It retains the name, but the seat of Hunter is a vastly different electorate to the one incumbent MP Joel Fitzgibbon has represented for the past 20 years.
The seat was significantly redrawn in the federal redistribution that took place ahead of the forthcoming election, losing the key centres of Maitland and Kurri to Paterson, a smattering of Upper Hunter towns to New England, and gaining a large slice of the former Charlton electorate including western Lake Macquarie. Still classified rural by the electoral commission, it includes the urban stretch between Toronto and Morisset, Cessnock and the mining strongholds of Singleton and Muswellbrook.
Halved in size to just over 10,000 square kilometres but with a more diverse economic base and constituency, the seat actually comprises more voters from Charlton than the old Hunter electorate. The name Hunter was retained over Charlton because it is a federation seat, first held by Australia's inaugural prime minister Edmund Barton, although he never lived in the area.
The effective abolition of the seat in the redistribution initially raised the prospect that Mr Fitzgibbon, now the region's most senior Labor MP, might be left without an electorate or forced into a contest against his longtime Liberal sparring partner Bob Baldwin (who at that stage had not announced his retirement) in the adjacent seat of Paterson. But the retirement of Labor's Jill Hall in Shortland allowed Charlton MP Pat Conroy to nominate for her old seat, paving the way for Mr Fitzgibbon to contest the redrawn Hunter.
While the Labor margin of 5.7 per cent under the new boundaries makes the seat notionally contestable, neither the Liberals nor Nationals were keen to jump in at the outset. The Liberals declined to nominate a candidate, deferring to their Coalition partner, but the National Party left it until more than halfway through the eight-week campaign to declare Singleton councillor Ruth Rogers as its candidate.
The Greens and Christian Democrats have put up candidates and four independents – John Harvey, John Warham, Arjay Martin and Cordelia Troy – have also nominated.
The eleventh-hour nomination of the outspoken Cr Troy, a Cessnock councillor, promises to add interest to the campaign. She has vowed to run a campaign without any advertising or electioneering material, no volunteers at booths and no formal policies, because she finds the amount of money spent on campaigns offensive.
In keeping with her unconventional approach, she decided to nominate just as she was boarding a plane home from an overseas holiday last week, after hearing that the Coalition had not, at that stage, put forward a candidate. Announcing her intention on social media, she mustered the required 100 signatures for nomination within six hours and submitted her paperwork at the electoral office an hour before the deadline.
A former Liberal who resigned when the Nationals parachuted rock star Angry Anderson in to contest the state seat of Cessnock two years ago, Cr Troy said her aim was to make Hunter a marginal seat.
“Hunter has been in Labor hands since 1901 and when people have been in long-term, comfortable power, they become complacent,” she said. “I want to give the voters an alternative,” she said.
Other independents have cited similar motivations.
“If you want a professional politician to represent you, then don’t vote for me,” said Mr Harvey, a Cessnock dentist and pub owner who has worked as a strategist and adviser to conservative leaders including Andrew Peacock, Nick Greiner and Jeff Kennett but himself eschews party politics. “If you want a Member of Parliament who will represent their community rather than their party, then I’m your candidate.”
Mr Warham, a former Uniting Church minister and youth worker who now works as a teacher, said he wanted to see a better deal for regions, with more infrastructure spending and more emphasis on giving people skills to enter the workforce.
Mr Martin also offers himself as an alternative to the major parties. A regular on the campaign trail, he has previously run in the state seat of Charlestown and federal seat of Charlton and was a Lake Macquarie mayoral candidate in 2012.
With a diverse economic profile that encompasses the often competing interests of agriculture and mining, Hunter is potentially fraught policy territory for candidates. Most tiptoe delicately around the issue of conflict, acknowledging the importance of mining while talking also of the need to protect farming land and communities.
Greens candidate Peter Morris, a retired TAFE teacher and former political researcher who hails from the Lake Macquarie end of the electorate, is less compromising.
His first official campaign visit last week was with Greens senator Lee Rhiannon to the Bulga-Milbrodale Progress Association, which fought a famous David and Goliath battle against Rio Tinto over the Warkworth mine extension.
“The markets for coal around the world are decreasing, what we need in the Hunter is a future beyond coal,” Mr Morris said.
“If we stop paying our workforce to pump carbon into the atmosphere and find them new jobs in clean industries, we can rightly hope for a better future.”
Mr Fitzgibbon does not see an imminent end to coalmining but regards transition for mining communities a key issue in the electorate and has lobbied for the development of a regional strategy to promote economic diversification and innovation.
“I’ve written to the minister seeking funding to do it and I am having a conversation with my people about the merits of doing it as well, if we are elected,” he said,
“This is something that also affects people working in coal-fired power generation, a significant industry right across the electorate, because as the power stations come to the end of their lives, the chances are the industry will be looking to new technologies. And that will be a big shift, so we need to start planning a formal strategy now.”
Mr Fitzgibbon said health and education were the primary ‘big picture’ concerns of voters, along with generational unemployment and concern about the effectiveness of the National Broadband Network.
At a local level, the issue of bat colonies in urban areas has emerged as a key concern, with communities in Blackalls Park, Singleton and East Cessnock dealing with unwelcome camps consisting of tens of thousands of flying foxes. While management of colonies is largely a state responsibility, Mr Fitzgibbon has taken up the mantle and says he has secured bipartisan support from Environment Minister Greg Hunt for a Senate inquiry into control options, regardless of who wins the election.
Christian Democrat Richard Stretton, having his second tilt at the seat, said the extension of the Hunter Expressway to the Upper Hunter was an infrastructure priority for the region.
“It is a good that the expressway has been done but all the traffic problems that used to be at Maitland and Cessnock have just been pushed up to Singleton,” he said. “It has to be extended to Scone, and ideally all the way to Murrurundi.”
Mr Stretton said the proposal for a mosque to be built by the Newcastle Muslim Association at Buchanan, just across the boundary in the seat of Paterson electorate, had brought the issue of Muslim immigration to the fore in the electorate.
“As a party we are opposed to the Islamisation of Australia and the erosion of Aussie values,” he said. “I wouldn’t have thought this was an issue for people living in our area until the Buchanan mosque raised its head.”
Nationals candidate Ruth Rogers has lived in the Hunter Valley for 30 years and been on Singleton council for the past seven.
Cr Rogers said her priorities were advocating for better mental health services in the region, sustainability of mining and ensuring a fair return for dairy farmers.
While she acknowledged the challenge of unseating a 20-year incumbent, Cr Rogers said it was important to give voters a choice.
“There are lot of people out there like me who are fed up with politics as usual.”