Upper Hunter candidates talk it up at Muswellbrook Chamber of Commerce and Industry breakfast

COUNTING CANDIDATES: From left: Michael Johnsen, Richard Stretton, Lee Watts, Melanie Dagg and Tony Lonergan.
COUNTING CANDIDATES: From left: Michael Johnsen, Richard Stretton, Lee Watts, Melanie Dagg and Tony Lonergan.

JUST 18 days out from the NSW Election, the various candidates for the state seat of Upper Hunter have addressed members of the community to speak about the most pressing issues in the area.

Country Labor's Melanie Dagg, Shooters, Fishers and Farmers' Lee Watts, Greens' Tony Lonergan, Christian Democrats' Richard Stretton and incumbent Nationals MP Michael Johnsen were present, but Liberal Democratic Party pre-select Mark Ellis was not in attendance.

On Tuesday morning at the Muswellbrook Chamber of Commerce and Industry (MCCI) breakfast, they were quizzed on a number of topics including health, education, economics, environment and, of course, the Muswellbrook Bypass.

While sharing similar views on several matters, there were sharp differences in the way they wanted to act upon them and even more divisive stances on where they thought issues currently stood.

The largest point of difference surrounded mining and the diversification of economics in the area, with Mr Johnsen rebuffing some of the claims about the Upper Hunter’s dependence on the industry.

He said it only contributed to 30 per cent of the region’s economy, and described the other candidates concerns about it as “overstated”.

“We support the diversified economy we expect and actually have here in the Upper Hunter,” he said.

Mr Lonergan was most vocal in his opposition to the sector, and said the environment needed to come first.

“The science of climate change was settled in the 1800s,” the Greens pre-select said.

“Unfortunately there’s a lot of ignorance in the community about it.”

Mr Stretton shared that worry, and said it would be beneficial to move away from mining for the sake of the environment and the future of the economy, putting an emphasis on the diversification of income.

Although he also argued that so long as it is a major money maker, the district should be rewarded better for it.

“This state survives on the Upper Hunter… this area should see their share,” he said.

Mrs Dagg’s sentiment was almost identical as she called for a fairer distribution of the royalties from coal.

“We’re largely responsible for the prosperity of this state and we have been let down,” she said.

However, this was not her main focus as she also spoke in depth about the health and education systems.

After reiterating her promise about nurse ratios last week, she revealed to the room that Labor would seek to make TAFE cost free, describing it as "the ultimate job plan".

The ever-straight shooting Mrs Watts agreed with most of pledges made by Liberal and Labor, and said she would see it as her job, if elected, to hold them to account.

“Both major parties had forgotten this electorate until the election got close,” she said.

“Whoever gets in government – I will be knocking on their door to make sure they follow through.”

She placed emphasis on local issues including the struggle of farmers and lack of appropriate transport to business hubs such as Tamworth and Newcastle.

“Like many people in this community I have been shocked by the lack of support for our farmers,” Mrs Watts said.

“Before we can look at the big picture, we need to look at the basics first.”

While they all had somewhat differing news on those topics, they were almost unanimous in backing the arrival of the Muswellbrook Bypass as soon as possible, with the only exception being the Christian Democrats who were in favour of a Singleton bypass being completed first. 

In recent times, the coalition has pledged $266 million of state funding to have it completed by 2025, and Labor announced combined $616 million of state and federal money that would be poured into the long-awaited infrastructure in both towns.

It's yet to be determined who the winners and losers out of the event were, but the presentability and eccentricity of some candidates are sure to have impressed the crowd and swung a vote or two in the process.

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