Port Stephens MP Kate Washington marks first year in office

LOOKING BACK: Kate Washington celebrating a day after being elected as the Port's state MP. Picture: Phil Hearne
LOOKING BACK: Kate Washington celebrating a day after being elected as the Port's state MP. Picture: Phil Hearne

METEORIC is one way to describe year one for Port Stephens MP Kate Washington.

Labor quickly repaid her political talent with promotion to the shadow cabinet as opposition spokeswoman for the Hunter and early education.  

Ms Washington overcame a Liberal margin of 14.7 per cent to seize the seat on March 28, 2015. It followed the resignation of Liberal MP Craig Baumann amid an Independent Commission Against Corruption hearing into political donations.

On election night she proudly declared she wanted to be a member people could trust. Twelve months on Ms Washington said the people she represents, still come first, in a position that’s thrown up a litany of challenges.

“I don’t know that anyone could have an understanding of what’s involved until you’re there,” she said.

“And largely its what you make of the position.”

There was no adjustment period for Ms Washington. 

She no sooner got the keys to the Raymond Terrace electorate office when the April super storm hit and in quick succession revelation of Williamtown’s groundwater contamination.

The first gave her confidence to tackle the second.

“I wouldn’t say it was fortunate but the flooding gave me a better understanding of the surface water interaction with contaminants from the Williamtown base,” she said.

The end of March not only marks one year in office –  it marks 100 days since the senate inquiry into the contamination. The milestone only reinforced her desire for action.

“My frustration reflects the community’s frustration,” she said.

“The community is sadly in the situation where they have to consider legal action.

“They need support to get through this and they need to be compensated for the losses they’ve sustained.”

A favourite retort of governments worldwide is that a member of the opposition will never achieve much.

Ms Washington started campaigning for a Medowie high school eight years before she entered politics. There’s been little progress in the past 12 months and she suggests a change of tact is required before her constituents will see any movement.

“Basically, the government is in denial that Medowie needs a secondary school,” she said.

“But I’ve continued to have conversations with the [education] department.

“It needs to go back to the drawing board.”

In 2007 Ms Washington was part of a working party that devised a Medowie high school proposal. In hindsight, Ms Washington said the model was too focused on Medowie and needed to consider student numbers across Port Stephens.

“The [eductation] minister’s office never supported the model,” she said.

“We need to look at a model for all of Port Stephens where there are numerous push-points in the system.”

But she hasn’t backed down on education. In May 2015, Ms Washington grilled the government on its proposal to increase spending if a lease deal was struck on the state’s poles and wires.

She said the government couldn’t be trusted to follow through on this and she was ejected for her interjections.

“I think I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been kicked out,” she said. In practice it means little about my ability to do the job it only demonstrates the government’s resistance to be brought to order.

“The government often says things that don’t reflect reality in the electorate and the scary thing is, they believe what they say.”  

Since her election Ms Washington has redoubled her efforts to clean up what she claims has been a troubled organisation – Port Stephens Council – and remove the mayor, Cr Bruce MacKenzie. Having previously taken her concerns to the Office of Local Government in 2010, 2011 and 2012, she asked the Minister himself, Paul Toole, to act in question time, in August 2015.

“In terms of the community I think there was relief if nothing else that this was finally being discussed,” she said.

“But I fear that action might have had unexpected consequences, those being the proposed [Newcastle-Port Stephens] merger.

“I think it’s the government using an existing medium to solve a problem they’ve got.

“I was actually calling on the government to do its job and install an administrator.”

But like many in Port Stephens, Ms Washington doesn’t see the proposed Newcastle merger as any sort of solution. That’s prompted her to take up the fight alongside Port Stephens Council. 

“The chaotic process that is the review of proposed mergers will continue for some months,” she predicted.

“We have to try and stay one step ahead so we can maneuver a better outcome for Port Stephens. I think the Dungog option is better if we have to merge with someone.”

Its often said that a politician’s success is the ability to work across the various tiers of government. But Ms Washington stands firm in her belief that her campaign against Cr Bruce MacKenzie hasn’t been a setback.

“Prior to the election the mayor had said I would never represent the people of Port Stephens – there was never going to be a good relationship there with [Cr MacKenzie],” she said.

“In terms of my efficacy and doing my job I have continued to work well with council staff to resolve issues on behalf of my constituents.”  

That’s an area of great pride for the lawyer.

“I’ve found it immensely challenging this past year with enormous amounts of work but I’m getting such a positive response from the community that I find rewarding,” she said.

“Ultimately, though, the community will make its assessments at the next election.”

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