The Nationals and Labor are going blow for blow in the final week of the Upper Hunter by-election campaign as polling shows a tight contest between two heavyweights who continue to bleed support to minor parties.
A day after Labor candidate Jeff Drayton and opposition leader Jodi McKay announced a Labor government would boost the Resources for Regions fund to at least $100 million a year, Nationals leader John Barilaro and candidate Dave Layzell on Monday opened a new $75 million round of applications for the program.
YouGov polling commissioned by News Limited has the Nationals' primary vote down from 34 per cent at the 2019 election to 25 per cent, two points ahead of Labor, whose popularity has slipped from 28.6 per cent in 2019 to 23 per cent.
Compared with 2015, the latest numbers are even worse for the two major parties. The Nationals' Michael Johnsen won 38.9 per cent of the primary vote that year and Labor's Martin Rush gained 32.5 per cent.
Popular former Upper Hunter MP George Souris won his last election for the Nationals in 2011 with 54.7 per cent of the primary vote.
The Newcastle Herald understands the latest survey results are consistent with polling by at least two of the parties.
The YouGov survey last week of 400 Upper Hunter voters had Shooters, Fishers and Farmers candidate Sue Gilroy on 16 per cent, One Nation's Dale McNamara on 11 per cent and 19 per cent of voters undecided.
Shooters leader Robert Borsak said his party had polled 1700 voters in April and found a similar level of support for the four leading parties, except One Nation's was at more than 16 per cent.
The latest YouGov poll put the Nationals ahead of Labor 51-49 on a two-party-preferred basis after asking respondents how they would allocate preferences.
Ms McKay said on Monday that "clearly the by-election will be very close".
The Nationals do not have a preference deal in place and are urging voters not to allocate preferences.
I expected the primary votes of both major parties would be down because there are 13 candidates in the field, including two non-major-party candidates capable of getting more than 10 per cent.Joel Fitzgibbon
Mr Borsak predicted it would be difficult for the Nationals to win with less than 30 per cent of the primary vote and no preference deal.
The Shooters and One Nation are swapping preferences.
Labor can bank on preferences from the Greens and the Animal Justice Party and is ahead of the Nationals on the Shooters' how-to-vote cards.
"In our survey, we had by far the highest ranking for second preferences. It came out just over 30 per cent," Mr Borsak said.
"I don't know how things are going to go, but it's hard to know, with no preference flow, how the Nats can win from 25.
"In 2019, they had 34 per cent of the primary vote and won by 2.5 per cent."
Mr Johnsen won with a 2.4 per cent margin in 2015 and a 2.6 per cent margin in 2019 before resigning from Parliament this year over allegations he was sending lewd messages to a sex worker during question time.
The preference flow from a bumper crop of five independents, including the Malcolm Turnbull-backed Kirsty O'Connell (6 per cent on the YouGov poll), former coalminer Steven Reynolds (4 per cent) and former Dungog mayor and Harvey Norman heiress Tracy Norman (3 per cent), could also influence the outcome on Saturday.
Hunter federal Labor MP Joel Fitzgibbon said he was not surprised by the polling results.
"I did expect the primary votes of both the major parties would be down because there are 13 candidates in the field, including two non-major-party candidates capable of getting more than 10 per cent," he said.
"That was always going to have an impact on the primary vote, and people have been speculating the Shooters will probably do a bit better than One Nation, and that's what that poll tells us."
The Shooters candidate in 2019, former Upper Hunter mayor Lee Watts, won 22 per cent of the primary vote after gaining 19 per cent as an independent in 2015.
Sportsbet has the Nationals as clear favourites at $1.25, followed by Labor and the Shooters at $6.50.
"At that price, I think I'll have $10 on the Labor party," Mr Fitzgibbon joked.
He said it would be "very difficult" for the Nationals to win if they attracted only 25 per cent of the primary vote.
"They'll need a higher primary vote than that, but I still consider them the favourite."
Mr Drayton announced on Monday a $750,000 funding commitment to upgrade Singleton Fire Station if Labor unseats the Berejiklian government in 2023.
Meanwhile, advocacy group Fams has called on the candidates to pay more attention to child protection in the Upper Hunter.
Data from the Department of Communities and Justice shows that about 70 per cent of the thousands of children in the Hunter classified as being at risk of significant harm did not see a caseworker in the year to September 2020.
Fams said the figures showed an urgent need for more services and funding in the Upper Hunter and surrounds.
"We're one week out from the by-election, and I'm calling on all candidates to take a good, hard look at these figures and prioritise funding for early intervention and children protection services," Fams chief executive officer Julie Hourigan Ruse said.
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