The ALP’s Pat Conroy holds the pre-2016 redistribution seat of Charlton. Following Charlton’s abolition and the retirement of Jill Hall from the neighbouring seat of Shortland, Conroy will contest Shortland. The ALP’s Joel Fitzgibbon, who has held the former seat of Hunter since 1996, will contest the new seat in the 2016 election. Hunter has new electoral boundaries that include much of the electorate that was previously in Charlton.
Competing mining and agricultural interests characterise the key issues in Hunter. The seat hosted the nation's biggest coal mining area and benefitted from the commodity boom before large scale layoffs changed the region's fortunes. Alliances between farmers, environmental activists and horse breeders have challenged expansions to coal mining operations and coal seam gas exploration.
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The Hunter electorate has changed dramatically after the redistributions of late 2015, which saw the effective abolition of the old seat of Hunter, which sat between Charlton and New England, and a new Hunter take its place.
This new Hunter takes in Charlton’s previous borders, along with Cessnock, Singleton and Muswellbrook Local Government Areas. Hunter has always been described as a rural seat, one outside of major cities. The inclusion of Lake Macquarie into the electorate hasn’t changed this description. Nor is it expected to change the safety of the seat, since Hunter has been a Labor stronghold for more than 100 years while Charlton has never known a non-Labor MP.
That doesn’t mean the seat was always red. When it was first drawn in 1901 it was represented by then-Prime Minister Edmund Barton and the Protectionist party. The seat flip-flopped through parties for the next few years before sticking with Labor in 1910 and is now considered one of the safest in the country.
The Hunter region has always been a rich coal field in Australia, and is responsible for two thirds of the coal production in New South Wales, exporting throughout the world. The mining investment boom in the last decade helped pump huge amounts of profit into the electorate. But the slowdown in investment has also led to a slowdown in employment, with thousands being made redundant by mining corporations in an effort to reduce costs. Counter-efforts have been made in the past to reduce the burden the downturn is having on small mining communities, with Singleton Council recently injecting hundreds of thousands of dollars into the town in an effort to diversify the economy.
The Hunter’s coal fields are credited as the location of the first big win for unionism in Australia. Most of the miners working in the Hunter during the early union movement were British, with unionism long established in England. Workers were able to persuade mine owners that they had mutual goals: to keep coal prices high, because any downturn in coal costs would lead to wage cuts. This deep-rooted union history in the Hunter is likely to be a direct reason for the safety of the seat to the Labor Party.
Apart from coal, wine is also a major commodity in Hunter, with the Hunter Valley vineyards injecting huge amounts of revenue into the economy. The vineyards are aided by their proximity to Sydney and huge tourist revenue, with thousands visiting every year to tour wineries, taste wine and take part in picking the grapes. But despite their popularity, the vineyards have seen a drop in revenue, which is offset by the increase in Chinese investment in many of the vineyards.
The electorate also has a strong military presence, with the Lone Pine Military barracks located just outside Singleton. Established in 1940, Lone Pine is now home to the School of Infantry and Special Forces Training Centre, as well as a number of regular support services. Named after the First World War battle between the ANZACs and the Ottoman Empire, the barracks are also home to the Australian Infantry Museum, which includes a full sized Vietnam War era helicopter and uniforms and weapons from Australia’s involvement in warfare, dating back to the Boer War.
What might have changed the most for Hunter this election is the change in demographic, one that has seen a sudden influx of centre-left voters. The electorate’s incumbent member, Joel Fitzgibbon has safely held the seat for more than 20 years. He controversially avoided preselection in the seat following the redistribution, meaning he didn’t have to fight for the seat with Charlton MP Pat Conroy. Fitzgibbon’s centre-right political stance could be at odds with the former Charlton electorate, which has often elected centre-left MPs, including former minister for climate change, Greg Combet. Fitzgibbon could suffer a swing against him because of this, but the more conservative towns of Cessnock and Singleton are still in the electorate, possibly stabilising the potential swing. The chances of this happening mean Fitzgibbon might have to campaign stronger in the new part of his electorate, if he is to survive the election with a strong margin. A strong Green presence might also cause some instability.