior wall. The terrace would deteriorate, becoming damp and unliveable, and thus become cheaper to buy. The developer would then buy it and repeat the process.

By the 1970s, people had developed awareness and attitudes towards this behaviour, and about heritage and the environment. They started to question plans for their neighbourhoods.

East Enders, for example, realised that if they were able to register their community newsletter as a newspaper, they could then access council business papers. This is how they learned that plans were afoot to demolish their homes.

Their community newsletter, printed by hand on a kitchen table and letterboxed throughout the East End, spread the news.

Jean Perrett, Del de Glorion, and Ada Bender formed the Newcastle East Residents Group (NERG) in 1970.

NERG went on to help set up the Cooks Hill Resident’s Group in 1973. The Hill Residents Group was established in 1975.

Typical of Newcastle at the time, many residents were also unionists.

Newcastle Trades Hall officials and socialists such as Keith Wilson and Peter Barrack heard the residents out when they were asked to support work bans on proposed demolitions.

Green bans had just started in Sydney after Hunters Hill society women asked the Builders Labourers Federation to protect Kellys Bush Park.

The green bans took root in the East End and spread to sites across The Hill and Cooks Hill to the extent that some say Newcastle had more in place than Sydney. It is partly thanks to this movement that we retain elements of the connection with the Worimi and Awabakal peoples, as well as many reminders of our convict and colonial past.

In 1976, Neville Wran was elected state premier partly on the strength of empowered communities and their ideas about heritage, shared amenity and green spaces.

Better planning laws, consultation and the Land and Environment Court came about under Wran. Residents and tenants, not only homeowners, won the right to vote in local council elections.

This extended voting franchise meant councillors with commitment to consultation and community were elected to different council chambers around the state.

Changing political winds, however, eventually saw the election of pro-developer and neoliberal state governments.

The Land and Environment Court was watered down to favour developers. Councils were corporatised, and some were forcibly amalgamated; town clerks became CEOs on half million-dollar salaries; community assets were sold; and services, such as building compliance and inspection were privatised.

“Tick and flick” consultation means residents are now less aware of what is being approved in their neighbourhoods. 

Community consultation is not an abstract concept. Lack of consultation has real, local and ongoing ramifications. The concrete and glass edifice that you knew nothing about until it suddenly appeared around the corner can become the precedent by which an overshadowing skyscraper is approved next door to your place.

As the likes of Perrett, Bender and de Glorion have shown, determined community-minded people can successfully challenge powerful and entrenched interests, and the governments that serve them, to create communities and cities that are sustainable, affordable, socially just and inclusive. That’s the kind city I want to live in and contribute to.

[Steve O’Brien is the Socialist Alliance Newcastle candidate for Ward 1 and Lord Mayor. He works at TAFE and lives in Newcastle East.]

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