The Nationals’ David Layzell is on track to defy history and hold the seat of Upper Hunter for the New South Wales Coalition government in the crucial byelection.
There were still votes to tally when the counting stopped late on Saturday but the NSW Nationals leader John Barilaro was confident Layzell was going to claim victory.
“It was the whole world versus Dave Layzell and tonight the booth counts have come in and we’ve been rewarded with the support of the people and the voters of the Upper Hunter,” he said on his Facebook page.
Layzell has not claimed victory.
The major parties have been sweating on the result, which could have pushed the Berejiklian government into minority, or increased pressure on Jodi McKay’s position as opposition leader.
With more than 30,000 votes counted late on Saturday, Layzell was polling above 30% of first preference votes, with Labor’s Jeff Drayton on 20%.
The Nationals had held the seat by 2.6%, before MP Michael Johnsen’s resignation over sexual assault allegations prompted the byelection.
Johnsen denied the allegations and has not been charged.
The byelection contest has centred on the future of coalmining in the region, with independent candidate Kirsty O’Connell and the Greens’ Sue Abbott wanting to move the region away from its reliance on coal.
The coal industry, by far the region’s largest employer, has become a flashpoint in the Hunter Valley due to both a swathe of land use conflicts with the agriculture sector and fears of a shift away from coal amid global pressure on Australia to decrease emissions because of the climate emergency.
The former prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, had been active in the campaign supporting O’Connell on her stance, which had prompted Barilaro to accused Turnbull of being “treacherous”.
On Saturday evening Barilaro congratulated O’Connell for her campaign but also paid tribute to the National party for retaining the seat. He said the victory was down to the great work of NSW Liberal government through the pandemic.
O’Connell, a fifth-generation farmer from near Muswellbrook, was one of the only candidates in the race calling for a moratorium on new coalmines and calling for the Hunter’s economy to diversify.
But Labor – Drayton is a former coalminer – and the Nationals had talked up their coal credentials.
The result will also heap more pressure on McKay. The Labor leader has struggled to make any impression on voters in NSW despite the government there being beset by a string of controversies, and polling released in the final week of the campaign showed that a majority of Labor voters preferred the Coalition’s Berejilian as premier.
Labor has never held the Upper Hunter, but McKay’s rivals in the party are sure to use a poor result as evidence of the need for a change of leadership.