Against a backdrop of the ongoing transition to renewables and the closure of their massive Liddell power station, a cutthroat contest is emerging in the coal mining Upper Hunter seat this election.
Wiradjuri woman Abby Wilson, 25, is among the thousands of workers in the electorate who make their living at open-cut and underground coal mines.
“I love being out in the pit and being around the machinery,” she said.
“It’s not just the money side of things.
“I love the community feel of the mine sites. You’re with these people for 12 hours a day. It’s like coming to a second family.”
Despite uncertainty about the future of coal, Ms Wilson is confident she can upskill and further her career in the industry.
She says there are also plenty of new trainees coming through.
“Mining’s going to be here for a long time,” Ms Wilson said.
Muswellbrook retiree John Dyson is at a totally different point in life.
He had a stable career working at the Liddell and Bayswater coal-fired power plants for 24 years.
“People could get jobs at the power station,” he said.
“We had a full-blown apprentice training centre in Muswellbrook … [which] each year produced hundreds of apprentices.
“That prospect is gone.”
Liddell is shutting down on April 28 after powering millions of homes across NSW for 52 years.
There are thousands of locals across the Hunter who trained or worked at the power station.
“It’s a long journey for Ol’ Smokey, as we called it,” Mr Dyson said.
“The mining industry is supporting local employment but it’s a lot less than what it was in the good old Liddell days.”
Mr Dyson worries about young people in the Upper Hunter, having seen families in his street move away.
“A few of ’em have managed to snag jobs in the local industries, but the majority of kids have left town,” he said.
“My two girls have had to leave town, they went to Newcastle.”
Agriculture is also a major player in the Upper Hunter and there is a push to promote careers in farming.
The region is home to world-class thoroughbred breeders like Sam Parkes from Jerry’s Plains.
“I was a crazy little horse girl and very passionate,” said the broodmare manager at Godolphin Stud.
“I guess they just become your family and your life.
“You see them on the racetrack, it’s very rewarding to [then] see them come back and have their own babies.”
Like many industries, horse studs are dealing with worker shortages and a key part of Ms Parkes’ job is to train new recruits to bolster the workforce.
She recently came back to work after maternity leave and is especially keen to try and recruit local women.
“I was lucky enough to start my young family, and have the work-life balance to come back and do what I love and be a parent,” she said.
Agriculture, mining, and energy are the three traditional job sectors in the region likely to face industry changes amid the ongoing transition to renewable energy.
Upper Hunter is the most marginal seat in regional NSW in the state election with the boundary changing and moving slightly south after a redistribution.
The seat now takes in more Labor-leaning areas closer to Cessnock and Maitland, and current Nationals MP Dave Layzell has just a 0.5 per cent buffer.
It opens the door slightly for Labor’s candidate Peree Watson and James White from the Shooters, Fishers, and Farmers to boost their vote.
The Nationals are always vocal about their support for the Hunter’s coal industry and local farmers.
Labor says it also supports mining and has also committed to a Hunter Transition Authority that will help with reskilling workers.
Mr Dyson says he’s yet to see enough new jobs coming through in other industries to fill the gap left by Liddell’s closure.
“They say we’re going to create so many jobs. But how?” he said.
“Nothing jumps out at me, saying this one offers hope, compared to this one.”
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