SIX candidates are running to be Newcastle's next lord mayor. Over the next few days, reporter Max McKinney will ask them why they're vying for the top job, how they think the council is performing and what's next for the city. Today it's The Greens' John Mackenzie, a research consultant from Tighes Hill who has been a councillor since 2017.
John, why are running for lord mayor?
Over the past four years I've gotten pretty deep involved in the work of council; I've chaired committees, I've been the only councillor to do a full term on the audit and risk committee, I've been the representative on the regional planning panel and I've really built my understanding of council business.
But I think I also have the skills and personal abilities to build collaboration and for creating cooperative working relationships, and getting consensus.
I think I've demonstrated that; it's never been my name in the scandals or divisive behaviour on council.
I know it's a big step for the city to have a Green mayor, I get that. It's a big step for me personally but ... I feel like I'm ready.
That division in the chamber this term, how is that impacting council?
I find it deeply unpleasant and I mostly worry about the ripple effects across the community. There's the offensive language and the name-calling and the theatrics of it all, and I know that that gets headlines, but it does real damage to the public confidence in the council and the trust people have in the institution. We can leave that type of behaviour to the state and federal parliaments. The community trusts us to work together. It's what residents want and what they deserve.
What has the council done well this past term?
When we put aside divisive behaviour and work together for the betterment of the community, I think we show ourselves that we're quite capable and a force for making people's lives better.
For instance, the response to COVID, work to address coastal erosion at Stockton and to some extent the ocean baths restoration. These are big deciding moments and city-shopping legacies. They weren't politicised.
Why does the council get caught up on some issues then?
There's always going to be that opportunity for people to try and distinguish themselves, or make a name for themselves, or put their agenda forward, and I think that is sometimes done at the expense of actually collaboratively working with the other councillors.
What can the next council do better?
The way that we work in partnership with the community. When we undertake projects and ... communicate up front, and engage in a meaningful way before decisions are made, we get better outcomes.
Council has a few times this term led with its chin in terms of big capital works projects. Concept designs have gone out and created confusion and anxiety in the community before projects have been defined.
We need to learn to bring the community in at the beginning ... and walk together.
What needs to change in Newcastle?
When COVID put everybody back to their suburbs, I think people got reacquainted with where they live and the services and amenities that they have.
It was quite revealing - a tale of two cities.
Some people fell back in love with their suburbs, they rediscovered their green spaces, cycleways and playgrounds. For other people, they found amenities were not where they should be and had been sadly neglected.
What needs to change is we need to be looking to the suburbs. We need to make sure renewal and community services extend right across the council area ... we can't concentrate that area on the city centre. Access to services can't depend on your postcode.
What's the future of Newcastle and how can the council help shape that?
Newcastle is probably the most liveable city in Australia at the moment, but I think our liveability is a double-edge sword. It's what is bringing people here, it's attracting investment, it's bringing new talent and energy, [but] at the same time it's driving housing demand.
Council has a vital role in protecting and enhancing those liveability aspects; the beauty and natural assets, the lifestyle benefits, the access to high-quality services.
What is the biggest challenge facing council?
Climate change and housing. Not only do we have to get our emissions down, we have to have a jobs plan to make sure everyone in our community is a part of that transition.
The housing affordability crisis is very much trying to make sure we're supplying the much needed social and affordable housing in the city. Council has an important role but can't do it without collaboration with the state and federal government.
Ensuring affordability and liveability is going to be a real problem for not only just Newcastle, but many of the regional councils that are seeing this population boom.
And the biggest opportunity?
Also climate change. There's an enormous amount of work that needs to be done to get on top of emissions but also to chart the way for the next phase of industries that are going to replace the fossil-fuel industries of the past.
Newcastle is very well placed to take advantage of that between the port, the access to expertise in manufacturing and energy industries - we've seen already the big movements made in the area of green hydrogen and that as a potential export industry.
There's great opportunities if seized in that way for the city to very much become a large player in the renewable energy industry space.
What are your priorities in the next term?
Pushing for a carbon-neutral city, increasing our canopy cover, increasing our investment in cycleways, making sure we deliver 15 per cent affordable housing in all housing [developments] we see constructed in the city.
It's about seeing all of those components as part of a package that builds the resilience of the city, and a preparedness for a climate-changed future, but at the same time taking advantage of the opportunities that that presents.
You're an incumbent councillor, so if elected lord mayor what do you want to be different in this next term compared to the past?
Recognition that every councillor sitting around that table has every right to be there.
I'd like to see and build a more collaborative working environment with less divisiveness, more representation of diverse and opposing views in committees and decision-making, rotating responsibilities for key roles and a greater effort on consensus building in and outside the chamber.
A message to voters?
There's lots of work to be done: affordable housing to build, climate action to deliver, bushland to protect and enhance. There are great qualities about Newcastle but there's every opportunity to make it even better, and we should be prepared to roll up our sleeves and work together and deliver that for residents and ratepayers.
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