Sue Moore David Layzell Upper Hunter
Singleton Mayor Sue Moore and preselected Nationals candidate for Upper Hunter David Layzell (Images: Singleton Council/AAP/NSW Nationals)

When Michael Johnsen resigned as the Nationals MP for the Upper Hunter over an allegation of rape (an allegation he denies), he triggered a byelection that will be fought over a single issue: coal.

The now-marginal Nationals stronghold lies at the heart of NSW coal country. So it was little surprise yesterday when state Nationals leader and deputy premier John Barilaro “saluted” a coal train chugging through Muswellbrook. Hours later, the party preselected David Layzell, a local construction manager, as its candidate.

Barilaro backs his man. He praised Layzell as delivering “one of the most impressive speeches” he’d ever heard, and, perhaps more crucially, marked him as someone who understood mining.

The dark horse

But Layzell is a bit of a dark horse. Until the 11th hour, Singleton Mayor Sue Moore was being talked up as the Nats’ desired pick. A local cattle farmer who became the town’s first female mayor in 2008 (and has held the office ever since), Moore seemed like a good choice for a party that has historically failed to promote women — especially in light of the allegation levelled against Johnsen.

On paper, Layzell seems like a bit of an unknown quantity. He ran for Dungog Shire Council as an independent in 2017. A year later, he became chair of the Nationals’ Upper Hunter conference, and mused about the possibility of running instead of Johnsen in the 2019 election.

We don’t know for sure why Moore was beaten at the preselection yesterday. But we do know that, in the last year or so, she’d started to seem a little soft on coal.

Moore was part of a conference looking to diversify the region’s economy in anticipation of a post-coal future. While she says the industry is here for a few decades at least, she’s spoken to The Guardian and The Sydney Morning Herald about the need for a transition rooted in farming everything from medicinal marijuana to mushrooms.

While endorsing Layzell yesterday, Barilaro noted the candidate as someone who understood “land use conflict but is supportive of mining, farming, agriculture and vineyards”.

The coal election

Even if Moore’s realistic stance on the mining sector didn’t lead to her demise, there’s no denying just how politically potent coal is in the Upper Hunter.

Mining symbolises the well-paying blue-collar jobs that have supported the community for generations. But it’s also a politically toxic and unsustainable industry; its terminal decline has accelerated as the rest of the world moves to a renewable future.

“They’re on a coal crusade in the Hunter,” 2GB radio host Ben Fordham said, as he introduced Barilaro this morning.

Later on, Barilaro and Layzell held their first press conference in hard hats and hi-vis.

Labor is also aggressively courting the mining vote. It’s widely believed that coal miner, Muswellbrook deputy mayor and CFMEU official Jeff Drayton will be the party’s candidate of choice. Already, Labor’s federal member for coal Hunter Joel Fitzgibbon is insisting the party must “set aside any opposition to mining” in order to win the seat.

One Nation’s Mark Latham — also aggressively pro-coal — now says he’s also planning a run.

But zoom out from Singleton, Dungog and Muswellbrook and coal becomes a politically divisive industry tearing rifts through both major parties. Fitzgibbon’s opportunistic grandstanding on behalf of the mining industry has triggered war in the Labor caucus. And this week, NSW Environment Minister Matt Kean had to backflip on a decision to make Malcolm Turnbull the state’s emissions czar, facing a backbench revolt. There was also plenty of hand-wringing about how the appointment of Turnbull, who wants a moratorium on coal projects, would play in the Upper Hunter.

This morning, Barilaro told Fordham the doorstoppers in the electorate couldn’t stand the former prime minister.

“The truth is, mate, they see him as someone who’s out of touch … a millionaire from Point Piper lecturing them on what sort of lifestyle they should lead, what sort of jobs they should have,” he said.

There’s plenty of desperation in the Nats’ mining play. The seat is on a 2% margin. Lose it, and the Coalition would have to crawl its way to the election without a working majority.

And, in this desperation, there’s an omen for election cycles to come: as long as there are marginal seats in coal country, mining will always have a future in Australia.