AT RISK of plunging the state into minority government, the NSW Upper Hunter byelection has taken hold as the premier political race. Each party knows that in order to win, they must return to pure bloodstock and stop the policy palominos prancing on with anti-ag and coal rhetoric.
The winner stands to hold the balance of power and determine policy direction far beyond the Hunter – while the losers will get a dire reflection on the imminent future of their party culture wars.
Its form guide is a political cup of local thoroughbreds, so the true test lies in whether the party ponies prancing around zero emissions targets can be reined in for the next six weeks.
Gone are the glory days where NSW country rugby rep George Souris took 70 per cent of the vote. Early polling indicates the Nationals are at 40 per cent, Labor at 30 per cent, and One Nation cannibalising the Shooters vote, taking them from 22 to 12 per cent.
Single-seat polling is fraught, and the mix of poverty and wealth, mining and ag, makes the Upper Hunter a pollster’s nag.
It’s divided by international studs and vineyards threatened by coal mines, shops in town who need the money from the coal mines, and the 7000 coal miners digging up $1.1bn in royalties.
Scone Race Day is probably the most uniting event on the calendar, where all sides come out for a punt: the Quirindi farmer, the Muswellbrook miner, the Pokolbin vintner, the super-wealthy squattocracy smattered down the valley, and the town mum who does her big shop in Tamworth or Maitland, dressed in her once-a-year race frock and fascinator with a bottle of champagne on the rug with her friends. The Shooters and One Nation are swapping preferences and challenging the same lower house seat for the first time, in an area that bestowed One Nation 22 per cent at the 2019 federal election, and the Shooters 22 per cent at the state election a few months earlier.
So while this race won’t stop the nation, it could well determine its future. One Nation and the Shooters have voted together to back coal jobs in the NSW Parliament.
Meanwhile, NSW Labor declared coal was dead at the last election, and just days ago Liberal Environment Minister Matt Kean put a gravestone on fossil fuels by 2035 on his favoured platform, the ABC. A loss or a swing against the government will be chalked up to Mr Kean, who has been a handicap to the Nationals candidate since the starting gate opened, having briefly handed the region’s mining future to Malcolm Turnbull before being forced to backflip and fire him.
In every betting circle, everyone has a different eye to what will win. Each thinks they can take the trophy and they all have fair odds.
The test for Labor will be keeping the dodgy jockeys, climate zealots, social entrepreneurs and possibly even Anthony Albanese away for the next six weeks. Watch the Nationals as they roll their true track workers in. There’s suddenly more Matt Canavans and John Barilaros on the ground, and zero Matt Kean.
After attacking coal for years, Labor has apparently had an epiphany, endorsing miner Jeff Drayton who unambiguously supports the industry he works in, and the well-resourced wing of the union he is an official of.
The Nationals have turned to the small business family man, David Layzell, a construction engineer who helped build Tamworth Hospital, while the Shooters run former mining nurse and head of the business chamber Sue Gilroy, a strong local with real experience.
One Nation is running Dale McNamara, a self-made man who worked in the mines for more than a decade and has business interests across the Hunter spectrum.
Even the outsiders have good form. Former Port Stephens mayor Bruce Mackenzie, hails from the old school Liberal stable. The Shooters need more time with their vet, plagued by crumbling branches, accusations of organisational nepotism and strappers moving to other stables, such as Singleton Mayor Sue Moore who once sought preselection for the Shooters before going to the Nationals stud.
When people wanted to focus on the Shooters’ runner, their leader Robert Borsak, hailing from Sydney’s inner-west, paraded himself in the mounting yard speaking over the top of candidate Sue Gilroy. What’s the point of running a very capable woman if you won’t let her speak? The Shooters have voted with Labor 82 per cent of the time since 2019 and could lose party status if they fail to meet their financial membership cap with the NSW Electoral Commission by June 30.
With Whyalla in strife in South Australia, it is also a test for who will get out of the way of the Dendrobium Mine extension in the Illawarra which supplies BlueScope. Surely, if the empty shelves of COVID taught us anything, it had to be that Australia must keep its steel and manufacturing industry. A prancing palomino can win a race against a Shetland – but will be left dead last against Scone’s thoroughbreds.
The only certainty is the zero emissions target is not the horse to have a flutter on.