Upper Hunter electorate boundaries: proposed changes to slim Nationals MP Michael Johnsen's margin

TERRITORY TUSSLE: Clayton Barr, left, and Michael Johnsen, with the proposed map for Upper Hunter from 2023. Blue marks the present boundaries, orange the proposed redistribution and red the local government (council) areas.
TERRITORY TUSSLE: Clayton Barr, left, and Michael Johnsen, with the proposed map for Upper Hunter from 2023. Blue marks the present boundaries, orange the proposed redistribution and red the local government (council) areas.

NATIONAL Party Upper Hunter state MP Michael Johnsen would have his margin of 2.6 per cent cut to about 0.5 per cent if a draft set of electorate boundaries for the 2023 NSW election are adopted by the NSW Electoral Commission.

The new boundaries would make Upper Hunter the third most marginal of the 47 seats the Coalition government would have in the 93-seat lower house, one down on the 48 it holds at present.

Mr Johnsen said he would be lodging a submission seeking changes to the draft proposal, as did Cessnock MP Clayton Barr, whose electorate shares a boundary with Upper Hunter and is also impacted by the proposed changes.

The Electoral Commission looks to redistribute state boundaries every eight years to take account of population growth and movement to ensure that each of the state's lower house electorates are about the same size.

Australian Community Media reported the proposed changes last month but a paper for the NSW Parliamentary Library by ABC election analyst Antony Green has enabled a closer look at the political implications.

Mr Green's report says Cessnock losing Branxton, Broke and Milbrodale to Upper Hunter would help lift Mr Barr's notional margin from 19.3 per cent to 19.7 per cent.

The present parliament has 35 Liberals, 13 Nationals and 36 Labor MPs. The Greens, Independents and the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers have three each.

Mr Green says the proposed redistribution would mean one Liberal seat, Heathcote, in Sydney's south, held by a margin of 5 per cent, becoming a notional Labor seat with a margin of 1.7 per cent. Notional margins would change in dozens of other seats, but Heathcote was the only one likely to change hands the way things stood.

Both Mr Johnsen and Mr Barr said they opposed the redistribution moving Branxton into Upper Hunter, saying it would split what had always been seen as a single community in the form of "Greta-Branxton".

But Mr Barr said they had different views on the other main area of contention, a proposal that would extend Upper Hunter's boundary into an area around Pokolbin presently part of Cessnock.

"Where Michael and I differ is that I love serving Pokolbin," Mr Barr said.

"I don't win the booth but the area has been a fantastic boost to Cessnock for tourism. There are wine families I've known personally for decades and it's been a pleasure to represent them."

Elsewhere, along Upper Hunter's western border, the seat would lose Bylong and the Goulburn River region to the adjoining seats of Bathurst and Dubbo, something Mr Johnsen said he opposed.

"I am disappointed to be seemingly losing the Liverpool Plains, but I am excited about the opportunity to represent new communities if that's the way the changes ago," Mr Johnsen said.

"However, the final boundaries are not complete and when they are, I will be available to help all constituents as their future local member."

Mr Johnsen said he believed Pokolbin would be a good fit into his Upper Hunter electorate, a view backed by Branxton businessman Brett Wild, who runs the Hunter Pet Motel at Elderslie and who recently stepped down as president of Branxton Greta Chamber of Commerce after four years in the role.

Mr Wild said he respected the work done by Mr Barr but "as he says, he does not win the booth at Pokolbin and I think as a Labor MP he can struggle with the business mentality".

"He's a great champion of the underdog but that's got more to do with Cessnock and that area than with an entire wine-making region that stretches all the way to Sandy Hollow and Denman".

ACM was unable to obtain comment from Cessnock councillor Melanie Dagg, who stood against Mr Johnsen in 2019 as a replacement ALP candidate after Muswellbrook mayor Martin Rush resigned as candidate two months from polling day.

Ms Dagg, who Mr Barr confirmed was working in the electoral office of Campbelltown Labor MP Greg Warren, polled 47.44 per cent of the two-party preferred vote, holding Mr Johnsen to 52.56 per cent.

The electoral commission says voter numbers are expected to increase by 200,000 to 5.5 million in 2023.

The average size of the 93 electorates is set to rise from from 57,193 to 59,224, with the commission aiming to keep each seat within plus or minus 10 per cent of this figure.

The public have until Wednesday week, December 9, to lodge submissions.

This story Upper Hunted: Barr gains, Johnsen loses in proposed seat boundaries first appeared on Newcastle Herald.