CRITICS of the Hunter's electoral landscape often point to its deep affinity with Labor as reason for a perceived lack of support from Coalition leaders, urging the region to become home to more swinging seats and entice contenders to spend more in their bid for power.
With the departure of Joel Fitzgibbon from the seat of Hunter, which he has held since 1996, the electoral landscape certainly looks different. But the precise beneficiary of that change is likely a matter that will only become truly clear when the votes have been counted.
Mr Fitzgibbon's departure comes after a brutal swing against him in 2019. The amount of energy invested in the Upper Hunter's state byelection was perhaps indicative that One Nation candidate Stuart Bonds' close run left other parties detecting blood in the water. While the Nationals' David Layzell ultimately held the state seat, the frenetic contest became a factor in Jodi McKay's demise as NSW opposition leader. That result tapped into a rich vein Mr Fitzgibbon has mined in recent years: that Labor must find a way to span city and country, particularly on coal and climate.
Mr Bonds, himself a miner, looms as one of many contenders who will hope they can fill Mr Fitzgibbon's shoes. His retirement shifts the question they must answer significantly: how they differ from Mr Fitzgibbon no longer matters. Instead, voters will want to know in greater depth what they stand for themselves.
On the federal stage, Mr Fitzgibbon's refusal to fall into line on coal, particularly, has made him something of a maverick. It has been, he says, a measure to ready his party to represent those who failed to put it in government at the last election.
He says that task is complete, that Anthony Albanese can win the next election. "Indeed, Labor will win, if it sells itself as a party of strong economic management and one with strong national security credentials," Mr Fitzgibbon said. Of course, voters will decide if he is correct.
With a federal sphere dominated by COVID vaccination over the past year, Mr Fitzgibbon is likely right that the Morrison government is far from invulnerable if the opposition can cut through.
Frustrations on the nation's handling of the pandemic continue to mount as lockdowns extend out before us here in the Hunter and beyond.
Climate change should not be "the subject of constant and shrill political debate", Mr Fitzgibbon urged with his parting words. Conversely, coal can no longer be the jingoistic realm of political theatre. The inevitable deadline for a transition plan is one aspect of the discussion that will have real consequences for this region and its economic fortunes.
Mr Fitzgibbon deserves thanks for his service representing the region. Now minds must turn to the next chapter.