LEADER: Newcastle City Council CEO Jeremy Bath at lunch on Watt Street, the scene of controversy over Supercars roadworks. Picture: Simone De PeakBY the look of his face, Jeremy Bath has had a relaxing summer holiday. The Newcastle City Council chief executive officer has grown a beard. But he explains the beard is an exercise in time management.
It takes him up to 20 minutes to shave, Bath says, “so this saves me 20 minutes in the morning”.
Every minute counts to Jeremy Bath. For in his role as the council boss in a city transforming itself, Bath believes he has so much to do in so little time.
“I want to get through a decade’s work in five years, and to do that, I need to work at double speed,” he says in a flurry of words. Bath often speaks quickly, which highlights his no-time-to-waste attitude.
Jeremy Bath has made time for lunch. He chooses the venue: Oma’s Kitchen in Watt Street. I figure he enjoys German food, or that perhaps he wishes to rub shoulders with local celebrities. The restaurant’s owners, the Fren family, are stars of Channel Nine’s reality program, Travel Guides.
But the prime reason we’re dining at Oma’s Kitchen is because this was one of the businessesdisrupted by the roadworks for the Supercars circuit.
When Bath began as the council’s interim CEO in May, the Supercars juggernaut was already reshapingthe city, in preparation for the November event.The issuetook upa lotof Bath’stime, as public works programs carved up streets and cut deep into the patience ofthose who didn’t want the car race outside their homes and businesses.
So Bath wants to return the scene of so much controversy to “owndecisions” made by the council, and to eat not humble pie, but schnitzel and potato salad.
“I go to bed, in terms of Watt Street, knowing Idid everything and more that we could do to minimise disruption,” he says, adding that “‘minimise’ doesn’t mean ‘eradicate’”.
Bath recalls when Watt Street was a construction zone, he would sometimes walk into Oma’s Kitchen and see “one, two, sometimes no customers; that is very, very hard to see when you know your organisation ultimately made the decision to enact the civil works that are causing that”.
In its handling of the racepreparations, Bath gives the council a “pass mark”. But, he adds, with eight years’ worth of work undertaken in just five months, “I don’t know if we were going to do much better than a pass mark”. The event itself, he says, was “an outstanding success”, and “you look at Watt Street now. We’ve got Watt Street back”.
Newcastle City Council CEO Jeremy Bath. Picture: Simone De Peak
Jeremy Bath seems to be a glass-half-full kind of person. That is evident throughout our conversation, as he trampolines off any subject to talk enthusiasticallyabout his career,and what he wants to achieve now.
Even the decision to drink only water with lunch hashimlaunchinginto a monologue. He talks about how local water is superb quality and cheap, about his previous job at Hunter Water, and the therapeutic qualities of water.
“If you’ve got a headache at work, it’s almost certainly because you’re dehydrated,” he explains.
“Are you sure you don’t get headaches at work from politics?,” I ask him.
Bath laughs, before replying, “Look, you do get a couple of headaches. But I got into this job with eyes wide open.”
Even before he got the job, Bath was tossed into City Hall politics. A furore swirled around therecruitment process for the CEO’s position, particularly in December 2016, when Cr Allan Robinson allegedthat a mystery man in Belmont had told him Bath had already been given the job.
Bath was working in Sydney as a government relations specialist for corporate strategy firm Crosby Textor at the time.
“And I get a phone call from Mum saying, ‘Have you applied to work for Newcastle City Council?’,” he recalls. “And I say, ‘Why do you ask?’. Well, Robbo just told [Radio 2HD presenter] Richard King you’re the guy they’ve all been walking out in protest against. Why would you want to work at Newcastle City Council?! It’s a madhouse!’. They were her words, ‘It’s a madhouse!’.”
An Office of Local Government investigationfound nothing improper or unethical in the recruitment process. Bath was offered the interim CEO role. Then, in December, he was appointed CEO. Given what his mother had to say, and that he had beenplonked into local politics during the recruitment stage, I ask Bath why he took the job.
“I can’t say one reason,” he replies. I’m a Novocastrian by birth, I’ve grown up always with a close eye on Newcastle City Council, not for any aspiration purposes, but just in terms of someone who has had an interest in how the city is governed, how the city is managed.”
Jeremy Bath in Watt Street. Picture: Simone De Peak
IN 1976, Newcastle City Council released a report titled Looking Ahead. It considered how the city should develop and what role the CBD would play inthe future. In the same year, Jeremy Bath was born in Royal Newcastle Hospital.
He grew up in Belmont North. His father, Robert, was rising through the ranks inthe David Jones retail empire, and his mother, Gay, worked in banking. To help make ends meet and afford a private school education for Jeremy and his younger sister, Melinda, Robert also drove a taxi at night on weekends.
Bath still remembers observing the physical toll those hours took onhis father. And he remembers when, as a teenager, he was told his Dadno longer had to drive taxis. He knew that meant the family was doing OK financially,and he was “getting our Dad back full-time”.
Now that the son has become a father of two young children, Bath is keenly aware the effect working long hours is having on his home life.
“The one negative of the job that I’m in is that I don’t really see my kids Monday to Friday,” he says. “A little bit, I feel likeit’s history repeating.”
On balancing work and life, Bathconcedes, “I guess I need to get better”, but says on weekends, he does whatever his six-year-old daughter Maddie and three-year-old son AJ want to do, and he tries to be “ultra-casual” in that timewith his kids and wife Ruth.
“Anyone who sees me in Woolworths at Charlestown Square on a Saturday would shudder to think that’s the CEO of Newcastle City Council,” he says.
Jeremy Bath at lunch with Scott Bevan at Oma’s Kitchen. Picture: Simone De Peak
The work ethic he learnt from his parents is not only imprinted on Bath’s soul. On his left arm is tattooed the word, “Karma”, and on his right wrist, “The deepest cuts are healed by faith”.
“It’s not a religious faith,” he explains. “It’s a faith that good things happen to good people, and if you work hard long enough, things will eventually go your way.”
Bath spent a year studyingeconomicsat the University of Newcastle, “and I loathed almost every day of it”. So he switched tostudy what had interested himsince he was a small child: communications.
“I was the only six-year-old who voluntarily sat through an hour of NBN news every single night,” he chuckles.
While finishingaCommunications degree, Bath worked in the newsroom for radio stations KOFM and NXFM but hated the breakfast shifts. He tried to have himself taken off the early starts, while proving “the newsroom will cease to function without me”, by heading to Japan for a month. He was replaced while he was gone.
“It was probably the best life lesson I’ve ever had, that no one is ever irreplaceable.”
Bath stayed on in Japan for about three years, teaching and doing some journalism, before returning home and marrying his interest in communications with politics.
He worked as a press officer for Liberal senatorJohn Tierney, before joining the Labor-dominated Fairfield City Council. He then moved on to Clubs NSW and Clubs as their media relations manager, dealing with the state government reforms to the poker machine tax.
That experience, along with working on both sides of the partisan fence, taught Jeremy Bath a valuable lesson: that even in the most intense of political battlegrounds, there’s always somewhere in the middle where agreement can be found.
“From the moment I walked in the doors at Clubs NSW, I said ‘What’s your middle ground?’ And they initially said, ‘We don’t have a middle ground’,” he recalls. “And I said, ‘There’s your problem. That’s why you’re not getting anywhere with the NSW Government. You’re going to have find a middle position’.” It took three years of “bitter campaigning”, but both sides found their middle ground, he says.
“There’s always the middle ground. Even in politics. Politics is full of compromises. Politics is all about compromise.”
“Compromise is always treated as a negative. Compromise, I believe, is a very good thing, because if I’ve got two differing opinions, black and white, … you find the middle ground, that grey, and that’s where I try to operate.”
Jeremy Bath at a 2017 media conference with Lord Mayor Nuatali Nelmes.
Jeremy Bath believes that approach was a key reasonwhy he landed the counciljob. While he had already accrued some executive experience at Hunter Water, including a year as its interim CEO, Bath realised that was not going to be his selling point.
Instead, he pitched that he could work with anyone,regardless of their politics,and he had the ability to find a way for people to work together. In a Labor city that has had a notoriously fractious relationship with the state government, particularly when theCoalitionhas been in power, he saw that attribute as a plus.More than ever, he argues, there has to be clear dialogue between City Hall and Macquarie Street, as the NSW Government pours about$650 million into the Revitalising Newcastle project.
“They [the NSW Government] are not doing that out of the generosity of their heart,” he adds. “They’re doing it because the NSW Government has woken up to the fact that this is a city that offers immense potential, that is already making an immense contribution to our state and to our country. But the potential is almost unlimited.”
Jeremy Bath says he is still in the phase of building trust in his new workplace, with his staff of about 1300, the councillors, and Lord Mayor Nuatali Nelmes.
I ask what Cr Nelmes is like to work with.
“She’s very pragmatic,” he replies. “She’s evidence-based. Like all politicians, you sometimes haveto go to them twice. You’ve got to pick your moment. You’ve got to make sure you get her on the right day. If she’s being criticised on the front page of theNewcastle Herald, that’s probably not the right day to speak to her, ‘I want to do this, I want to do that’.
“I’ll give you an example,” he says, not for the first time during our interview. Bath believed a section of theSupercars trackshould not be turfed over, as promised, butturned into a recreationalactivity area. The Lord Mayor said “no”. He raised it again with her, proposing a community survey. She agreed.The survey was held, and the community said it wanted an activityarea.
“The more I can have those experiences and those public wins with the Lord Mayor, the easier it becomes to build up that trust,” he says. “There are some things where I’ve said ‘I want to put this to the council, how do you feel about that?’ and she says, ‘Absolutely no way I would support that’, and I’ve gone back a second time, and I’ve got, ‘Jeremy, didn’t you hear me the first time?’‘I did Lord Mayor, I thought I’d try one more time’. And to be truthful, if I believe it’s right, I’ll go back a third and fourth time.
Isn’t he worried he’s revealing to the Lord Mayor what he’s up to, I ask.
“I think she sees my approach. I don’t think she’ll read this and go, ‘Is that what he’s doing?’. But I take that same approach for the council. We’re on a journey of building trust with each other.”
Council leaders Nuatali Nelmes and Jeremy Bath in Newcastle West.
Newcastle is on its own extraordinary journey, Jeremy Bath believes. Physically, the city will be unrecognisable in 10 years’ time. The light rail network will extend beyond the initial 2.7 kilometres, reaching into the suburbs, and new areas of development will sprout along the line.
Jeremy Bath wants to be part of that future. It’s why he and Ruth made the “conscious decision” to leave Sydney and return to his hometown in 2013.
“Sydney is full,” he says, adding “fixing” that is very difficult. “Fortunately, I think for here, we’ve caught Newcastle in time.”
As for his own future, Jeremy Bath insists he has no desire to become a politician.
“The life of a politician doesn’t interest me,” he explains. “I’m seeing it in this role, and I’ve seen it over the last couple of years, you are able to do far more, and in a far more condensed period of time, as a bureaucrat fairly high up in the tree.”
Jeremy Bath. Picture: Simone De Peak
FOR a few hours each month, Jeremy Bath takes time out to pursue his sporting passion: mixed martial arts. He has practised it, but these days he only watches bouts, mostly on television at the pub with friends.Bath doesn’t leave work entirely behind when watching the fights: “I’m the bloke who walks into the hotel with an iPad and a stack of council papers.”
To me, it doesn’t seem like much of a break from the rough and tumble of politics to be watching a brutal human contact sport.Bath counters that, just like mixed martial arts, local politics is notnearly as brutal as itlooks fromthe outside.
“If I only saw what the public see, I’d have a very different, and incorrect view or perception,” he says.“It’s far from a madhouse, and it’s far from a dysfunctional council.
“People just don’t get to see all the good that happens, because it happens behind closed doors.Behind closed doors, they know they’re all in it for the same reason, and that is to make our city better. Which is the same reason I’m in it.”