NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian heads to the Upper Hunter next week to campaign alongside a newly chosen by-election candidate she says is an underdog.
Little-known 45-year-old construction manager David Layzell was anointed as the Nationals' candidate for the crucial May 22 by-election on Wednesday, nudging out favoured contender, long-term Singleton mayor and cattle farmer Sue Moore.
"We are no doubt the underdogs," Ms Berejiklian said on Thursday, pointing to a history of large swings against governments in by-elections.
But she said she was looking forward to campaigning with Mr Layzell in the marginal electorate, located in the heart of the NSW coal mining industry.
"We'll work our guts out to demonstrate to the people of the Upper Hunter why we deserve to have David elected as their local representative," she said.
The coalition faces an uphill battle to retain the seat, left vacant after a sex scandal, and if their candidate loses, the government will be left to endure minority status until the 2023 election.
Labor is characterising Mr Layzell's victory as a blow to Nationals' leader John Barilaro, who had supported Ms Moore.
Deputy opposition leader Yasmin Catley, who represents another Hunter electorate, says the deputy premier has again had his "pants pulled down", this time by the Nationals' preselectors.
Ms Catley has accused Mr Barilaro of wrongly describing Mr Layzell as a Dungog Shire councillor, saying he doesn't know his candidate from a bar of soap.
"This is going to be a very long campaign. A long campaign that has been started with dishonesty," she said.
Mr Barilaro said earlier this week Malcolm Turnbull had "pulled (his) pants down" by calling for a moratorium on new coal mines, leading to the former prime minister being dumped as chair of the NSW Net Zero Emissions and Clean Economy board.
Energy and Environment Minister Matt Kean admitted on Wednesday the must-win by-election played into the decision to axe Mr Turnbull.
The electorate is home to a significant mining population, with more than 15 per cent of its workforce employed underground or in support industries.
Mr Barilaro and NSW Treasurer Dominic Perrottet started campaigning alongside Mr Layzell on Thursday with a press conference at Glencore's Hunter Valley Ravensworth mine.
Mr Perrottet wrote in the Daily Telegraph on Thursday that "the death of coal has been greatly exaggerated".
He said Labor's federal MP and coal spruiker Joel Fitzgibbon was a "pariah in his own party because of his support for coalmining".
"With the Liberals and Nationals you know what you are getting. We have always backed Hunter mining," he wrote.
Central to that, according to Mr Layzell, is that "people continue to have secure jobs".
The by-election was sparked by Nationals MP Michael Johnsen's resignation on March 31 after he was accused of raping a woman in 2019, which he denies.
Mr Johnsen's alleged conduct is likely to sway some voters, as could the closure of the Scone TAFE.
Ms Berejiklian's government was elected with a two-seat majority in 2019 but Liberal John Sidoti has since moved to the cross bench amid an ICAC investigation.
The May 22 poll is expected to be tight despite the Nationals and its predecessor party holding the electorate for nearly a century.
The seat was whittled away to a 2.6 per cent margin in 2019, when Mr Johnsen scooped up 34 per cent of first preferences.
Labor trailed on 28.6 per cent and the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party candidate on 22 per cent.
One Nation will also contest the by-election.
Labor and the SFF Party expect to announce candidates next week.
Australian Associated Press