DINING with Newcastle Lord Mayor Nuatali Nelmes, I figured I’d be hearing a lot about her vision for the city, and the future.
But before our lunch at The Umbrian cafe has even been placed on the table, I’m starting to feel like I’m stuck in the past.
“I honestly don’t know how people don’t use this,” Nelmes says, as she demonstrates a fitness and health tracking device and app on her mobile phone, all the while remonstrating with me. For I’ve just rolled my eyes and admitted I don’t have such a life-changing app on my phone.
“Wouldn’t you want to know!? I don’t understand how you don’t want to know!”
In Nuatali Nelmes’ company, you’ve got to keep up. After all, this is a person who begins her day as early as 5am at the gym and is often not in bed before midnight. So while she has an app that “tracks your sleep”, there isn’t much to track.
The issue of age features in our lively lunch conversation. Nuatali Nelmes argues some older members of Newcastle’s council and community have given her a hard time, in part, because of her age. She’s 42.
“I’m Gen Y,” Nelmes says. I swallow the desire to tell her she is actually Gen X.
“I saw that look! You almost rolled your eyes again at me!”
But Nelmes asserts her age is a great asset in a changing Newcastle.
“There’s a transition of leadership happening in this city,” Nelmes says. “Very overdue and very needed. I’m very happy to be a part of it.”
NUATALI Nelmes is a Novocastrian. She was born in 1976 – “The Year of the Dragon” – and grew up in a politically aware household in Brown Street in the city. Her parents, Paul and Suzanne Scobie, had been active in the community. She was involved in street theatre; he had worked on environmental campaigns. Paul Scobie would later become a local Labor councillor, serving until he was succeeded by his daughter.
“They were a very progressive couple,” Nelmes recalls, explaining her parents shared the household roles and were very supportive of Nuatali and her younger sister. “There was no limit to what you could do or what you want to be. They were very pro-education. To a certain degree they allowed me a range of independence.”
As a student, Nuatali Scobie’s interests lay not in the political arena but at the beach and on the basketball court. At 171 centimetres tall, Nuatali was not a towering presence on the court, but she was competitive, making a regional representative side that toured the United States when she was 15.
Matriculating from Newcastle High, Nuatali didn’t know what she wanted to do. So, at her mother’s suggestion, she enrolled in an arts degree at the University of Newcastle. Industrial relations, human resources, and marketing grabbed her interest, so she changed to a business degree.
“I particularly liked studying the nature of work, the structure of work, and the impact on our way of life,” she says.
In the mid-1990s, there was plenty to study in Newcastle, as its traditional industrial bases were withering or radically changing. Not that the university student saw herself as helping shape the city’s future in a political way.
She may have joined the ALP when she was 20, but “never in a million years would I have ever, back then, thought I’d be going into a political [career], never.”
About a decade later, after she had married Stuart Nelmes and they had three children, it was the sum of everyday moments that pushed Nuatali towards running for council. As a young mother who was regularly using the city’s infrastructure, she noticed where improvements could be made, such as the footpaths.
“I was, ‘This is terrible. You can’t fit a pram along here! This play equipment’s terrible’,” Nelmes recalls.
She believed the council was in need of younger voices and views, and she figured this was the time in her life to run.
“My intention was, ‘My children are little, three under five, it’s part-time, it’s at night, I can make this work. I can do it for four years – a term is four years – it’s my community service . . . and then just go back to my normal life.’”
Her father, who was planning to retire, offered succinct advice: Don’t run for council. But she did, and in 2008 was elected as a councillor.
Despite her initial four-year plan, when 2012 rolled around, Nelmes stood as the ALP’s lord mayoral candidate. Independent and developer Jeff McCloy was elected lord mayor. Nelmes got on with her busy life until two years later, when McCloy resigned amid a corruption investigation.
I ask her why she decided to stand for lord mayor again.
Nelmes goes into politics-speak: “I’d already half done it in 2012, and I got a lot of support in 2012.” She had “got runs on the board” as a councillor. Supporters “did have a lot of faith in my ability”.
Yes, but, personally, why did she stand?
“I saw an opportunity to deliver to Newcastle what Newcastle had always been missing and needed, and that was someone who would negotiate out win-wins and stop playing the political card of picking a side and having a fight with someone about something . . . I was always interested in the win-win.”
Nelmes won. She was elected lord mayor in 2014, becoming the city’s second female leader, after Joy Cummings, who in 1974 was voted in as Australia’s first female lord mayor.
Yet the job, and pushing for change, came at a cost, as Nelmes contended with critics, including from within what she felt was a “hostile administration”.
In 2016, Nelmes told the Herald: “Local government is full of middle-aged, white men. Unless you’ve been a woman in my job, at my age, you don’t know what it’s like.”
When I ask her to explain what it is like, she replies, “It’s much better than it was. Two years ago was Game of Thrones, day in, day out, every day of my life.”
She believes her age and gender were “definitely contributing factors”.
“I didn’t expect the level of misogyny that came my way,” she says. “I grew up in a household where it didn’t exist. I’m very much an eternal optimist, and I just assume that if you work hard and with the right intentions and do a good job, people will see that, and then it doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman, or old or young.”
Given the conflicts and the tension she confronted during her first term as lord mayor, why did she run again – successfully – in last year’s election?
“I almost didn’t, to be honest with you,” Nelmes replies. “It was so torturous, but eventually I did.”
One reason, she says, is that she didn’t want to give in to those wanting to unseat her: “You either stand up and fight, or you just lay down. And my personality is always going to be dig my heels in and stand up and fight.”
Husband Stuart, who she had married in 2000, had reservations: “The last time around, he was supportive, but he wasn’t really into it . . . He probably had had enough. And I think he finds it difficult sometimes having a high-profile partner.”
While Nelmes chose The Umbrian for lunch because its “meatballs are amazing”, the cafe also offers a view of what the lord mayor would consider as one of those win-wins she was talking about: the light rail construction project.
She points out the NSW government project was in place by the time she took office. The council could have stood in the way, but “that is just not what the city needed”. The key was “to negotiate what you could get out of that for Newcastle, and make sure there was investment and progress, moving forward”.
“I see the project is a hundred times better than how it started.”
Asking her what she sees out the door, beyond the new pavers and wire fences along Hunter Street, the lord mayor replies, “I see the city of Newcastle moving slowly but surely into a new era.”
The state government, which sits on the other side of politics to Nelmes, has been full of praise for the lord mayor on this project. On a recent visit, Planning Minister Anthony Roberts called her “a very worthy representative” of the city, and Transport Minister Andrew Constance declared, “What a breath of fresh air from the Labor Party. Someone who is actually prepared to go against the grain and stand up and say, ‘I want the city to breathe’, I want it to be revitalised’.”
Andrew Constance went further, calling the Labor state Member for Newcastle Tim Crakanthorp the “whinger-in-chief” and asserted, “I’d urge Nuatali to stand against him for preselection, so that we can get rid of this detractor, once and for all.”
Nelmes is dismissive of that endorsement: “He’s just playing his Macquarie Street games in Newcastle. He can say and do whatever he wants, so long as he keeps pouring money into this city and fixing the transport network, because there’s a lot of work still to do.”
When asked if a state or federal seat is next for her, Nelmes snaps back: “Isn’t it interesting that everyone thinks state and federal are more important?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Yes, you did. By inference.”
“No, I said what’s next.”
“Why would you assume this isn’t good enough?”
“Well, I don’t assume that. My assumption is based on this - you have run in the past for both a state and federal position. So it’s not without reason that I would ask you.”
Nelmes was on the ALP ticket for the Senate in the 2013 federal election, and she nominated for preselection for the 2014 by-election for the state seat of Newcastle.
She finally offers, “If at some point in time, well into the future, I choose to stay in politics and want to move out of local government, I’d consider it. But at this very present point in time, for quite some time, there’s still a lot of work to do as the Lord Mayor of the City of Newcastle to get us to where we need to be.”
Where she needs to be now is at another meeting.
Where has the time gone? Especially the past 10 years for Nuatali Nelmes.
“The problem with me is I didn’t plan to go into it,” she muses. “I’ve only really probably in the last 12 months, second term into being a lord mayor and full-time, gone, ‘Well, I guess I’m in politics now’.”
But there’s always time for one last piece of advice.
“You should just download some apps tonight,” she tells me. “And see what the rest of the world is doing.”
I laugh: “See, this would have been a much shorter interview, if you hadn’t have lectured me the whole time.”
“Am I lecturing you?,” the lord mayor replies, smiling.
“I feel like I’m giving you friendly advice.”