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In Hunter, the place coal is king, a Labor heartland seat faces a powerful Coalition problem | Australian election 2022

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If there’s one place within the nation the place the rubber hits the highway on Australia’s decades-long dialogue concerning the local weather disaster, fossil fuels, mining and jobs – it’s the seat of Hunter. The coal-rich citizens, which spans from Lake Macquarie within the south to north-west of Newcastle, is the epicentre of seismic shifts within the panorama; large modifications that are political, financial and literal in nature.

The financial shift comes because the proud mining area begins to ponder a future after coal. Each the Coalition and Labor are telling the Hunter some variation of “if the world needs to purchase our coal, we’ll promote it”, with residents proudly speaking up the minerals lower from Singleton and Muswellbrook because the cleanest on Earth; however either side additionally spruik the Hunter as a possible world hub for clear vitality, hydrogen, inexperienced metal and aluminium. Billions of {dollars} are pouring in. Locals discuss of photo voltaic panels and transition.

The political change comes on two fronts in Hunter. On the 2019 election, the veteran Labor MP, Joel Fitzgibbon, held on by his fingernails, seeing his 12.5% margin in 2016 slashed to simply lower than 3% within the face of a thundering 21.5% vote to One Nation – the far-right occasion’s greatest consequence within the nation. Fitzgibbon, who has held the seat for 26 years – he inherited Hunter from his father, Eric, who held it for 12 years earlier than that – is retiring, one other political shockwave.

The literal large change is his aspiring substitute, Dan Repacholi, a two-metre-tall (6ft 8in) man-mountain with a historical past within the mines, a Viking’s beard and three Commonwealth Video games gold medals in pistol capturing; a captain’s pick with a colourful history.

“Cessnock, gateway to the paradise,” was Repacholi’s welcome to the nation’s media pack when the Labor chief Anthony Albanese’s travelling marketing campaign circus visited Hunter on 14 April.

However not everybody agrees.

“It’s a terrific place to stay,” says Grant, out strolling his canine in Cessnock’s essential road. “Once I got here again after travelling the world, everyone’s like, ‘That dump? Thank God you escaped it.’ However I prefer it. It’s acquired soul, although it wants an entire lot of issues.”

Lincoln at the Imperial Hotel in Singleton
‘It is a mining city’: Lincoln on the Imperial Lodge in Singleton. {Photograph}: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian

On a three-day journey to Hunter in March, Guardian Australia finds a area fretting about its future. Questions on coal’s future or the closure of mines elicits anxiousness from some (“We gained’t have a inhabitants,” warns Dave) and pleasure from others; discuss of local weather change results in concern about children’ futures from some, concern about job prospects from others.

“You may throw local weather change out the window,” says Lincoln, sipping a schooner of Toohey’s New within the solar outdoors Singleton’s Imperial Lodge. “It is a mining city.

“The boys and women right here, they dig coal. That’s what we do.”


Hunter has been held repeatedly by Labor since 1910. A mining city, a union city, it’s as a lot a heartland seat for the ALP as Wentworth and Kooyong are for the Liberals. However simply as these blue-ribbon metropolis seats are instantly beneath risk for the Coalition, so too is Hunter for Labor – for roughly the identical local weather and vitality causes, albeit on the different finish of the political argument.

Fitzgibbon, the native MP since 1996, had an almighty fright in 2019 when preferences from One Nation’s surging vote practically noticed the Nationals leapfrog him. He spent the subsequent two years calling to place “labour again into Labor”, a thorn in Albanese’s aspect as he agitated to “reconnect with the working-class base” which he claimed had been “abandoned” because the occasion distanced itself from coal and mines.

That Albanese picked an enormous, bearded coalminer as his captain’s decide for Fitzgibbon’s substitute – towards the desires of native ALP members – wasn’t a coincidence.

“A few of these individuals can be three generations of getting a household working within the mines,” says Di, out procuring in Lake Macquarie.

Graeme and Di in Lake Macquarie
Graeme and Di in Lake Macquarie. {Photograph}: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian

“It’s all the time been some type of standing for these individuals to be working within the coalmine.”

Lincoln, a longtime electrical engineer within the mines, says individuals can see the longer term. “It’s going to occur,” he says. “It’s inevitable, they’ve to shut the coalmines.”

Ben, a younger dad and an electrician working within the mines, is out procuring in Singleton.

“I’d wish to see them shut down,” he says. “I’ve acquired a toddler. Local weather change is a fairly large difficulty, particularly within the coming years, and I don’t need her to develop up in a world that’s completely completely different to what it’s now.

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“Lots of people round this space, and I don’t wish to offend anyone round this space, however they all the time care about jobs greater than they care concerning the setting, the way forward for kids.

“There’s all the time extra jobs. There’s all the time new areas to work in. However I simply don’t assume coal’s one in all them.”

Di and her husband, Graeme, say they’d be blissful to see coalmines within the space shut. However Graeme warns that the pending closure of the Eraring coal energy station, due in 2025, will probably be “horrific for this space” by way of job losses.

Ben and Sierra with their daughter Olivia in Singleton
‘I’d wish to see them shut down’: Ben and Sierra with their daughter Olivia in Singleton. {Photograph}: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian

Grant says within the Hunter: “Most individuals are apprehensive about employment after the mines shut.”

Upgrading native roads and infrastructure, and ready instances to see a GP, are different points that appear to be on the forefront of voters’ minds. Labor’s marketing campaign guarantees to this point embrace putting one in all their pressing care clinics within the citizens, in addition to altering Medicare settings to encourage extra docs to remain within the area; whereas the Nationals have pledged large bucks for a freeway bypass at Singleton.

A coal train makes its way out of Singleton
A coal prepare makes its approach out of Singleton. {Photograph}: Jessica Hromas/The Guardian

Nevertheless it’s coal, vitality and jobs which nearly each dialog come again to.

“The wealth created on this area goes out the port of Newcastle and that wealth is multiplied in cities round this nation,” the Nationals candidate, James Thomson, tells us.

“We owe lots to the individuals within the Hunter area. It’s crucial we hearken to them and what their issues are for future.”

A neighborhood relations officer at an area Christian faculty, Thomson doesn’t appear like your traditional Nats politician. Softly spoken and articulate, he admits he’s in all probability acquired extra supporters within the extra upmarket, tourist-friendly Lake Macquarie finish of the citizens than within the farm and mine-heavy northern edge.

Thomson says he’s “involved” about local weather change, and seems genuinely passionate when speaking about diversifying the economic system past coal and conventional industries. However stresses his perception that the Hunter’s “cleaner” coal is “a part of the answer, not the issue”.

James Thomson meets farmers at Nundah Holsteins dairy farm in Scotts Flat
James Thomson meets farmers at Nundah Holsteins dairy farm in Scotts Flat. {Photograph}: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian

“It’s simple for anyone to sip on a latte within the interior metropolis of Melbourne and say what ought to occur within the Hunter,” Thomson says. At that actual second, he’s sipping on a $5 almond chai latte as we met for breakfast in Singleton.

“However now we have a powerful mining business right here which is definitely part of the answer. It’s the cleanest coal on the planet.”

The Coalition is giving Hunter an actual shake. Scott Morrison’s April go to made headlines for the fallacious causes when the prime minister was bailed up by an indignant pensioner on the Edgeworth Tavern, however Morrison namechecks the area virtually each day when giving his stump speeches on the marketing campaign path. The Nationals chief, Barnaby Joyce, has been an everyday customer, and the March funds poured billions into the area for vitality hubs.

Dairy cows at the Scotts Flat farm
Cows lined up on the Scotts Flat farm. {Photograph}: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian

Labor is alive to the battle. In January the occasion executed an ungainly Hunter backflip – after pillorying the Coalition’s plans to again a fuel energy plant at Kurri Kurri, Albanese introduced that Labor supported it in any case, on the proviso it ran on inexperienced hydrogen. Analysts have stated the plant was not needed to maintain electricity provide and didn’t “stack up” commercially, given the vary of cheaper and cleaner alternate options in improvement.

The ALP’s backdown pointed to its concern about showing to not help a significant industrial improvement in an industrial city already buffeted by the winds of change.

“It says to me that there’s a temper for change for 100 years,” Thomson says of the Nationals’ lead to 2019.

Jo, on her approach right into a Singleton procuring centre, isn’t a fan of Fitzgibbon.

“I simply can’t even consider something that Joel has achieved,” she says. “He’s been in for about 12 years.”

Guardian Australia corrects her to say Fitzgibbon has been member for Hunter for some 26 years.

“Oh, God,” she says, laughing, “time for him to go.”

Jo in Singleton
Jo in Singleton. {Photograph}: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian

Tright here’s a metallic plaque on a boulder within the backyard out the entrance of a burger store in Cessnock’s essential drag. It marks Repacholi’s induction into the Cessnock Corridor of Fame, for his sports activities capturing prowess.

Repacholi is sitting at a metallic desk in entrance of it, consuming a double-decker cheese burger at 10am. We’re speaking about coal.

“There’s an enormous market nonetheless there … an enormous demand for coal on this space,” the previous miner says, keen to speak about his help for the business.

“However, whereas we’re doing that, we have to diversify our area as properly and convey in additional business. We have to convey manufacturing again to Australia.”

It’s a extra diplomatic reply than his 2016 Fb put up: “Should you don’t help coal then sit at nighttime and freeze this winter.” It was amongst a number of explicit social media posts for which he has since apologised. Albanese accepted Repacholi’s contrition, saying, “In 10 years’ time… there gained’t be candidates, when you have a look at what younger individuals do on social media.”

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Repacholi says the Hunter is “vastly excited” a few future as a clear vitality hub, a centre for hydrogen in Australia. However on the identical time, there may be upheaval; the pending closure of Eraring, and the even sooner closure of Liddell, two heartland native employers. When requested tips on how to discuss to miners and coal plant staff concerning the reality they could must retrain or discover new work, Repacholi stops to contemplate for a second.

“It’s nearly being trustworthy with them,” he says. “It’s having a plan and letting them know what that plan … so that everybody can work in direction of the longer term.

“I nonetheless assume it’d be fairly just a few years off, to be trustworthy. I imply many, a few years off.”

Others agree.

“Individuals have been predicting [coal’s] demise for a while now, and I can’t see it,” says John Preston, strolling by way of Branxton.

“Coalminers are usually fairly adamant about the best way they make their dwelling.”

Preston, a former Liberal and Shooters Fishers and Farmers candidate, claims Australians have “stopped listening to” Morrison however warns that folks within the Hunter even have reservations about Albanese.

“I simply don’t assume Australians know sufficient about him … I don’t assume his pursuits are going to be aligned with the Hunter Valley,” Preston says.

“They’re nonetheless suspicious about him that he someway needs to strangle what’s a really viable business.”

Di and Graeme, again in Lake Macquarie, have break up opinions. Graeme, a lifetime Labor man, needs Albanese within the prime job; Di, usually a Liberal voter, doesn’t have sort phrases for both Morrison or the Labor chief.

“Excuse the French, he’s a dickhead,” Di says of Morrison.

“However I’m upset in [Albanese] … For the standard Labor voters, I feel he’s high-quality. However for individuals like me. I’m on the lookout for somebody that’s acquired just a little bit extra oomph to him.”

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