The voters in Upper Hunter may have elected a pro-coal candidate nine days ago, but it remains to be seen whether the result is a victory for coal jobs.
Pro-coal members of the Coalition have claimed the result provides further evidence that the Coalition can win key seats with a pro-coal agenda, with nearly 80% of first preferences going to candidates who expressed support for the coal industry. Perhaps this is the case.
However, many in the Coalition will plausibly take an entirely different lesson from the weekend – the Coalition can win seats in Australia’s heartland by giving lip service to coal jobs while pursuing green policies to defend their seats in the inner-city.
For all the talk about coal jobs during the by-election, the major parties failed to actually deliver any substantive coal policy. Many in the Coalition will likely view the $600 million gas-fired power plant to be built in the Hunter Valley as a small price to pay to win the heartland without actually having to support the coal industry.
There is no reason to doubt that the newly elected member for Upper Hunter, David Layzell, personally intends to defend local coal jobs, but a vote for a pro-coal Nationals candidate in the Hunter Valley is in practice a vote for a Berejiklian government pursuing an anti-coal net-zero emissions policy. And it is a vote for NSW Nationals leader John Barilaro who has backed the renewables agenda of NSW Energy Minister Matt Kean. The difference between Barilaro and Kean, according to Barilaro is that he is “a bit slower than [Kean] when it comes to the speed” of shutting down the coal and gas industries.
The Coalition is currently faced with two main electoral strategies. They can continue with a ‘teal strategy’ of defending inner-city seats by moving ever closer to the Greens, or they can pursue a ‘heartland strategy’ to win working-class seats from Labor in the regions and outer suburbs.
The teal strategy relies on a naïve Coalition regional base that believes that the Nationals and Liberals have their best interests at heart even as they act like an inner-city environmentalist party. Unfortunately, there is strong evidence to support this assessment of Coalition voters. Based on 2019 data from the Australian National University’s Australian Election Study, Coalition voters are by far the most likely to believe that Australian political parties know and care what ordinary people think. Only 32% of Coalition voters believe parties don’t care what ordinary people think, and only 34% believe they don’t know what ordinary people think. This compares to 45% and 59% respectively among Labor voters.
Some would suggest this indicates that the average Coalition voter is more naïve about the workings of power and government than the average voter of Labor, Greens, or minor parties.
This ensures that the Coalition can take their mainstream base in the regions and suburbs for granted while pursuing Greens-lite policies to placate their inner-city voters in seats like Wentworth, Goldstein, Higgins, and Kooyong.
A heartland strategy on the other hand would see the Coalition pick up seats from Labor in working–class suburbs and strengthen their position in the regions. To achieve this, the Coalition would need to become the party of Australian industry by supporting mining, energy, and manufacturing and rejecting job-destroying emission targets.
This strategy is reflected by Nationals senator Matthew Canavan whose takeaway from campaigning in Upper Hunter was to “give people what they want and build a coal-fired power station to keep jobs here.” The best way to do this is to remove regulations and emissions reduction targets that are inhibiting the development of new coal power stations, and end the billions of dollars in subsidies which are in place at the state and federal level to push more wind and solar energy generation onto the market. A good first step would be for the federal government to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement and rule out adopting a net zero emissions target.
But the Coalition won’t pursue a heartland strategy if their voters remain satisfied with rhetoric over substance. Federal Labor MP, Joel Fitzgibbon, whose seat of Hunter overlaps the NSW electorate of Upper Hunter, said, “voters remain sceptical of our support for the coal mining industry, if not suspicious”. Given the Coalition record, the question could be asked whether voters should feel the same way towards the Coalition.