Labor's Joel Fitzgibbon set to retain seat despite exceptionally strong challenge from One Nation and The Nationals

SURPRISE PACKAGE: Singleton's Stuart Bonds has proven to be a thorn in the side of both The Nationals and Labor during the 2019 federal election.
SURPRISE PACKAGE: Singleton's Stuart Bonds has proven to be a thorn in the side of both The Nationals and Labor during the 2019 federal election.

WITH just over 20 per cent of the vote to be counted, Joel Fitzgibbon remains in a strong position to retain the seat of Hunter despite one of the biggest challenges to his electorate since taking the role in 1996.

The long-serving MP is ahead on first preferences by almost 12,000 and more than 4300 on two-party preferred, but has conceded a 14.15 and 9.95 per cent swing against him respectively on those fronts.

The Nationals' Josh Angus remains in second place, however the support for Stuart Bonds of Pauline Hanson's One Nation (ON) has arguably been the story of the election for the local area.

Sitting on 21.9 per cent of the vote at the time of writing, the inexperienced Bonds has remarkably become the country's highest polling ON candidate.

Despite a strong reputation and large public support in his hometown of Singleton, the success of the farmer and coal miner has come as a shock to both the major parties and the man himself.

He remained extremely humble is his acceptance of the title and said it was a team effort to get him there.

"I'm extremely proud of the volunteers and without the volunteers and people backing you then you're just a crazy man shouting on the corner, you're shouting into the wind and they're the true heroes of it," he said.

Taking into account pre-polling and preference deals he said it was possible for them to still topple Mr Fitzgibbon for the seat, but admitted he may have "rose-coloured glasses on" with his prediction.

"It's a big call to make at this point but I really think the preferences are going to play into this," he said.

"In the perfect world with a perfect scenario we could actually end up on top of The Nationals and then it would come down to Nationals preferences and they did preference us on their card above Labor.

"It's certainly not over and it's way too early to be calling victory and way too early to be seceding defeat."

His main advantage was always set to come via Singleton and that has proved to be the case with an average of 25.7 per cent of first preferences throughout polling booths in the town.

He also won 28 per cent of the vote in Muswellbrook and Greta, 26 per cent at Rutherford, West Wallsend and Barnsley, 25 per cent at Wyee, 24 per cent in Cessnock and 22 per cent at Morisset.

While Mr Fitzgibbon has acknowledged the key role ON has played, he admitted to struggling to see why they were such a popular choice.

"What they think One Nation is going to do for them I just don't know," the former Minister for Defence said on Saturday night.

"They have no power and no influence, they are just a micro party and a protest party but people have used them to send a message."

He also accused his conservative opposition of launching a "scare campaign" over the coal industry but acknowledged the community took that messaging on board.

"They did that successfully and the electorate responded and we need to reflect on that but I don't regret anything the Labor party did in policy terms on that front."

Mr Bonds denies those allegations though, and said he was simply asking questions the residents wanted answers for.

"They didn't properly explain where their carbon cuts were going to come from...," he said.

"I've asked a simple question and a logical question for my voters and the people in my community, 'where are the cuts coming from and is my job in jeopardy', and the fact they couldn't answer that question is not a scare campaign for myself."

With thousands of pre-poll votes yet to be counted it could be over a week before the final outcome is known, but it's clear the electorate has just received one of its biggest shake ups in decades.

If, as expected, Mr Fitzgibbon gets over the line, he will be forced into another term in the shadow ministry following the shock result that saw the highly fancied Labor party on the wrong end of landslide loss, leading to the resignation of Bill Shorten as party leader.

The front-runners to take over are currently Tanya Plibersek and Anthony Albanese, although Mr Fitzgibbon has teased the possibility of putting his hand up if he is returned to power.

This story Bonds battles hard for Hunter first appeared on The Singleton Argus.