The Upper Hunter by-election on May 22 has resulted from the resignation of Nationals member Michael Johnsen on March 31. Johnsen is a former mayor of Upper Hunter who had held the seat since 2015, when he succeeded former party leader George Souris. He was promoted to parliamentary secretary after the 2019 election, and positioned himself as an outspoken conservative through comments critical of Black Lives Matter protests and renewable energy projects.
Johnsen's troubles emerged on March 24, when Labor MP Trish Doyle told parliament that a government MP, whose identity she did not divulge, was under police investigation for allegedly raping a sex worker at a lookout in the Blue Mountains. Johnsen issued a statement later that day identifying himself as the accused and, despite protesting his innocence, resigned his parliamentary secretary position and moved to the cross bench. His resignation from parliament followed a week later, when his alleged victim provided the ABC with text messages in which he offered her money for sex, which had been sent while he was sitting in parliament during question time, along with footage of himself performing a “lewd act” in the Parliament House toilet.
The by-election could potentially cement the government's loss of its parliamentary majority arising from Johnsen's resignation and Drummoyne MP John Sidoti's move to the cross-benches over an ICAC investigation into his business dealings. However, the by-election also puts pressure on Labor leader Jodi McKay due to the expectation an opposition should be able to win a seat held on so narrow a margin at a by-election, which Gladys Berejiklian may have been seeking to exploit when she professed to have “no doubt” the Coalition would lose.
The electorate also presents Labor with a challenge due to the local importance of the coal industry, which was generally reckoned responsible for a 9.5% swing against Labor and 21.6% One Nation vote in the federal seat of Hunter in 2019. The by-election also provided context for the government's reversal of its decision to appoint Malcolm Turnbull as head of its clean energy advisory board, which he had followed by calling for a moratorium on new coal mining approvals.
The by-election has attracted a field of 13 candidates, including five independents alongside the nominees of the Nationals, Labor, One Nation, Shooters Fishers and Farmers, the Greens, the Liberal Democrats, Animal Justice and Sustainable Australia. A Nationals preselection vote on April 7 was won by David Layzell, a construction engineer, ahead of Singleton mayor Sue Moore, who according to Alexandra Smith of the Sydney Morning Herald had been “considered the front-runner”.
Labor's candidate is Jeff Drayton, CFMEU mining division official and former Muswellbrook deputy mayor. Following his preselection, Drayton told the Daily Telegraph he would be “just as loud just as often” as his pro-mining federal counterpart Joel Fitzgibbon, specifically regarding “inner-city greenies telling us what to do”, a designation that “most likely” applied to his own party's climate spokesman, Adam Searle.
The independent candidates include Kirsty O'Connell, owner of a farming property in Aberdeen. O'Connell was endorsed during the campaign by Malcolm Turnbull, who suggested Gladys Berejiklian would “privately appreciate” her being elected ahead of Layzell. O'Connell is swapping preference recommendations with another independent, former Dungog mayor Tracy Norman, who shares O'Connell's opposition to an expansion of mining in the electorate.
With both major parties apparently carrying lead in their saddlebags, there have been suggestions the seat presents an opportunity for minor parties, specifically Shooters Fishers and Farmers and One Nation. Shooters polled 22.0% in Upper Hunter at the 2019 election, at which they won three traditionally Nationals-held seats is Sue Gilroy, president of the Singleton Business Chamber and owner of a life coaching firm. One Nation's candidate is Dale McNamara, owner of local hotels and a farming property at Lower Belford, Mark Latham having declined to follow through on suggestions that he might run.
Upper Hunter covers 27,688 square kilometres of territory north-west of Newcastle, extending from Stroud and Gloucester in the east to Goulburn River National Park in the west. The main population centres are the Hunter Valley towns of Singleton and Muswellbrook. Reflecting the importance of coal mining and electricity generation to the local economy, the electorate has the state's largest mining workforce, and the second largest in the electricity, gas, water and waste sector.
The National/Country Party has held Upper Hunter since 1932, but the seat was brought well within the marginal zone by a massive 20.8% swing to Labor. This reflected both a regional trend and the retirement of George Souris, who had held the seat since 1988 and served as Nationals leader in opposition from 1999 to 2003. Michael Johnsen emerged with a winning margin of 2.2%, which was little changed at the 2019 election.