The bizarre local politics holding up the Supercars calendar
The state government supports the Newcastle 500, and the city’s mayor believes it is a major success, yet Bathurst is somehow firming as the 2024 Supercars season-opener.
As revealed by Speedcafe, Supercars is making contingency plans to kick off the next year’s campaign at Mount Panorama, and it now looks far more likely than not that they will need to be put into action.
While any number of deals may be as yet unfinalised, and/or dates not locked in, it is Newcastle – or otherwise – which is the main hold-up in finalising a 2024 calendar, and it has been for some time.
Taupo took longer to get over the line than was expected, but that task did involve an agreement with new governments, including the national-level Major Events Fund, after the closure of Pukekohe forced Supercars to look outside the Auckland region for its trip to New Zealand.
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While it is true that New South Wales elected a new government a fortnight after this year’s Newcastle 500, the change meant that not only is Supercars dealing with a Labor-controlled Newcastle City Council, it is now also Labor holding office at state level.
When one considers that it is also the same Destination NSW (DNSW) funding pot, the question has to be asked as to how this is all so hard.
Originally, it was a simple council numbers game, albeit a finely poised one, but then DNSW could only offer a one-year contract renewal, and a local politician went and got himself into hot water with the state’s anti-corruption commission, raising the stakes even further.
The Newcastle 500 has always been unpopular among a vocal group in the city’s East End, where the circuit snakes its way past 19th-century residences and two beaches.
The Newcastle East Residents Group, spearheaded by an outspoken septuagenarian former university lecturer called Christine Everingham, has been potent in pushing its anti-Supercars campaign through local media.
However, the Newcastle 500 has put the city on the map in a state which is Sydney plus some other nondescript bits so far as many outsiders – and even some who live in its capital city – are concerned.
Newcastle Lord Mayor Nuatali Nelmes has also made the point that there are positive economic spillovers for the surrounding council areas.
The problem for her is that they do not vote for her, or her 12 fellow Newcastle councillors.
Of those 12, spread evenly across four wards, six are members of the Labor party; with Cr Nelmes, that makes a Labor majority, but the slimmest one possible.
That could change in less than 12 months, with local government elections due on September 14.
The suburbs of Newcastle and Newcastle East, in which the circuit is located, are part of Ward 1, which is represented by a Green, an Independent, and a Labor councillor, Declan Clausen, the Deputy Lord Mayor.
Ward 1 is in fact a disparate mix of suburbs, some far more modest than those in the East End and probably partial to motorsport, but the point is, Supercars faces stiff opposition there.
At least, that is what we can conclude from the community consultation which council commissioned, held during and just after this year’s race event.
As previously reported by Speedcafe, that survey made for some damning headlines, but the online component was hardly rigorous, with results pointing to the likelihood that some respondents in hostile suburbs did so multiple times.
Despite that question mark, and despite the fact that the phone survey broke slightly favourably (as opposed to highly unfavourably) for Supercars, albeit with far fewer respondents, the consultation seems to have spooked councillors.
Labor, it seems, is worried about losing its majority on council, given Cr Clausen and Ward 1 and Cr Carol Duncan in Ward 2 would be vulnerable to an anti-Supercars push if the event continues.
Labor also has two councillors in each of Wards 3 and 4, where there is support for the Newcastle 500, while the Lord Mayor is not assigned to any particular ward.
At this point, council is stalling, kicking the can down the road until Supercars has to resort to Plan B for ‘Bathurst’.
It was not on the agenda at last month’s council meeting and the next one is not due until October 31, two days after the Gold Coast 500.
Even if it was on the agenda, there is another sticking point.
Through a combination of a new state government and, so it claims, the old one leaving a budget ‘black hole’, DNSW is only putting up a one-year contract for the renewal of the Newcastle 500.
It is an interim arrangement, offered with the intent that a longer-term deal be sorted at a later date, but the discrepancy between one year and the five upon which the aforementioned consultation was predicated has been weaponised by councillors.
A council spokesperson told the Newcastle Herald last month, “If the NSW government wishes to change the agreement with Supercars to a one-year arrangement, then the NSW government will need to fund and undertake community consultation on that proposal prior to it being considered by the elected council.”
Mayor Nelmes subsequently asserted in one breath that “Supercars has been very successful for Newcastle,” yet said in the other, “until we have a deal that is done based on the terms of our consultation earlier this year there isn’t actually anything for council to decide at the moment.”
Why, for opponents, is a one-year deal more objectionable than a five-year deal?
It is a means, disingenuous though it may be, of arguing that council failed to properly consult its constituents.
But, for those who are (broadly) supportive of the event, as Cr Nelmes is (if we take her at face value), why is an interim deal worse than no deal at all?
This is where the state MP comes in, and why Cr Nelmes – perhaps even Cr Clausen – appears to be caught in a bind.
Tim Crakanthorp, Member for Newcastle, was once a fellow supporter of Supercars, but has switched his position on the basis of the community consultation.
Between the surveying and publication of results, Crakanthorp was referred to the Independent Commission Against Corruption over non-disclosure of family property holdings, and is now under preliminary investigation.
Pending how that plays out, he may yet be expelled from his party, which so happens to be Labor.
In the event he triggers a by-election in the not-too-distant future, Nelmes is considered one of the favourites to be endorsed as Labor’s candidate, with the possibility that she be nominated by head office and a pre-selection battle avoided.
Furthermore, reports the Newcastle Herald, Cr Clausen would be expected to take over as Lord Mayor if Cr Nelmes moves up to state parliament.
That rather raises the stakes when the state government is supporting a major event in their city.
Do not discount also the possibility that another, whacky political episode has also held up talks.
Council Chief Executive Officer Jeremy Bath is currently the subject of an independent investigation over a strange letter-writing saga, involving a friend who has a pattern of correspondence with newspapers which support Bath’s causes in various matters, despite said friend simultaneously claiming to work in Japan and live in any number of suburbs around Greater Newcastle in the past decade.
It is the CEO who would sign the Newcastle 500 contract as council’s authorised representative, and Bath was on leave as at the time of the September council meeting, with a fill-in taking his role.
Regardless of that distraction, if council holds out long enough on making a decision about the Newcastle 500, then they have effectively made the decision anyway, without having to upset pro-Supercars groups including fans who flocked to the 2023 event.
Fortunately for them, time is on their side and not Supercars’ – this time around.
Next year, though, when Supercars is assembling its 2025 calendar, the Newcastle 500 will become a live issue again – just in time for council elections.
The state government wants the event, which has been good for the city’s image, and an absence from next year’s calendar is not necessarily its demise.
True, council is one of the three parties to the event contract, the others being the state government and the category itself, but that means that, sooner or later, it is going to have to make a decision.
For now, talks over Newcastle are understood to be ongoing, and Supercars has certainly not given up on its preferred option to start the 2024 season.
But, do not be surprised if teams are heading to Mount Panorama again next February – even if the underlying reasons might shock you.