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ABC News
ABC News
business reporter Rhiana Whitson

Businesses in the Hunter want more from politicians than a fear campaign about job losses in the coal industry

Ampcontrol chief executive Rod Henderson says the Hunter could be the energy hub of the nation. (ABC News: John Gunn )

Ampcontrol chief executive Rod Henderson is one of many business leaders in the New South Wales Hunter region who want more from the major parties this election than a fear campaign about job losses in the coal industry.

"We could be the energy hub of the nation," Mr Henderson says.

Most of the electrical engineering company's operations are in the marginal Labor seats of Hunter and Paterson, which — along with the NSW coal-mining region's neighbouring electorate of Shortland — are shaping up to be key battlegrounds this election.

"It's really exciting. I think whoever wins, we will get a fair bit of money spent in this part of the world," Mr Henderson says.

However, instead of focusing on coal, he wants the major parties to back innovation and future industries, such as hydrogen.

"I think there's a great opportunity for the Hunter to be the hydrogen hub of New South Wales," he says.

"We've got the perfect, deepwater port to export hydrogen out the door. We've got the electricity infrastructure already here. And we've also got the manufacturing infrastructure already here to support that."

His business is an example of how the Hunter region is leaving its coal-mining history behind.

After decades of servicing the mining and resources industry, these days the company makes everything from medical ventilators to hydro-batteries.

"So my vote would be, 'Let's get that hydrogen manufacturing hub here in the Hunter Valley'," he says.

Laura Rayfield is a first-year apprentice at Ampcontrol. She'd like to see more women in politics.  (ABC News: John Gunn)

In 2019, Labor's climate change policies saw a big swing against the party in coal-mining seats such as those in the Hunter region.

Labor now holds Hunter — which has been represented by someone from the Fitzgibbon family since 1984 — with a margin of only 3 per cent.

However, with Joel Fitzgibbon — who replaced his father, Eric, as the local MP in 1996 — retiring, the seat is at greater risk of falling to the Coalition.  

Labor's new candidate, Dan Repacholi — a coal miner and Olympic shooting medallist — is up against seven candidates, including The Nationals' James Thomson. 

Bob Hawes says the region has greater diversity since the last election. (ABC News: John Gunn)

Business Hunter chief executive Bob Hawes says a lot has changed in the region since the last federal poll, when fears around climate change policies dominated. 

"I think that the region, even in that short period of time, has grown up, as it were," Mr Hawes says.

"We're lucky that we've got quite a diverse industry base and, to some extent, that takes a spotlight off those individual issues that were clearly a focus of voter backlash last time around."

The reality is the world is moving away from fossil fuels and, while there is still an international market for the Hunter's coal, the private owners of the region's coal-fired power stations are accelerating the closure of the plants.

AGL is closing Lidell next year and Bayswater as early as 2030.

Origin will close the nation's biggest coal-fired power station, Eraring, in 2025.

Mr Hawes says the region needs clarity from the federal government about how they can transition to a clean energy future while maintaining the well-paid jobs the coal industry provides.

"A lot's happening in the energy industry, energy roadmaps that are focused on hydrogen, renewables. It's absolutely fantastic, and we as a region would be the envy of many other places around Australia," Mr Hawes says.

"But now the trick is turning that into practice, and actually producing results on the ground."

Sue Gilroy says she does not care who wins in the seat of Hunter, but says they need to listen to the community.   (ABC News: John Gunn )

At the last federal election, One Nation picked up a huge 21.6 per cent of first-preference votes in Hunter.

Sue Gilroy runs the Singleton Chamber of Commerce and is a former state election candidate for the Shooters and Fishers Party.

Ms Gilroy is still a member of the minor party, which is not standing candidates in the Hunter region and is yet to make a decision about the Senate.

She says businesses in Singleton want more than talk from the major parties. 

"We keep talking about understanding and transitioning and evolving and all those things. But we haven't really got an overarching plan that, you know, the people in the street can understand."

Ms Gilroy says better access to education and training are key issues for businesses who want to be able to retrain staff and keep young people in the area.

"Because we know that, when they leave, they rarely come back," she says.

Jim Knowles is a business owner and has been involved in the mining industry for 30 years.  (ABC News: John Gunn )

In the neighbouring marginal electorate of Paterson, transition is also on the minds of voters at the pub in Kurri Kurri.

"Kurri Kurri is a small community, but it represents a fair amount of what the rest of the country is feeling," says coal industry veteran Jim Knowles, who owns a risk management company. 

"They're all working-class people, all worried about how they're going to get their money and how they're going to make a living."

The Hunter is coming to terms with a future that will be less dependent on coal. (ABC News: John Gunn)

Paterson voters tend to change parties every couple of elections.

After a swing against Labor in 2019, Meryl Swanson managed to hold the seat with a reduced, 5 per cent margin.

Kurri Kurri is where Ms Swanson polled strongest in 2019. Mr Knowles says Ms Swanson still has a lot of support among residents.

However, he says, the alternatives to coal need to be better explained by politicians of all stripes.

"What are we going to do to replace those jobs? Some of the government initiatives are good. Some of the alternatives are not so good. But I think what you're finding here is, in this particular area here, there's a fear."

Ian Cutbush from Y-Knot Tours says his views about politicians are not suitable for publication.  (ABC News: John Gunn)

Ms Swanson is up against six declared candidates and will face tough competition from frontrunner, Liberal candidate Brooke Vitnell.

Affluent Nelson Bay is where the Liberals polled strongest in Patterson. It's a place that's popular with retirees, with some locals even jokingly calling it God's waiting room. 

In Nelson Bay, people are more likely to be talking about access to aged care, jobs, the environment and tourism.

Down at the marina, after a tough couple of years of business during COVID-19, not all of cruise boat operator Ian Cutbush's views on politics are suitable for publication.

"You would have to beep me out if I told you what I think of them," he says.

"I'm just trying to focus on what I'm doing at the moment to survive."

He does not want anymore handouts from the federal government, but says that does not mean he is not worried about the future.

"I don't know if the COVID is going to come back worse and we're going to get closed-up again. That's going to create all sorts of problems."

Zumba studio owner Lorna Davies is looking for change in her local representation.  (ABC News: John Gunn )

Nearby, Zumba studio owner Lorna Davies feel more positive. She is moving towards a change in local representation.

"I really want to see Brooke Vitnell in it, because we want to see something fresh," Ms Davies said.

She says the town desperately needs a new hospital and for someone to fix the potholes in the road, both of which are state responsibilities.

"Listen to the community and just get things done, instead of just promising."

Fiona Brown says businesses in Nelson Bay are still recovering from the COVID-19 downturn.  (ABC News: John Gunn )

Fiona Brown is a business consultant who describes herself as "apolitical."

Like other tourist destinations around the country, Nelson Bay was hit hard during the pandemic and Ms Brown says business owners are looking for hope. 

"Myself and many other people fell through so many holes and had no financial support during the pandemic, that was really, really tough," Ms Brown says.

"To me, it doesn't matter who wins. It is, 'Will that person deliver, not what they think that people need, but what the people really do need'."

Tiarne Greenan says social issues and climate change are important to her. (ABC News: John Gunn)

Tiarne Greenan owns Gypsy Hair in Maitland, which is also in Paterson and about 60 kilometres inland from Nelson Bay and 15km from Kurri Kurri. 

At the last federal poll, the Greens picked up about half the votes of One Nation in Paterson.

Ms Greenan was one of those in the electorate who voted for the Greens and plans to cast her ballot the same way this year.

"The big issues for me are supporting Indigenous Australians, supporting [addressing] climate change, and supporting youth, not just keeping, you know, old white men richer," Ms Greenan says.

The rising cost of doing business due to inflation is another issue on her mind.

"With our business expenses, I know that our suppliers have had to put up their bottom dollar a significant amount more. It is real tough," Ms Greenan says.

Adam Elbourne says alternative markets need to be found for the region's wineries.  (ABC news: John Gunn )

Back in the electorate of Hunter it is not just about coal. The Hunter region is also home to some of the biggest wine producers in the country.  

China's boycott of Australian wines due to the trade dispute has seen wine exports plummet. The wine industry wants a fresh approach to trade relations. 

"I think we need to promote our wines through Wine Australia and Tourism Australia to other markets, globally. Maybe not rely on China so much," says Adam Elbourne, who runs a boutique vineyard, Elbourne Wines, on the Terra Rosa hills of Pokolbin.

"Obviously, we could rebuild those relationships [with China] too. But I think we need to broaden our spectrum."

Mr Elbourne also wants to see the international tourism market grow. He's about to invest in a cellar door restaurant. 

"I want to see a lot of support go into the tourism and wine industry for the local area," he says.

"If they can keep that momentum going, keep that growing, I can see a huge future for the [country's] oldest wine region."

Lake Macquarie Council chief executive Morven Cameron says coal is contributing less to the region's economy.  (ABC News: John Gunn )

Lake Macquarie Council services an area squeezed between Lake Macquarie and the Pacific Ocean, and covers the federal electorates of Hunter and Shortland. 

After a 10 per cent swing against Labor in 2019, Pat Conroy now holds the seat of Shortland by a margin of 4.5 per cent.

As Sydneysiders flock to Lake Macquarie for the lifestyle, its demographic is shifting. 

"In 2013, mining, and manufacturing contributed 37 per cent to our economy. Last year it was just 20 per cent," Lake Macquarie Council chief executive Morven Cameron says. 

Ms Morven says 98 per cent of the local government area's businesses are small enterprises that employ 20 people or less.

She says those that rely on mining are changing, to become more entrepreneurial. 

"And, really, our role — and my vision for the city — is that our economy transitions from the fossil-fuel-generated mining and energy, to new energy generation, and to new industries, seamlessly, so that our communities here don't actually feel a dip or any economic pressure as the city transitions."

She lists better roads and transport links as key projects the council would like to see the next federal government invest in. 

"It's a region full of incredibly talented people [who are] ready to transition and ready to meet new industries. The only thing I can ask for is that [the major parties] see and understand the potential that is here and is almost bursting to get out."

Businesses call for a clear pathway to clean energy (Rhiana Whitson)
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