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Newcastle Herald
Newcastle Herald
Michael Parris

Labor factional tensions play out in council preselection battle

Newcastle Labor party members are challenging incumbent councillors for preselection.

Member disillusionment or factional war?

The challengers taking on all seven sitting Labor councillors for party preselection this month have been at pains to play down the rebellious nature of the move.

Long-time party member Ross Kerridge, who is contesting preselection against lord mayor Nuatali Nelmes, last week characterised the across-the-board challenge as "probably a bit of built-up energy" among the Newcastle rank-and-file.

That would appear to be an understatement.

The first all-out preselection challenge in 29 years has been cast by some of those involved as a symptom of member dissatisfaction with council policy and the way Labor councillors interact with branch members.

Those on the other side of the fence characterise it as a good, old-fashioned factional putsch by members of the party's Right and Soft Left.

Both Cr Nelmes and deputy lord mayor Declan Clausen are aligned locally to Newcastle federal MP Sharon Claydon and at a state level to the Hard Left, which has partnered with the Right under Premier Chris Minns to effectively dominate the Labor government.

The counter-narrative to the "member dissatisfaction" view is that the isolated Soft Left faction, which includes Wallsend MP Sonia Hornery and Newcastle MP Tim Crakanthorp, has aligned with the Right in Newcastle to reassert itself and challenge the Hard Left hegemony.

Members of the Right faction predicted internal challenges to the council Labor incumbents before the last scheduled local government elections in 2020.

That election was postponed due to COVID-19, and the anticipated insurrection never materialised.

Instead, Cr Nelmes did not face a preselection contest and Newcastle residents returned her comfortably as lord mayor in 2021, her third election victory with 42 per cent of the popular vote.

Labor retained its six ward councillors and its council majority, but the blood feuds, factional battles and personality clashes have continued unabated in the background.

Dr Kerridge declined to comment when asked if the rival preselection tickets in each of the city's four wards had been coordinated.

It seems obvious that some of the challengers, but perhaps not all, are on the same wavelength.

Some of the challengers have mentioned their frustration with the "privatisation" of the city's pools, one of the issues that has sparked the open warfare between Ms Hornery and the council.

Dr Kerridge was diplomatic last week in his language about the pools, but he was more fired up in July last year when he told the Newcastle Herald he was "gobsmacked" by how the council had handled the issue.

"I'm just appalled by the behaviour of council," he said at the time.

"They don't seem to be really considering the needs of the people of Newcastle."

The Herald reported two weeks ago that the lord mayor's chief of staff, Matt Murray, had formally charged Georgetown-Waratah branch secretary Justin Davis under party rules with "illegally" calling a fresh election of delegates to the Labor Newcastle local government committee.

Mr Davis had earlier alleged in a letter to head office that Mr Murray was involved in an attempt to stack the Georgetown-Waratah branch in August with four new members aligned to Cr Nelmes.

The party hierarchy dismissed Mr Davis' concerns.

Mr Davis is now on a rival ticket with Linda Barter and Dr Kerridge in ward three.

Last year, amid accusations of bullying, members loyal to Ms Hornery split from the Wallsend branch to form a new branch in the Fletcher area.

Forces loyal to Ms Hornery have apparently lost control of the party's Wallsend State Electorate Council.

The Georgetown-Waratah, Beresfield and Merewether branches have all passed motions in recent months criticising the council.

An estimated 300 party members will decide on February 17 whether Cr Nelmes and the other six Labor councillors face voters again in September.

Game on.

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