The Nationals’ David Layzell has taken an early lead in the Upper Hunter by-election in NSW, but it may be days before a winner is declared in the crucial vote.
Both major parties are sweating on the results, which could push the Berejiklian government further into minority, or increase the pressure on Jodi McKay’s position as NSW Labor leader.
A few hours after voting closed at 6pm on Saturday, Mr Layzell was polling about 30 per cent of first preference votes, with Labor’s Jeff Drayton on about 20 per cent.
Independent Kirsty O’Connell, Shooters Fishers and Farmers’ Sue Gilroy, and One Nation’s Dale McNamara were all polling around 10 per cent.
The contest is likely to come down to preference flows, with neither major party likely to win the seat outright.
Delays are expected due to the high number of pre-poll votes, with some 23,000 votes cast early.
The Nationals had held the seat by 2.6 per cent, before MP Michael Johnsen’s resignation over sexual assault allegations prompted the by-election.
Mr Johnsen denies the allegations and has not been charged.
The by-election contest has centred on the future of coal mining in the region, with the Greens’ Sue Abbott and Ms O’Connell wanting to move the region away from its reliance on coal.
But Labor and the Nationals have talked up their coal credentials, and Labor’s Mr Drayton is a former coal miner.
In a last-ditch appeal to voters, Mr Drayton said he would fix years of neglect suffered under the Nationals, who have held the seat for 90 years.
“I’m ready to go – ready to go to Macquarie Street and fight for people of the Upper Hunter’s fair share,” he said while campaigning on Saturday.
Labor has come close to winning the seat before, and hopes to rely on a history of by-election swings against governments.
But Premier Gladys Berejiklian pointed out the Nationals candidate is the only one of the 13 that would actually be part of the state government if elected.
“We do need a strong team in government (and) I do rely on great local members,” she said alongside Mr Layzell in Muswellbrook.
“As premier you’d like to think you’re in every corner of the state every day but you can’t be.”
Even the former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull weighed in, donating $3000 to Ms O’Connell’s campaign, and prompting accusations of treachery from the Nationals.
At any rate, funding promises have flowed for roads and health during the campaign, with the Singleton Bypass and Muswellbrook Hospital big beneficiaries.
If the government loses Upper Hunter, it will have the tricky task of managing minority government until the next election, which isn’t due until March 2023.