Upper Hunter by-election, 2021

Cause of by-election
Sitting Nationals MP Michael Johnsen resigned his seat not long after his party leader John Barilaro called for him to step down in wake of accusations of rape and of sending inappropriate messages while sitting in the parliamentary chamber.

MarginNAT 2.6%

Geography
Northern NSW. Upper Hunter covers rural areas to the northwest of Newcastle. It covers all of Dungog, Gloucester, Muswellbrook and Upper Hunter local government areas, most of the Liverpool Plains council area, the populated parts of the Singleton council area, and parts of Great Lakes and Mid-Western areas. The seat’s major centres are Singleton, Muswellbrook, Scone and Dungog.

History
Upper Hunter has existed since 1859, with the exception of a decade around the turn of the century and three terms in the 1920s. It elected a single MP from 1859 to 1880, two MPs from 1880 to 1894, and single-member since 1904. The seat has been held by the Country/National Party continuously since the early 1930s. The last time it was held by the ALP was for six months in 1910.

Sitting Nationalist MP William Cameron died in 1931. Under the coalition agreement between the Nationalist Party and the Country Party, Upper Hunter was allocated as a Nationalist seat. Local Country Party branches supported Malcolm Brown as an independent, without the official support of the party. While the Nationalist candidate won the most primary votes, but Brown won the seat on preferences. After his election he joined the Country Party officially. Brown held the seat until his death in 1939.

The 1939 by-election was won in D’Arcy Rose, also of the Country Party. He held the seat until his retirement in 1959.

Upper Hunter was won in 1959 by Leon Punch. In 1962, he shifted to the seat of Gloucester. A contested preselection saw himself and another Country Party candidate both stand for Gloucester, but Punch won easily. Punch was elected Deputy Leader of the NSW Country Party and became a minister in 1973. In 1975 he was elected leader of the National Country Party, a role he held until his retirement in 1985. He also served as Deputy Premier from 1975 to 1976.

Upper Hunter was won in 1962 by Frank O’Keefe, who had held Liverpool Plains since 1961. His old seat was abolished in the redistribution. O’Keefe held Upper Hunter until 1969, when he resigned and won the federal seat of Paterson. He held Paterson until its abolition in 1984.

Col Fisher won the 1970 by-election. He served as a minister from 1975 to 1976, and retired in 1988.

George Souris held Upper Hunter for the National Party from 1988 until 2015. He served as a minister from 1992 to 1995. He was elected deputy leader of the NSW National Party in 1993, and served as National Party leader from 1999 to 2003.

Nationals candidate Michael Johnsen won Upper Hunter in 2015. He was re-elected in 2019, and resigned in early 2021.

Candidates
No information.

Assessment
The circumstances of Johnsen’s departure won’t be helpful to the Nationals, but the current political environment will be favourable to the incumbent government. Both Labor and the Shooters will be eyeing off this seat, so the order of elimination could be crucial

2019 result

CandidatePartyVotes%Swing
Michael Johnsen Nationals 16,49234.0-4.9
Melanie Dagg Labor 13,90028.6-3.9
Lee WattsShooters, Fishers & Farmers10,69722.0+22.0
Tony Lonergan Greens 2,3204.8-0.7
Mark EllisLiberal Democrats2,1514.4+4.4
Calum BlairSustainable Australia1,0772.2+2.2
Claire RobertsonAnimal Justice9612.0+2.0
Richard StrettonChristian Democrats9271.9-0.2
Informal1,7013.4

2019 two-party-preferred result

CandidatePartyVotes%Swing
Michael Johnsen Nationals 19,34152.6+0.4
Melanie Dagg Labor 17,45647.4-0.4

Booth breakdown

Booths in Upper Hunter have been split into six areas, based on council areas. Polling places in the Dungog, Liverpool Plains, Singleton and Upper Hunter council areas have been grouped together by council area. Those in the former Gloucester and Great Lakes council areas (now Mid-Coast Council) have been grouped as ‘Gloucester-Stroud’, while those in the Muswellbrook and Mid-Western council areas have been grouped as ‘Muswellbrook’.

The Nationals won a majority of the two-candidate-preferred vote in four out of six areas, ranging from 52.9% in Dungog to 65.3% in the Liverpool Plains. Labor won 50.9% in Muswellbrook and 54.9% in Singleton.

Voter groupSFF prim %NAT 2PP %Total votes% of votes
Singleton15.445.16,35813.1
Upper Hunter35.261.14,94510.2
Muswellbrook23.649.14,0318.3
Dungog16.752.93,8838.0
Gloucester-Stroud14.455.02,5175.2
Liverpool Plains23.565.31,9884.1
Other votes21.453.17,52415.5
Pre-poll22.851.917,27935.6

Election results in Upper Hunter at the 2019 NSW state election
Toggle between two-party-preferred votes and primary votes for the Nationals, Labor and the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers parties.

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12 COMMENTS

  1. SF&F surely in the box seat if they pre-select a good (farming more so than shooting) candidate. Suspect Nats will get smashed.

    Will be interesting to see if Greens run at all. Can/will Libs run a candidate? That + a good SF&F candidate could see Nats vote collapse completely.

  2. @Wombat Greens were quite active in parts of the seat a few years ago, but it didnt pan out. For example in Gloucester, they had an 11% swing against them in 2019 compared to 2016 at those booths (federally) with Julie Lyford leaving the party. The factional drama from 2017-2019 hit hard here and it will take a very long time to recover. People concerned about fracking, water etc. are more likely to vote 1 shooters.

    I suspect the Greens will still run. Usually they preference Shooters below Nats, and so their presence may make it harder to take the seat off Nats (beyond just OPV factors). Labor here are Joel Fitzgibbon Labor, so Green->Labor flows might also be weaker than usual in OPV.

  3. Dumb question from a west Aussie. Does Scone (the town) rhyme with “phone” or with “gone”?

  4. I don’t see how ”the current political environment will be favourable to the incumbent government”
    The pandemic won’t save the government in a seat they hold if it’s on a small margin because governments almost always get swings against them at by-elections. And remember this is held by the Nats not the Liberals.

    John Barilaro and the Nats have ran into issues and controversies in recent months like the Koala issue and this scandal of their own. They even lost an MP that defected to the Libs. The Shooters will win if the Nats come 3rd due to preferences. If Labor come 3rd shooters win. If Shooters come 3rd Labor would likely win. The only way the Nats win is if the Shooters don’t run or the Shooters candidate does something illegal like using a machine gun.

    I can see the Coalition getting this back in 2023 but not this time. And that poll showing Labors primary vote collapsing is fiction, There wasn’t even a TPP on that poll and there was a HUGE number of undecides.

  5. You’re so confident, Daniel.

    Not every by-election produces a swing against the government. Yes there’s a good chance there will be this time but every other incumbent state government has gained ground, sometimes a lot of ground.

    I’m not sure it’s that important if it’s a Nationals or Liberal seat. There’s no way to vote for or against the Liberal Party in Upper hUnter, you’ve just got the Nats.

  6. The tragedy of the Upper Hunter continually voting Nats has resulted in farmers being forced off their land, air quality is a national disgrace, they have no plans for just transitions and really do not care about climate change.

    Hunter Renewal and the recent Hunter Jobs Summit brought together interested parties across the UH region to look at what transition to renewable energy and other industries that are less carbon intensive looks like. There is a huge need to assist those mining communities to move forward as the demand for coal diminishes, as it will progressively happen. I feel there is a huge need for progressive and inclusive voices in this election – to accept that whilst the coal industry will continue to decline, the need to bring those affected communities together to work towards sustainable industries and liveable places (air and water quality being serious health issues) is paramount.
    There are already great strides being made in these areas through Hunter Renewal and BZE ongoing inclusive dialogues – what we need are more of those voices – we do not need more decisive rhetoric from the Libs/Nats/Labor/One Nation camps who are totally in thrall (financially and power structure wise) to the Minerals Council.

  7. Divisive rhetoric I meant to say! Ah spellcheck!
    The issue of the financial grip and therefore power cloud over Labor and Libs/Nats held by the Minerals Council needs to be really put to the fore.
    When they tried to order Rob Stokes to create a policy to remove Scope 3 emissions (Rocky Hill judgement) from planning decisions (the policy looked a lot like the letter from the Minerals Council to Stokes) in 2019 through the Territorial Limits Bill, everyone present at the inquiry saw how influential the MC are in UH politics and Australian politics in general.
    It is a disgrace and a diminishing of our democratic processes that communities need to be informed about.
    I hope that very strong light is directed at the sordid politics and distorted power that holds sway over much of the policy making and internal machinations of those within the government policy machine.
    We need to move forward with transparent public service involvement and trust in our institutions to care for the people, their places and the planet.

  8. I’m tipping a ffs gain or more unlikely a labor gain. I think one thing is certain that nationals & liberals will not keep this seat. What does everyone think about one nations chance of gaining this seat? One nation did extremely well in the federal seat of hunter.

  9. This is looking very unpredictable. The betting odds have fluctuated a lot over the last week & the Nats now into $1.50 favourite after being $5 yesterday!

    Coal will be the biggest issue for sure, but knowing the region and with a lot of family/friends here involved in the coal industry, I think the reduction of this issue to a binary yes/no is very condescending to locals. Most can see and recognise it is a sunset industry, but the Nats are at odds with the Libs about energy transition and Labor doesn’t seem to have any articulated policy. And SFF have a ludicrous standing policy to build two new coal power plants. I expect it to be a very even three-way primary vote with preferences deciding it again by a very small margin.

    Interesting that the success of ONP in 2019 was largely down to the candidate standing as a spokesman for coal workers not the coal industry (and the candidate building his own profile over a long time, not just riding off Pauline’s coat tails) – the Labor candidate might speak for some of these disaffected workers, but they really lack the depth & talent on the front bench to prosecute an alternate policy platform.

    Also worth noting that ONP’s really big gains in 2019 were in major booths around Cessnock and closer to the fringes of Newcastle, which are not part of this electorate.

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