This report originally appeared in the pages of the Newcastle Herald's Weekender magazine on December 26, 2020 under the headline 'The hot seat'. It first appeared online on January 2, 2021.
In the recent history of Scone, not many friendships have soured like the one between Ben Wyndham and Michael Johnsen. Wyndham, the town's chamber of commerce president from 2015 to 2017, doesn't mask his unhappiness with the Upper Hunter state Nationals MP.
"Personally speaking, I've become increasingly disappointed that the man I supported has been replaced by a party operative," Wyndham, a flight school owner and chief pilot, says.
"The role of your state MP is to be our representative in Macquarie Street. But Mr Johnsen is Macquarie Street's representative in our electorate."
Along with criticism of Johnsen's representation during the greyhound racing ban, and a Scone Airport project that Wyndham says has cost him $50,000 so far, he says Johnsen failed to acknowledge "a single one" of the chamber's submissions about the Scone bypass.
Wyndham built websites for Johnsen's unsuccessful tilt at the federal seat of Hunter in 2010 (he also ran in 1996 and 2013). The men own a plane together in a syndicate, a two-seater Grob, now hangered. There seems little prospect of a joy flight.
"I just ignore Ben Wyndham. We always got along fine. If he were to walk in now we'd be sitting down here having a coffee," says Johnsen, in Singleton's Munkeeskins café. "But you know, not everyone is as they seem. Some people have the ability, for one reason or another, to really piss people off."
Johnsen is in his second term as Upper Hunter MP. For more than a quarter century the seat was held by former state Nationals leader George Souris, finally by 23 per cent, before Johnsen absorbed a 21 per cent swing to Labor to succeed him in 2015.
Voters returned Johnsen four years later in 2019 with a cushion of 2.4 per cent.
In his first term, he survived a rare preselection challenge by a member of his party, the Upper Hunter Shire councillor James Burns.
In the dying weeks of his last campaign against Labor's Martin Rush, the Muswellbrook mayor, Johnsen benefited from an anonymous letter accusing his opponent of drunkenly yelling at and grabbing a woman. Police took no further action, but Rush dropped out and Johnsen won against Labor's replacement, Melanie Dagg.
But with the state electoral commission seeking to redraw the seat, Johnsen's margin could dwindle to half a percent. A seat seen as a must-win for the Berejiklian government, which the Nationals have held for 89 years, will have diminished from a fortress to one of the three most marginal in the state.
The Upper Hunter in 2020 is, like its federal neighbour the Hunter, a political battleground and a white-hot intersection of industries and views about how Australia should respond to the world's easing demand for coal, and the moral challenge of climate change.
The recent news that Swiss mining giant Glencore will shut its Liddell and Integra coal mines - near Muswellbrook and Singleton, respectively - will affect about 670 workers and their families.
From a range of interviews, Weekender found a level of division that reflects the seat's near 50-50 split.
And both Michael Johnsen and Labor's Hunter MP Joel Fitzgibbon are on the radar of a well-resourced group seeking to oust sitting members they see as soft on climate change.
How it got this way depends on who you ask.
JOHNSEN is boyish for 56, tall, with pale blue eyes. He uses his hands as he talks, in a burring register that could be from smoking, which he says he quit by vaping. Café diners nod as they enter.
It is a few days since the Hunter joined NSW Environment Minister Matt Kean's Electricity Infrastructure Investment bill, under an amendment Johnsen proposed. Now the Hunter will be a designated Renewable Energy Zone, an energy-rich area earmarked for new grid infrastructure to operate as the equivalent of a power station.
"There are huge investments going into hard infrastructure, and social infrastructure as well," Johnsen says.
"And I've always been energy agnostic. You have to be."
In appearances on Sky News, Johnsen has attacked renewables projects as "fanciful" ideas pushed by climate change "zealots", and called for Matt Kean to be dumped from his portfolio.
In 2018 on Outsiders, he said the Berejiklian government should use the proceeds of the Snowy Hydro project to deliver a coal-fired power station for the Hunter.
To critics, Johnsen on Sky after dark ("I'll take your word for it," says Muswellbrook deputy mayor Rod Scholes) is a little-watched indulgence, a chance to tinker with trainsets of conspiracy with Craig Kelly and Rowan Dean.
But while the ratings are a fraction of what politicians command on Sunrise or Today, Sky has pursued a strategy of converting interviews into long, easily shareable YouTube clips that have made it a social media juggernaut.
A Sky after dark spot is a shrewd way for a conservative politician to reach a certain audience.
The sitting member is from western Sydney but has lived 30 years in the Hunter, working as a hand on a dairy farm, then a financial planner, and a political candidate in all levels of government including as Upper Hunter mayor from 2009 to 2012.
He is more engaging in person than on Sky.
It was financial planning, he says, that taught him about people.
"Everyone thinks it's all numbers, but anyone can do numbers," says Johnsen, over the café's Christmas soundtrack. "But it teaches you psychology, knowing how humans operate, how they're going to respond."
Johnsen seems unrattled by questions, and even to relish them. On whether he would run for Hunter against his old sparring partner Fitzgibbon, who has broken with his party over climate policy, Johnsen interrupts the question with "no".
He seems annoyed only when asked about Slow Summer Pty Ltd, a company he registered this year with his partner Karla Leen. "Really?" he says, eyebrows raised. "It's a private company between my partner and myself, which is for a self-managed super fund trustee."
In his maiden speech to Parliament in 2015, Johnsen paid tribute to his adopted parents. He recalled his father working as a trainer for the Penrith Panthers in the '70s, and losing his brother, Alan, the night before he contested the seat of Hunter at the 2010 federal election. He spoke of his two children, and his then-wife Zenda.
Zenda Casey - her maiden name - spoke in February 2018 to the Newcastle Herald about the break-up of the couple's 30-year marriage, nine months after Johnsen was elected, blaming "politics, the culture that surrounds it and the lifestyle it entails".
It came a fortnight after Natalie Joyce spoke of her separation from the Nationals member for New England, Barnaby Joyce. The party's MPs and their families were portrayed in some quarters as particularly affected by the political lifestyle.
(In 2019, some viewers noted that the ex-wife and daughter of another NSW Nationals MP were contestants on the Seven reality show Bride and Prejudice).
Johnsen has a mostly smooth relationship with journalists, he says, but the Herald story infuriated him. "That story about my marriage break-up should never have been put out."
Still. There would have been no story without an interview. How did he feel that one was given?
"It wasn't ideal, but at the same time she's her own person and can make her own choices," Johnsen says. "We speak, we always have done, and she's very naive on these sorts of matters - or at least she was."
What doesn't make the news, he says, are the daily battles a regional MP fights on behalf of his constituents. Johnsen is a fan of getting on the phone to get things done, rather than starting a process. For instance, he says, he took up the cause of a local mother whose daughter faced severe mental health challenges, pulling the family out of bureaucracy to get her appropriate care and on the road to being employed.
"You can see my body language, see what I'm like," Johnsen says. "There's no better feeling than showing people there is a way to get out of this. If they take the bit and run with it, it's a great feeling."
Six months before his last election win, Johnsen faced down a preselection challenge from within his own party from two Scone Nationals: Burns and the former actor and Wallabies prop, Ollie Hall. Johnsen paid tribute in Parliament to Hall, who appeared in Made Max: Beyond the Thunderdome, after he died in November.
A person central to the challenge against Johnsen would only say, "Michael is doing a terrific job", before withdrawing permission to use their name and trying to rescind the comment.
Weekender has spoken with local Nationals members who accuse Johnsen of "doing nothing about the drought", which he refutes, pointing to the government's $1.5 billion in drought support. The conversations included more than one mention of Johnsen being placed on a performance "watch list" by senior party figures, a characterisation Johnsen also denies.
The critics' view is supported by a staffer in NSW Parliament, who doesn't work for either major party. "It's a very tricky one not just for the Nats, but for the government," says the staffer. "They can't afford to see the seat fall to the Shooters [Fishers and Farmers party] or Labor, but no one's really sure if punting [Johnsen] for another Nat before '23 would be a good or bad thing."
But party elder John "Wacka" Williams, the Nationals' former senator for NSW, says a watch list is "news to me" and praised the collaborative performance of Johnsen during his time as Upper Hunter mayor.
Asked whether his fight for election and re-election has been worth it, Johnsen doesn't hesitate. "There's no such thing as an easy win," he says.
MICHAEL Johnsen is among friends at Singleton Rugby Club.
The club has been given half a million dollars to finish the upper deck of its grandstand, which sits opposite the clubhouse across a field made lush by rain. Fourteen other projects in Singleton will be funded in the latest Resources for Regions allocation, totalling $4.5 million. Johnsen represents the government at the announcement and George Souris, the former member and a locally beloved rugby referee, sits off to the side of the lectern, acknowledged by each speaker with deference.
"I know, Michael, that you're a voice for us in Macquarie Street," says Jason Linnane, the general manager of Singleton council.
Johnsen gives a speech that feels relaxed and off-the-cuff, highlighting the worthiness of the projects, slightly different to the address by Singleton mayor Sue Moore mentioning the area's neglect in previous funding, but giving Johnsen credit for this round.
Johnsen and Linnane joke about negotiating more funding, "as soon as the cameras stop rolling", then it's time for photos and sausage rolls.
George Souris is one of two men, with Tim Fischer, who Johnsen names as political heroes. In this setting he has the energy of what in Sicily might be called uomini rispettati - men of respect, whose hands are kissed as they move between villages, or in the Upper Hunter, perhaps, never have to wait long between handshakes.
Why is the seat so marginal? The man who retired five years ago, with a 23 per cent buffer, rejects the question. "There are two traps there: one is boasting, the other is fighting for the cause," Souris says, on the warm grass of the rugby field. "I don't want to do that kind of political interview, I'm past it. If you want an untethered view, talk to [ABC election analyst] Antony Green."
Souris will allow that the seat is no stranger to redistribution. Before the 2007 election, it shed Mudgee and Gulgong and picked up Singleton, Dungog and Gloucester. The looming shift, he says, hardly compares.
Johnsen and Cessnock Labor MP Clayton Barr, though, have lodged submissions against it. Johnsen says he can win on an altered map, even if he is disappointed to be losing towns like Quirindi.
He says, by the way, that too much is made of the seat's margin, pointing out that Souris left at the peak of his popularity. That was always going to be "corrected". The popular Rush represented a reset, says Johnsen, "in what could very well be considered a Labor seat when you look at the type of industries we have, the demographics".
Less generous is the political staffer in Sydney. An MP of Johnsen's experience, says the staffer, should have graduated to the front bench.
"[Johnsen] had a two-party preferred margin of 2.2 per cent. In 2019, after supposedly working for Upper Hunter, he ran against nobody but only got his margin up to 2.6 per cent," says the staffer.
"If an incumbent is doing his job that simply doesn't happen."
On the twelfth floor of Parliament House, the Nationals MPs work a corridor down from what might be an existential threat - the MPs of the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers. The independents work in between.
One National on that floor is Michael Johnsen. It isn't clear whether he was in his office at 3.55pm on Tuesday, June 16, a sitting day, when he hit "send" on a post that made headlines.
"How many NSW BLM [Black Lives Matter] protestors also protested in favour of full term abortions? The irony..."
It is difficult, by the way, to tell if Johnsen fully grasps what he posts on social media. There was an article quoting NASA "conceding" that climate change is caused by the orbit of the Earth, from a website since de-platformed for spreading Qanon style conspiracy theories. A quote about race was removed by Instagram for being falsely attributed to Nelson Mandela. And during the US Presidential election, the Upper Hunter member tweeted screenshots purporting to show voting irregularities in Michigan.
Few locals seem to notice these posts. Rod Scholes, the Muswellbrook deputy mayor who, while a Labor member, says he works well with Johnsen, says "you wouldn't have heard Michael talking about those things a couple of years ago".
But outside the seat, the posts are Johnsen's shop window to the world.
"I can't believe he's an MP," says one gallery journalist.
Replying to a tweet about climate change, former ABC broadcaster Aaron Kearney wrote "I thought you were much better than this, Michael. What a letdown".
Normally, show figures provided to Weekender, Johnsen might reach a few hundred people with a post, through Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. But the abortion post was different. Rapidly, the "likes" on the Tweet sunk below the number of replies, securing an unwelcome "ratio". The comments on Facebook spooled into the hundreds.
Social media didn't elect Michael Johnsen and won't vote him out. But the backlash prompted him "to clarify".
"The point is that we as humans don't have the right to determine what human life is more important than another," he added.
"Others may have a different view, that's also fine by me. I apologize if any offense taken."
It was a non-apology to Bob Vickers, a singleton GP who provides surgical obstetric services to Singleton Hospital. Vickers' Twitter replies to Johnsen sometimes take on a Quixotic hue, over issues such as local air quality. He added abortion to the list.
"The tweet was abhorrent and shows a complete misunderstanding of women's autonomy and their rights to access safe, affordable terminations. It is below a level of discourse expected from a member of parliament," Vickers says.
"Full-term abortions do not happen in Australia. It is a term incorrectly used by opponents of termination services. It misleads and confuses the debate around later abortions, performed usually for medical reasons."
Johnsen, who last year spoke in Parliament against what became the Abortion Law Act, reframed the narrative as one of personal struggle and censorship from the left.
He reminded journalists that he was adopted - often a mother's alternative, he argued, to termination. Despite what seems like a case of an own goal nullifying a point, Johnsen tells Weekender he would "absolutely" post the same thing again.
And if MPs had censured him on the floor of Parliament, he had prepared a speech urging the house to "note the hypocrisy of the left".
"The left" and pejoratives like "inner-city", "woke" and "latte-sipping" are baked into the language of some Nationals, including Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack.
Gabrielle Chan, an author and farmer in McCormack's seat of Riverina, says bashing city folk "does play in some circles", but is starting to be viewed as outdated, especially as professionals and "tree-changers" make up more of country towns.
Chan says the old tropes - "pretty much every country town around me, I can get a decent coffee" - aren't always effective ammunition for MPs against what they oppose, like the koala policies that nearly split the Berejiklian government in September.
"I think there are individual members of the National party who are seeking to carve out a voice separate from the Coalition, whether that's state or federal," says Chan.
"You saw it early on with people like Barnaby Joyce and more recently with [NSW Deputy Premier John] Barilaro. The big question for them is how they sit within the Coalition while acting like a Shooters, Fishers and Farmers candidate. Because they're trying to compete with parties like that on the right side of the spectrum."
Johnsen says he welcomes another challenge from the Shooters who, through Upper Hunter councillor Lee Watts, won 22 per cent of the vote last year. But he and Fitzgibbon may soon be in the sights of a different challenger.
Climate 200 is a political action group mostly famous for three things: it's backed by billionaire Atlassian co-founder Mike Cannon-Brookes; and Simon Holmes a Court, the son of Australia's first billionaire; and it has successfully campaigned against politicians aligned with fossil fuels.
Beneficiaries of the group include the independent member for Indi in Victoria, Helen Haines, and the Nick Xenophon MP for Mayo in South Australia, Rebekha Sharkie. There is a separate campaign to beat Liberal backbencher Craig Kelly in the southern Sydney seat of Hughes.
Weekender understands that Upper Hunter locals have approached Climate 200 about backing candidates against Johnsen and Fitzgibbon, although it is unclear who would run. Holmes a Court says there have not been "formal discussions", but "I'm personally aware of several groups within the region that are focussed on a strong Hunter after coal".
"I'm also aware that many Hunter residents weren't happy with the choices on offer at the last election or with being used as a pawn in the political culture wars," says Holmes a Court.
On a warm day in Singleton, as coal trains rattle past the highway into town, blazed with graffiti they picked up in Newcastle, and cows share green paddocks with tangles of farm machinery, it's possible to question what you've heard.
People seem in harmony with the state MP on things that matter, like a shared footpath in Broke that just got paid for, or money for the golf club, or the new employee funded for the Singleton Neighbourhood Centre.
"We've had a longterm positive relationship with Michael," the centre's president Sue George says. "We've applied for funding through his community building partnership. It's been a huge benefit to us, and to the disadvantaged."
The Upper Hunter is dotted with diverse communities where people choose to live. But many say life in the state's biggest mining electorate, where 15.4 per cent are employed in the sector, has its ups and downs.
Being marginal is quietly welcomed, although the staffer in NSW Parliament thinks any leverage is a mirage.
"I'm not sure a marginal seat would make any difference on the ground - the government threw a lot of cash at the seat last time just to keep it alive, and it doesn't get much better than that if you're Fred and Fanny Farmer at Stroud."
It's hard to rent in Singleton, says George, in a two-speed economy. The traffic chokes the roads into town. In Muswellbrook, says Scholes, the 12-hour shift work has depleted sporting clubs; when parents get a weekend off, maybe one in every four, they go to the coast.
Change is coming and Michael Johnsen says he's future-proofing his seat, the "home of world class mines, wines, equines and bovines". The Renewable Energy Zone, he says, is proof of that. In the face of a challenge from the left, the right, his own party and possible interest from two billionaires, he says he's not worried.
"If people want to look at the hurdles of going through an election in a close, tight scenario, I welcome that," he says.
"And if they have any doubts about my ability to fight, any at all, just look at my election results."