The New South Wales Nationals’ narrow victory in the Upper Hunter byelection has saved the scandal-plagued government of Premier Gladys Berejiklian and Deputy Premier John Barilaro.
The election was made necessary by the resignation of Nationals’ MP Michael Johnsen, after the NSW Police announced it was investigating a rape allegation against him.
The government risked losing its majority and the pressure was on Labor to win Upper Hunter for the first time. Working-class voters in Muswellbrook and Singleton, in the centre of the electorate, had helped Labor build up its vote to nearly 30%, making the seat winnable.
However, Labor’s Jeff Drayton, a Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) official, failed to get traction on his strongly pro-coal platform, polling just over 21%.
The drop in Labor’s vote is comparable to the 13% won by anti-coal independents.
Kirsty O’Connell, supported by former Prime Minister now climate activist Malcolm Turnbull, polled 9% and Tracey Norman, former mayor of Dungog in the east of the electorate, won 4%.
Upper Hunter Councillor Sue Abbot who stood for the Greens won 3.4%, down from 5%.
The government has been losing ground to independents and the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party (SFFP) in regional NSW.
The combined vote of the Nationals and Labor was barely 53%.
While coal mining and coal-powered electricity generation is important for the electorate, it is not monolithic. Tourism, horse studs, vineyards, dairy farms and beef production are also important.
The electorate includes the Liverpool Plains where Caroona Coal Action Group activist Tim Duddy farms. Duddy polled 20% as an independent in 2011, coming in second.
The Nationals were able to out-coal a former coal miner. Drayton was attacked by Pauline Hanson’s One Nation for being a union official and for his association with the casualisation of mine workers in 2017.
The CFMEU Northern region is currently campaigning against Labor in the Muswellbrook Shire Council for its decision to oppose the extension of the Mangoola open cut coal mine on environmental grounds. The encroachment of the mine is visible from the town.
Labor also failed to campaign effectively to save Scone TAFE from being sold to Racing NSW.
The Liberals are better than Labor at promoting the interests of their fossil fuel mates — for example the gas-fired generator in Kurri Kurri.
There are alternatives for Labor, such as the Hunter Jobs Alliance, which is campaigning to support coal workers and communities out of the industry into renewables.
This election result is also a warning to Labor. At the May 21 School Students 4 Climate rally in Newcastle, the mention of Labor MPs Meryl Swanson and her political ally Joel Fitzgibbon generated widespread jeers.