HE may be a couple of kilometres away from the nearest beach, but Ben Neil has some of Newcastle's most popular surf breaks in his Hunter Street restaurant.
On the menu at the Newy Burger Co are delicacies wearing names that are undeniably, unashamedly local. The Dudley Burger, the Redhead Burger, the Bar Beef Burger, and the Stocko Burger are among the fare in the restaurant.
"All the burgers had an actual surf break named after them," says Mr Neil. "We've also had a few specials and then come up with some other breaks as well."
Such as when a ship runs aground?
"Yeah, there was a Pasha Bulker burger!," he replies.
For the past few years, the restaurateur has been riding a less predictable wave as change has whooshed through the heart of his hometown, notably along Hunter Street.
From the disruptions caused by major building developments and the building of the light rail network to the onset of COVID, the wave of change has often felt like a tsunami crashing down onto Ben Neil's business.
While his business has floated along, others have been sunk or washed out of the city, and, as he points out, that can be seen along Hunter Street.
"There's a lot of operators, not only in hospitality, but in retail and other services, that have sort of had a grind over the last two years and longer, if you look at things like the light rail, and the long-term growing pains of a developing city," explains Mr Neil.
"And the one thing I've been critical of is not a great amount of support for small, local business. You've only got to look down the street now, and the same 'For Lease', 'For Sale' signs that have been there for three and four years or more, it's getting people into those and reactivating the CBD and surrounds."
For that reason, Ben Neil hopes the needs of small businesses, and of a dramatically changing city, are on the minds of voters and candidates standing for the federal seat of Newcastle at the May 21 poll.
"Certainly there's been a lot of money that Newcastle has generated for the coffers of state and federal level governments. It would be great if some of that money was invested back in," he says.
But Ben Neil has his doubts that support will be coming to this seat.
"I'm a small business owner, I'm not a political person by any means, but I think that we certainly miss out because it is a safe seat," he says. "I think the focus on wooing Newcastle is probably not as predominant as it might be in other seats that aren't quite as stable."
For all the changes that have reworked the face and character of Newcastle in recent years, one constant is the way people vote for who they want to represent them in Canberra.
The heart of its working-class community - the BHP steelworks - may have closed more than 20 years ago, all but erasing its identity as the "Steel City", but Newcastle remains a Labor town.
And Newcastle sticks by its elected members.
Since the seat came into being at the same time as the nation did 121 years ago, Newcastle has been represented by just six MPs, all Labor. The latest federal Member for Newcastle, Sharon Claydon, has been in the job for almost a decade, since 2013.
While other electorates in the region have stepped into "marginal" territory, Newcastle continues to offer the ALP a comfortable buffer, with a margin of 13.8 per cent.
Ben Neil is not the only Novocastrian who believes Newcastle's safe seat status affects how much the electorate is noticed in, and how much it gets from, Canberra.
"I do need to say I think our local politicians on all levels do a fantastic job of advocating for Newcastle," says the Very Reverend Katherine Bowyer, who is Dean of Newcastle in the local Anglican diocese.
"But I do feel because we're a safe seat of currently the 'wrong' political colour, then we are overlooked because there's no votes to be bought here. That might sound cynical, but I think it's a reality.
"And we're not receiving the funding for what is critical in the largest city outside Sydney. We have exponential growth. Working from home means more people are moving from Sydney to Newcastle and surrounds. If the infrastructure isn't going to keep up with it, then we're not going to thrive well."
Dean Katherine is based at Christ Church Cathedral, a majestic building that crowns Newcastle, high enough on The Hill to have not yet been obscured by the multi-storey apartment complexes spreading like a pandemic through the city.
Her workplace may be devoted to looking heavenward, but Dean Katherine feels deeply connected to the city around her.
And through those who come to the cathedral, she has firm beliefs about some of the main local issues for this election.
One is the need to take better care of the most vulnerable in the community, especially at a time of increasing cost-of-living pressures.
Dean Katherine says more people are relying on food from the free pantry in the cathedral grounds and are attending the church's community lunch.
"It breaks my heart when I see families coming to that lunch," she says. "I'm glad that we can provide that. It breaks my heart when we have 70 or 80 people at that lunch, because I'm aware that's the need in the city.
"One of the things that happened during COVID was there was an increase in benefits for a short period of time. That made a huge difference to people's lives, enabled them to get ahead. We need to start asking, 'What is it that people need to live on? What is going to make a difference to enable them to engage more with society, to gain employment, to break the cycle of poverty?'.
Dean Katherine says access to health care is also an important local issue and is critical of funding cuts.
"To have places like the Mater GP Access after hours [service] closing, it's just ridiculous, because ... you're just reducing the access and placing greater pressure, in my opinion, on our already overstretched hospital and health care services," she says.
Newy Burger Co's Ben Neil has seen cost-of-living pressures work their way into his kitchen, and onto the business's bottom line.
"In the last 12 months alone, we've had a 30 per cent increase to beef and poultry. Seven or eight per cent in bakery, so the two main ingredients in burgers. And you're in a period where you're trading considerably less, so to be able to pass that on to the customer is something you try and hold off for as long as you can do."
From her place of worship on The Hill, the Very Reverend Katherine Bowyer can see and hear the coal ships cruising in and out of the port, reminding her of another issue - climate change.
She notices how the debate reverberates through this community, with concerns for the environment and the future but, at the same time, worries about what a move away from coal will mean for local jobs.
"We've already faced a huge transition with BHP closing down ... and that huge change to the Newcastle identity as a steel town," she says. "What will it mean for us if we're not a coal port? What will it mean to all those who find their life on the port?"
As for how a government should respond to that, the Anglican priest replies, "I wish I had a magic solution. It is really hard, and I really appreciate the struggle that our leaders are facing in this area.
"I think there needs to be more infrastructure, more opportunities for retraining, more opportunities for us to grow different styles of industry. That's what this has shown, to have all industry focussed in one particular area leaves a huge hole - sometimes literally - in our landscape."
Christ Church Cathedral offers a broad view, taking in a large slice of the Newcastle electorate's 171 square kilometres.
Across the water from the city, on the harbour's northern shores and forming the north-eastern edge of the electorate, is the historic maritime community of Stockton, which is not so much a suburb of Newcastle but a world unto itself.
"I think there's this general appreciation for the importance of community," says Stockton resident Willow Forsyth. "It's a friendly place."
Willow Forsyth is a corporate escapee now studying for a PhD at the University of Newcastle. She lives at the mouth of the Hunter River, which provides her with the raw materials for her research into flood preparedness.
Her attention is also drawn to the other side of the peninsula that cradles Stockton, to the sea and the long-standing issue of erosion. As the problem eats further and further into her community, Willow Forsyth says she wishes the federal government would involve itself more in the issue, rather than largely leaving it to the state government.
"They can make it easier to identify hotspots and say, 'We'll learn from this. What can we do systematically to resolve these coastal erosion problems?'," Ms Forsyth says. "The federal government could say, 'You know what? We're going to find a process. We understand our coastlines are at risk'."
While the suburb is effectively cut off from the rest of the electorate by water, Ms Forsyth says it is not geography that makes the community feel distant but political leaders' attitudes to the erosion problem, arguing "Stockton feels like it's been left to carry the can".
"So that can create a feeling of disconnect, I think, both political and otherwise."
Willow Forsyth believes a federal government could help shore up Newcastle's future by looking to its manufacturing past.
"I think it's incredibly important that we bring back manufacturing," she argues. "I think it's a fantastic pathway. It's good for all kinds of reasons, and we have the brains trust to enable us to do it differently.
"You can 3D print the parts you want. You don't have to have them on a boat coming from China with all the carbon credits. Just get it happening here! Get our skill base back. BHP did that, it trained so many generations of people. Bring it back!
"And you can twin that with getting renewables... We already have a base of people who need it. Let's use that to make a sustainable change and use what we've got, in terms of the brains trust and the other people here."
Youth Committee for the Hunter member Lauren Armstrong has also been gazing into the future, wondering what Newcastle will look like - and who will be able to afford to live here.
"In the Newcastle area, [the price of] houses have climbed over 20 per cent in a year. So we're sort of concerned for ourselves but also for our future children, how we're going to be able to remain in this area," Ms Armstrong says.
The committee recently conducted a survey in the Hunter region, canvassing the views of about 200 respondents aged between 15 and 30, to see what concerned them.
Housing affordability ranked highly, with 43 per cent indicating they doubted they'd ever own a home. Those renting are also finding it tough.
"We're hearing stories of young people being evicted from their houses so that rents can go up astronomical amounts," Ms Armstrong says.
In the survey, the rising cost of living and climate change were also major concerns for local youth, contributing to another issue: mental health. A third of the survey's respondents reported they were "struggling" or "finding life a bit difficult".
"A lot of them struggled through COVID," Ms Armstrong says. "Nearly half we saw on the survey had lost their job or had their income affected by COVID.
"It also goes to the climate change piece as well. A lot of young people are suffering climate anxiety, for example. Not optimistic about owning their own home or being able to do the things they want to enjoy with their friends. I think it all comes down to a broader piece around liveability and the cost of living and having leadership on the big issues."
Lauren Armstrong says those concerns should be listened to by local political candidates, because the voice of the young will be heard at the ballot box.
"We do know there are over 100,000 young people eligible to vote in the Hunter alone," the youth committee member says. "As the custodians who will be impacted by these decisions in the future, I think it's really important that young people are not just listened to but have a voice on these issues."
As for who will win the seat of Newcastle at this election, Newy Burger Co's Ben Neil has declined to make a prediction. The other three who have spoken with the Herald predicts Sharon Claydon will retain her job.
For all the candidates, the Very Reverend Katherine Bowyer offers this advice: "To think about the people you're serving. Why have you offered [yourself] for election? Why have you stood for this position? Have you stood for this position because you believe you can make a difference to the community in which you are, or have you stood for this position for some other reason? And if it's not for making a difference to the community, then I urge you to reconsider."
To her fellow voters, Dean Katherine says, "We need to remember what these years have been for us, we need to remember the good and the not so good, and we need to remember what it is that's our passion, and how we're going to reflect that in the numbers we place".
And, as we cast our vote, perhaps we should also heed the words of Bob Hudson, who, in his 1970s hit, The Newcastle Song, sagely advised, "Don't you ever let a chance go by, oh Lord. Don't you ever let a chance go by".
You can go on an audio journey through the seat of Newcastle, and learn more from the locals, at "Voices of the Hunter with Scott Bevan - Federal Election Special" on the Apple, Spotify and Google podcasts, and through newcastleherald.com.au
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Scott Bevan is a senior writer for The Newcastle Herald. He has also worked in radio and television and is the author of six books.
Scott Bevan is a senior writer for The Newcastle Herald. He has also worked in radio and television and is the author of six books.
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