TO hear Cessnock MP Clayton Barr tell the story, he shouldn’t be a politician.
Rejected by Labor;not really wanting to be a politician; persuaded to standbut in the 2011 election where Labor was as popular as a week-old bag of prawn heads in summer; then concerned about standing again in 2015 because of the demands on his wife and four young children.
Accidental: Cessnock MP Clayton Barr at Drayton winery. He was a teacher, children’s cancer charity manager and Port Stephens Council employee until he was persuaded to stand for NSW Parliament. Picture: Jonathan Carroll.
But things just seemto have a way of falling into place for the man who once told Parliament: “I was raised in Cessnock on a bed of coal from the coalfields of the Hunter.”
And of course there’s Kerry Hickey’s baby.
Clayton Barr is the man who won the seat of Cessnock after his Labor predecessor, Kerry Hickey, lied to the Herald about fathering a child to a parliamentary staffer, said he was going to retire, reversed the decision after speaking with then Premier Kristina Keneally, and reversed it again a few weeks later.
“Kerry made the announcement he wasn’t going to run and people were stunned, but then they started looking around the branches and my name was one of the names that came up,” Barr said.
His first contact with Labor was not encouraging. He was a teacher when he submitted a written application to join the party, but the party didn’t write back.
“I’d been applying for jobs and you often didn’t get a response so when Labor didn’t respond I thought I’d been rejected. I was a bit embarrassed about it but I decided I could live with it and move on,” he said.
It was Hunter MP Joel Fitzgibbon who later heard about the “rejection”, and checked and found there was no record of Barr having applied.Barrsigned up in 2004 while working as Hunter and Northern NSW manager of the children’s cancer charity, Canteen.
It wasHickey who persuaded him he had the makings of an MP.
“I didn’t even particularly want to be a politician, but Kerry kept at me. He said I should come down and see what went on, so I shadowed him in Parliament.
“At the time I was involved with a few community groups. I sat in on meetings in Parliament which had a direct impact on those community groups, and I thought ‘I wouldn’t mind being in the room where the decisions are made because that sounds like a way to make a bigger impact’.”
He was working as a recreational facilities manager for Port Stephens Council heading into the 2011 election. He half expected to be back with the council after the election, despite Cessnock being one of the strongestLabor seats in the state.
“Labor was on the nose, people had their baseball bats out, but here I am,” he said after Cessnock suffered a 7 per cent swing away from Labor, while the state average was 18 per cent.
Barr’s speeches in Parliament includesupport for the coal industry and workers, mining safety, grandparent carers, schools, children’s programs, and the standard grab-bag of issues pursued by a NSW MP.
He thinks the state’s seeming love affair with Premier Mike Baird will have an unhappy ending in 2020-21 when there are no more revenue streams from assets sold under this government, and taxpayers will be required to pick up the tab.
“Our entire asset base is being sold off and the legacy Baird will leave will be a dire one,” Barr said.
He plays cricket with the Premier,likes him as a person, and believesthe ethical side of Mike Baird struggles with the “really dry, conservative, free marketside of him that knows his government is making decisions that make life better for A, but worse for B”.
Barr is a strong supporter of the coal industry. His mother and father both worked for Hunter mines.
“Today, tomorrow and in my lifetime, energy will be provided by coal, coal and coal,” he said in a speech to Parliament in 2013. But he is also a realist.
“What is the future for coal? Everyone in politics agrees we are going to transition away from coal. The only question is how quickly it should happen.”
He is not impressed with Nathan Tinkler’s plan to buy the mothballed Dartbrook mine from Anglo Americanto develop as an open cut mine.
“The bloke’s left a bit of a path of destruction in this region. He needs to clean up the mess he’s left before he comes back wanting to start big plans again. Entrepreneurs probably need to have a bit of a take no prisoners approach to do what they do, but for every one of them there’s tens of thousands of people who say, ‘That’s not right’.”
Barr and wife Lisa met as students at Cessnock High School. Barr was repeating year 12 while his future wife was in year 10.
“We’ve been married for 19 years and we were together for seven years before that,” Barr said.
In his first speech to Parliament Barr thanked his wife and children Isla, Mali, Aubrey and Elsie, ages 11 to 5.
“You think you know what you’re getting in for when you take on this job, but it is really tough on the family. I am away a heck of a lot.”
He ended the speech with a plea to make the time away from his family worthwhile.
“Inpolitics things are not all black and white; there is a lot of grey.We will argue over the grey, but we must argue with passion. Passion shows a deep love and belief in a person’s view. An argument without passion is just blah, blah, and already in these first few weeks I have seen far too much of that.”