In the coal heartlands, seismic shifts weigh heavily






If there’s one place in the nation where the rubber hits the road on Australia’s decades-long discussion about the climate crisis, fossil fuels, mining and jobs – it’s the seat of Hunter. The coal-rich electorate, which spans from Lake Macquarie in the south to north-west of Newcastle, is at the centre of seismic shifts in the landscape; giant changes that are political, economic and literal. The economic shift comes as the proud mining region begins to ponder a future after coal. Both the Coalition and Labor are telling the Hunter some variation of “if the world wants to buy our coal, we’ll sell it”. But both sides also talk up the Hunter as a potential global hub for clean energy, hydrogen, green steel and aluminium. Billions of dollars are pouring in. Locals talk of solar panels and transition. The political change comes on two fronts in Hunter. At the 2019 election, veteran Labor MP Joel Fitzgibbon hung on by his fingernails, seeing his 12.5% margin in 2016 slashed to just less than 3% in the face of a thundering 21.5% vote to One Nation – the farright party’s best result in the country. Fitzgibbon, who has held the seat for 26 years, is retiring. His aspiring replacement, Dan Repacholi, is a two-metre-tall manmountain with a history in the mines, a Viking’s beard and three Commonwealth gold medals in pistol shooting. “Cessnock, gateway to the paradise,” was Repacholi’s welcome to Australia’s media pack when Labor leader Anthony Albanese’s campaign circus visited Hunter last month. Hunter has been held continuously by Labor since 1910. A mining town, a union town, it’s as much a heartland seat for the ALP as Wentworth and Kooyong are for the Liberals. But just as those blue-ribbon city seats are suddenly under threat for the Coalition, so too is Hunter for Labor – for roughly the same climate and energy reasons, albeit at the other end of the argument. That Albanese picked a coalminer as Fitzgibbon’s replacement – against the wishes of local ALP members – wasn’t a coincidence. “Some of these people would be three generations of having a family working in the mines,” says Di, out shopping in Lake Macquarie. “It’s always been some sort of status for those people to be working in the coalmine.” Lincoln, a longtime electrical engineer in the mines, says people can see the future. “It’s going to happen,” he says. “It’s inevitable, they have to close the coalmines.” Di and her husband, Graeme, say they would be happy to see coalmines in the area close. But Graeme warns that the pending closure of the Eraring coal power station, due in 2025, will be “horrific for this area” in terms of job losses. Upgrading local roads and infrastructure, and waiting times to see a GP, are other issues that seem to be at the forefront of voters’ minds. But it’s coal, energy and jobs that almost every conversation come back to. Di and Graeme, back in Lake Macquarie, have split opinions. Graeme, a lifetime Labor man, wants Albanese in the top job; Di, normally a Liberal voter, doesn’t have kind words for either Morrison or the Labor leader. “Excuse the French, he’s a dickhead,” Di says of Morrison. “But I’m disappointed in [Albanese] ... For the traditional Labor voters, I think he’s fine. But for people like me. I’m looking for someone that’s got a little bit more oomph to him.”