Gladys Berejiklian, fresh from answering questions about one government sex scandal, flew into Scone on Friday to help deal with the political fallout of another.
The Premier addressed reporters in Sydney in the morning about sexual violence allegations engulfing Kiama MP Gareth Ward, hours before touching down for a surprise visit at the sun-drenched Scone Cup, where she walked with Nationals candidate Dave Layzell through a race crowd dressed up and ready to party.
Upper Hunter MP Michael Johnsen's controversial resignation from Parliament has sparked a by-election next Saturday and thrown the spotlight on an electorate looking to its political leaders for a clear path to prosperity as the lucrative coal industry declines.
The Newcastle Herald spent two days taking the temperature of voters in a seat which is at the centre of national debate over the future of the nation's fossil-fuel and energy industries.
Mining is an issue which touches most in the electorate, but other, more parochial matters are also attracting attention from voters.
The large Bowmans Creek Wind Farm proposal engages landowners east of Muswellbrook.
Singleton is still waiting for work to start on a bypass which was supposed to open four years ago. The by-election has allowed the town to secure an upgraded interchange to the new road, but many are unhappy it will be only single-lane.
In Dungog, the crowd at a candidates' forum at the local RSL club on Thursday night was clearly sick of waiting for the state government to take over responsibility for some of the shire's "disgraceful" roads. The possibility of resurrecting the abandoned Tillegra Dam proposal is also still a hot topic in town.
But coal is the main battleground, especially along the more heavily populated vein of the New England Highway, and all the major contenders have been at pains to show their unqualified support for the industry.
Hebden mother-of-five Amanda Morris' pragmatism is typical of many who spoke about their expectations of the state's leadership.
She said communities wanted to hear specifics about funding and strategies to ensure other industries could one day stop population centres like Singleton and Muswellbrook turning into "ghost towns".
"In 10 years' time, if mining's all over, there's going to be no jobs for the kids here," she said.
"That's where the politicians get paid the big dollars to come up with the plans. They need to start investing in something else, boosting the other areas of the economy, not just the mines.
"And training to help improve skills. There's a lot of the younger generation who aren't getting the skills."
What could influence her vote next Saturday?
"To hear someone say what they're actually going to do for this area."
Ms Morris and her family moved from Newcastle four years ago to run a small cattle and sheep farm near the Bayswater and Liddell coal-fired power stations, which are due to close in 2035 and 2023 respectively.
Her husband works with an electrical wholesaler servicing the mining industry.
"A lot of the smaller businesses servicing the mines are struggling. Mining activity is dropping," she said.
"I think we still need the mines until they can sustainably resource something else properly."
Mr Layzell, Labor's Jeff Drayton and Shooters, Fishers and Farmers candidate Sue Gilroy, Singleton's former chamber of commerce president, are the three frontrunners in a seat the Nationals have never lost.
A bumper cup field of 13 starters, including five independents with varying profiles, and the vagaries of preferential voting could well influence the outcome.
In the 2019 election, Labor won polling booths in Singleton and Muswellbrook, which have a combined population of 28,000, and in towns on the seat's southern fringe, including Clarence Town, Paterson, Vacy and Branxton.
But the Nationals held the seat with a narrow 2.6 per cent margin by dominating in most of the smaller farming towns and villages scattered around the vast electorate.
Singleton's Kirrily Donohue, whose husband is a mine worker, said politics involved "a lot of talk", but she wanted more concrete plans on how the community would survive after mining.
"I think that would be a fantastic way of dealing with the situation," she said after voting at a pre-polling booth in John Street, the town's main shopping strip.
"There are going to be whole families and whole towns affected. This would be a ghost town without it."
The former primary school teacher said she was not opposed to new mines but also wanted to see investment in renewable energy using the area's existing power infrastructure.
Neither Ms Morris nor Ms Donohue were overly concerned about Singleton's air quality.
"I've been here 11 years. The air is not as clean as where I came from, but the mines are doing as much as they can to keep dust levels low," Ms Donohue said.
Belinda Bailey, whose husband runs an electrical contracting business in Singleton, wanted to see a 24-hour police station and the bypass built soon.
"To get your kids to and from school and sports in the afternoon, the traffic is horrendous," she said.
James McKay, a financial trader working remotely from his family's house outside Dungog, said he was interested in how the Upper Hunter would transition.
People in the coal industry can see what's happening. Don't treat people like idiots. Offer them a solution and an effective way to help them move on.
"I think there are some opportunities in tourism and agriculture, and I think the focus needs to be on those future industries," he said after listening to the speeches at Thursday's candidate forum.
"Any politician that continues to toe the line of, 'Coal's got a big future. Don't worry about it,' is missing a trick, I think, and will be punished.
"People in the coal industry can see what's happening. They're not stupid. Anyone who reads the news can see what's happening internationally. So don't treat people like idiots. Offer them a solution and an effective way to help them move on."
Mr McKay's family moved to the area three years ago after living overseas.
He and his wife are involved in Dungog's booming mountain bike scene, which is attracting visitors from across Australia.
"We're a good example of the possibilities for people who want to move regionally," he said. "We did that, and we're happy with the decision because we can see the potential of the region."
He said good schools and roads, jobs and a positive atmosphere were likely to attract newcomers.
"No young person wants to live in a dead town."
Former Newcastle Grammar principal Alan Green, who moved to Clarence Town after retiring, said mining was "the issue" of the by-election.
He said the state needed to plan for the region's future "just as Newcastle had to work through the closure of BHP".
"It's long overdue," he said. "We need to make sure the community is ready and able to move on. Newcastle's a better city for it.
"I think it's difficult because, if either side puts their plan in place, it could end up being politically costly."
Mr Green said developing a Muswellbrook health precinct and Newcastle port diversification were two areas in which government intervention could help the Upper Hunter adjust to life after coal.
He did not expect the Nationals to be punished at the ballot box for the manner of Mr Johnsen's exit, but Mr Green was "very disappointed" they had not selected a female candidate.
The stakes are high for Ms Berejiklian. Mr Ward's move to the crossbench with fellow Liberal MP John Sidoti, who is facing an ICAC investigation, has plunged the government into minority.
Losing Upper Hunter would be another blow.
"That to me is one of the major issues," Mr Green said. "Do we want a premier in a minority government?"
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