WE met up with new Upper Hunter Member of Parliament David Layzell last week, to ask what his immediate plans are, how and talk all things Upper Hunter.
The new MP revealed all, including what led him to putting his hand up in the by-election, his biggest campaign challenge, opinions on the energy debate, campaigning with Deputy Premier John Barilaro, his relationship with formerly disgraced MP Michael Johnsen, how he will deliver on the huge funding promises, his feelings on election night and what his twin daughters think about Premier Gladys Berejiklian.
Here are some questions we asked Upper Hunter MP David Layzell.
What led you to putting your hand up to be the National Party candidate for the by-election?
When I was younger, I was always sort of involved in leadership positions. I went down to Canberra as a representative of Armidale University, as part of a leadership forum. We met a lot of political leaders including John Howard. I saw what people were doing there and discovered most people were there for the right reasons. It gave me a positive view of what politics could do for a region. I then got into university politics, which was so vicious and personal, and I never went near it again.
In my own little town, when issues would come up, I would get involved. Whilst working at Tamworth Hospital I sat in a Nationals meeting. I thought I could use that organisation to lobby for my own issues in my own community and got swept up in the whole family. I felt like the Nationals were ‘my people’ who were interested in the same things I was.
I’m 45 now, I thought maybe when I’m in my fifties I’d have an opportunity, so when the opportunity to run as the member for the Upper Hunter, I thought I’d have a go. I got a few phone calls from people advising me it wasn’t the right time. When you think you’re probably not going to get it, you really throw everything at it. It took off from there very quickly.
Two years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to do it, I was working full time, running a small carpentry business, I had three year old twins, life was just so full on. In the last two years, I’ve freed myself up a bit and the twins started going to school. My wife and I thought things are starting to get back to normal and I’ve started this whole new adventure, which is slightly scary.
At the by-election pre-selection, Sue was being supported by the leadership team in government. I rang someone and said, ‘oh I’m totally loosing this.’ Here I am spending an hour on the phone with Joe Blogs who isn’t even going to attend the pre-selection, but I was going through my membership list.
No one knew I was running. I thought about going to the media, but a friend said I wouldn’t get anything through the media, why waste your time, you’ll just get a bunch of journalists ring you and ask for an interview and they don’t vote for you, so I really felt I had to deliver on the speech.
And of course the preselection night was on a Wednesday night, which I was lobbying hard against because a lot of our membership is aged over 60 and they don’t want to drive at night and then it was stormy, so then a whole heap of people said they weren’t coming. All the people I had worked with suddenly couldn’t make it; everyone was busy. It was so lucky I worked the membership and of the people who attended, I got a few people to support me and pump my tyres a bit. There were 23 in the end who made it, that is such a small turnout.
Barnaby Joyce had more than 100 turn up to his. If you had held it on a Saturday, you probably would have had more people, come and that’s why I thought I was lost, it was in Singleton, Sue Moore’s base, I’ve got no chance. Because of that I thought the only way I could do it was by pitching a vision of what I wanted, and we stuck with that same speech throughout the whole campaign. It meant I was saying the same original message, about industry and jobs.
What was it like having Deputy Premier John Barilaro run your campaign?
One of the things being the Government candidates, everything you say is an election promise that has to be delivered. Labor could say, ‘oh we’ll give $100 million for this or $50 million for that,’ so in one regard I was restricted. Not that I was defending the government but everyone was thing I should be defending the government.
We had a good professional campaign team, people who knew how to campaign and then outside we had a keen volunteer base who were just so committed to the cause. During the last two weeks there was this huge positive feeling coming out of the campaign, it felt like this little wave that became a tidal wave. We didn’t know we would win; we knew primary votes would be fine but we didn’t know about how the preferences would go. Everyone felt that common sense of purpose, they were so united. In the Nationals we debate everything but just this moment in time we had all these people coming in, from Dubbo, Albury, Lismore, the east coast and at one stage we just reached maximum capacity for volunteers on election day, more than 400.
John Barilaro committed himself 100 percent to the campaign, he backed me to the hill. He’s one of those people who takes issues on personally, and once he’s given his word he’s in for a penny in for a pound. So many times, he would tell different groups he understood, and they believed him, they felt that was authentic and real and he’d get people to start working on that issue straight away. There’s no doubt he was involved the whole time, he was like the wingman the entire time, so I make not buts about it, he supported me. When you first meet someone, you’ve got to work out how to step with them, but eventually I worked him out and by the end we were really firing on all cylinders.
Now it’s’ all starting, it’s very much one door opens and now the campaign door has closed I’m in the dark again and I was just getting into the rhythm of the campaign too.
Take us through the election weekend.
On election day of course, everyone wanted the twins there but of course they weren’t going to last the whole day, they were stressing me just having them there, so we had this logistical exercise, it was military planned. All I was focused on was how I was going to manage the twins, it was a good distraction. The Premier was there and she’s absolutely wonderful but when she’s there, there’s a team of people and mobbers and it’s stressful. She’s a bubble of calmness while there’s this chaos around her.
The story of Saturday night, I came in with my older daughters and my wife. We got a hotel in Singleton so we didn’t have to drive home and could just stay in town. We came in at about 6:30 pm after the polls had shut and I thought, I’ve got to write a thank you speech, whether I win or lose. I was madly trying to write, and I spent the next hour trying to write down all of my notes. I kicked my wife and kids out; they went to the party, and I just tried to get my thoughts down. I would have loved to have practiced it and done a wonderful speech, but you’ve got to make do with what you can.
I didn’t actually know how it was going at all, I had no idea at about 8pm. I think it was almost deliberately because If I had seen the first few booths, even Barilaro said he saw the first few booths and there was a massive swing against me. He told me all the first small booths came in against me and thought we were done for.
The campaign team was sitting there, typing into their models. The biggest thing on my mind was, did I win Clarence Town? Because if I had lost Clarence Town and talked the whole time about building communities, I would have been mortified. Clarence Town is a 50/50 town, it’s not an easy win, they’re not a walk over because it’s not a solid Nationals seat. Barilaro goes, ‘you know what, that’s the first question I asked, If I won my hometown.’
Eventually they said they didn’t think there was any chance Labor could come back from that position, let’s do this. That’s when I went downstairs and gave my speech. Barnaby Joyce was there, and he came over and said, Dave your speech was too long. It was my moment and I probably led it on for way too long, but it was because I spent so long trying to write down all of the things and thanking all of the people. It wasn’t a noble winning speech.
Sunday was all about physical hard work. It’s like when you have a party and everyone’s there to help you set up but as soon as the party’s over, everyone’s gone, disappeared. Me and a couple of volunteers had trailers coming in and utes coming int and dumping stuff and were loading things on trailers to take to storage and oh the thousands of posters. That’s another thing I have to do today, look around the place for leftover posters because no one wants to see my face after the election.
I said to the family, when I get home tonight, I’ll cook a roast and we’ll have a glass of red wine, sit around the family table and celebrate. I think I got home and just crashed. I went to the fridge and grabbed a couple of jatz and cheese and I went straight to bed, I was asleep before twins.
What do your wife and kids think about your new job?
The first time my kids met Gladys, they said, ‘who is she?’ and I said she’s the boss lady. Of course, they became obsessed with ‘the boss lady’ after that. Even on polling day I said we’re going to see Gladys, ‘oh the boss lady?’
They’re all a little bit confused about what’s going on. When we were walking to the press conference on polling day, my youngest twin came out screaming and was so close to having a temper tantrum. I went back to my bare bones, I can’t remember but I promised her a sausage sandwich or a lolly or something, just thinking okay for just this moment can you just keep it together? My brain went back into functional dad mode.
John Barilaro found out a funny story about my 16 year old daughter Emily and when he was making a speech in front of national media he goes, ‘and I got to know Emily so well’ and it looked like he was going to tell the story and Emily is saying, ‘no please don’t tell that story!’ He didn’t tell it, but it was this private moment between all of us where the family and Bara knew exactly what he was talking about.
My eldest wasn’t that keen to start with because she’s at that age, whereas my thirteen year old has been performing, acted and signing and on the stage for a very long time, so she was more like, ‘can I get up there?’ Straight away from pre-selection she wanted to be part of it and has embraced it all.
Rachel is not political at all, even found the politics of the local progress association tough but by the end at pre-poll, she was in it, really involved. I think she felt the competitiveness of trying to convince people to vote for me, that we we’re the right choice. Throughout the campaign I was trying to think of ways I could bring her in. Of course, our families are well-known in Muswellbrook, her grandfather was a National Party man and a councillor, so I tried to bring her to all of the Muswellbrook events. Bronnie Taylor, the Minister for Women and Health she for a funding function and we all went to a night out in Dungog to see the orchestra. Rachel thought Bronnie was amazing and then they texted a few times and before I knew it Rachel felt like she was part of it.
Rachel feels the rollercoaster of emotions more than I do. I try to keep all of the emotions down in order to not feel too negative or too positive. She doesn’t mind the hypotheticals, one time we we’re in the middle of a park in Africa and we got a flat tyre and she asked me, ‘what do you think, when you’re out changing the tyre, do you think you could get eaten?’ and I said, ‘I don’t know probably,’ then she said, ‘what do you think I would do?’ So, during the campaign she would say, look I don’t think you’re going to win and then they next day she’d say, I think you’re really going to win. We’ve been like that together all our life.
Rubber hitting the road
Do you have plans to climb further up the political ladder?
Personally, I think State Government is where rubber hits the road. Our local government is really close to their communities and perform a really important role but their so hamstrung with the structure of funding at the moment. Unless that changes, it’s really tough for local council. It’s not so bad for places like Muswellbrook which has so much money and they can afford to put some away into a future fund. Port Stephens is the same, they’ve got this huge amount of built-up investment but places like Dungog is always struggling, Liverpool plains is just hand to mouth and the Upper Hunter, which is a little bit more robust but still has work to do.
There’s something there as a wider issuer that we need to readjust that funding for local councils and make them stronger. That’s a greater policy challenge we’ve got across the state.
I’ve always thought in State, you’re providing health, you’re providing police, you provide all the things that really matter to people. State was always my dream, the Upper Hunter and the Hunter Valley because I’ve kicked around these parts for so long in my life. I went to school in Armidale, but a lot of my friends were in this region. I feel like I’ve spent all my life going up and down the New England Highway, so I always knew State is what I wanted, Federal no.
Members of the National Party have to feel like they can go to their member and their member can actually do things to about the problem, but really there’s no difference between a National Party member and any community member. They should be able to talk in and ask for help, particularly if it’s a state government issues. State, local, Federal, it doesn’t matter, you’re just another voice trying to sort out the problem. You don’t have all of the solutions, but you’ve got to use your voice to help people, I think that’s what it’s about.
Replacing a missing Michael
What was your relationship with Michael Johnsen like?
I was in charge of the membership, and he didn’t do much with that, which is what always frustrated us. We would have an annual general meeting where he would come and give us a report on what has happened, but we always struggled to have that link between the membership and the member.
To be honest, people don’t come to a meeting to hear me, or jo blow who sits at the back and says ‘I read this and this in an article’ because we all read the same article and we all have a different opinion. They want to know their local member can give them information and help them out, so there’s a real re-building that has to happen there. Of course, I talked to him, but even announcement’s I had worked on, it’s not like he’d ring up and come and help me out with it. I was always involved in this little festival always made sure he was there for it. I remember at one stage Labor was calling me his second in command, well if I was, I went to that office once in my entire life.
The problem was that George Souris was so engaged with the community and the membership. When George left and Michael was a new man, a lot of the members were like, ‘he’s not George’ and so he got a little bit of hostility at the start. I remember saying, give it a couple of years we’ll get it back again. I think Michael felt that and then he almost lost his pre-selection after the first term because our members were so unhappy with him. Of course, that sort of tears everyone apart. Michael didn’t really have a great feeling of warmth towards the members.
Challenges past and present
What was your biggest campaign challenge?
Standing in front of the media is the biggest challenge for me. Every time I’ve stood there, there’s no salvia in my mouth, I’m sweating down my back- that’s why I wear the vest, my knees are just weak and I’m thinking ‘just keep it together.’ Everyone is saying ‘oh you don’t even look nervous’ and I say if only you knew what was on this inside.
Every time I thought now’s the time, they [media] are going to go for the jugular and attack me on something, ask my ‘oh what’s in clause five in this bill’ but it never happened, everyone was very fair. I think they knew at that stage; I was just a local person.
When I spoke to a lot of the media, they started to teach me, telling me where to look and things like that. I didn’t watch any media at all during the campaign, but I did see a shot of me, and I saw how I talk with my arms all of the time, it was so distracting, I just thought, ‘what are you doing?’ So, I’m glad I didn’t watch a lot of media, I was focused on meeting people around the electorate and get my head around their issues.
Barilaro’s team fed information to me to help me understand the policy around a lot of issues, that’s the benefit of being a government candidate, you’ve got people who are willing to pick up the phone and talk to you because I don’t think one person can understand all issues perfectly, not in a six-week campaign.
How did the energy debate play a role in the by-election and did it help you win?
They [politicians] were all really fascinated by the coal mines versus agriculture debate that came out. Dominic Perrottet, the Treasurer, he was another one who wanted to come up a lot more and if he didn’t go into quarantine for two weeks he probably would have popped up as much as Bara.
I think a lot of other candidates were saying coal will run out in a year of two, it was this fear they were putting into people. People questioned if that was right and if you look at the evidence, it just doesn’t run true. If you split the energy debate in Australia and what to do about energy from the coal mining, then it becomes a bit simpler, they sell a great product and I think people will want that product for a long time in the future, so you don’t need to worry about your jobs right now.
The whole energy debate in New South Wales and certainly Australia is huge, but I think most of what we were talking about in the Upper Hunter is coal mining and I tried to keep it on that because that’s what’s important to us, whereas I know people in Sydney are absolutely aghast at the thought of building another coal-fired power station. Reality is, we’ve got to get out power from somewhere and renewables has a really great future but we’re just not quite there yet, including all of the infrastructure we’ve still got to build to make it work.
I think the by-election certainly exaggerated these points of view but some of them were misguided in the energy debate. In the Upper Hunter, sure we’ve got Liddell and Bayswater and we know they won’t last forever. From our energy debate it’s not really a thing, we know they’re going to shut down . . . we were trying to talk about if there’s jobs in mining going forward.
Jeff was a good candidate from the point of view where Muswellbrook and Denman backed him, not by a huge swing but they backed him. Labor is trapped in this political correctness with all these issues, but really people are just worried about their jobs and how they’re going to put food on the table.
I love talking to the ladies in the laundromat because their whole lives are based on coal mines. They go, ‘we don’t love coal mines, no one here loves a coal mine but it’s not like we have any other jobs to go to.’
People keep talking about all these jobs in renewables and that’s great, fantastic. When they’re here, then we can have the conversation but right now we don’t have anything. We have 70,000 people working in this small business and my passion has always been about protecting small businesses, making sure they can grow. I’m less worried about the big coal mining companies. Small businesses, they might employ four or five people but that’s really important, they all have families.
They come up with these government names like ‘Royalties for Rejuvenation’ and I sat there thinking how anyone is going to understand what that is. Really, it’s about putting a fund together to start a plan and to get a community group together, with unions, leaders and Council there, to sit around a table and have a conversation.
You’ve also got money then to not only facilitate that group but actually think about what infrastructure we need. It’s not about giving $20 million to a new industry because it wouldn’t go very far, we’ve got to look at what it is we need to do now, and that might be industrial land development, land manufacturing, loading facilities on the trains, things we have to look at in terms of a good plan going into the future. If we get the unions on board and get some sort of consensus about that, I really think we can kick goals, there will be friction, but I mean in the broader sense, kick goals.
Do you think it’s achievable to deliver all the funding promises announced in the by-election before the next election in 2023?
Of course, you’ve got to deliver. Already everyone is asking when it is going to be delivered. I’ve got to work out the timetable. A lot of the money was good news stories coming up where I could say, look let’s try and announce this now, this is a good news story why wait a few more months?
It’s not like we were pulling out new money, there was a bit, but for instance the Singleton and Muswellbrook by-passes, it’s happening. The money is allocated, it didn’t matter if people voted for me or not. As part of that we did do the interchange and that was important to the Council and for the town. That was well in the system, because Mayor Sue Moore did such a good job lobbying that interchange. That’s why Bara wanted her as a potential candidate.
With an election, if I said nothing about money, I would have lost but everyone else was throwing money at the electorate knowing there was no way they ever had to actually deliver it so, you’ve got to keep up. The benefit is that’s real money, the negative is, you now have to deliver. A lot of the parties were being a bit disingenuous saying ‘oh we’ll put $100 million on this.’ Unless they actually sign the cheque, they were never going to be able to do that. I was under that extra glare.
Everything we promised we checked off; we went through a process. We knew it had been checked before we announced it. Other candidates said oh, we announced it yesterday and the money came today, and we said, ‘that’s because you guys knew we would announce it. I think governments like a sieve, I don’t think anyone can keep a secret in government I’ve decided. I’ve learnt now that all gloves are off, anywhere in the department it is an information free for all. As soon as we decided to do something and by the time we’d go through the processes and get it ticked off internally, everyone knew about it anyways.
I’d like to see all of those promises and projects started before 2023, not finished but started. If you think about Muswellbrook Hospital, I mean there’s a design process, but we need to at least get that started so people can see what’s happening and know the funds are committed. People are expecting to see shovels in the ground by 2023. They know you can’t stop halfway you’ve got to finish it and I think that’s a realistic goal.
I even got some lucky breaks, which had nothing to do with the campaign at all, even something I’d lobbied for five years ago, the upgrade of William Town Airport. That was all about trying to get produce freight out of Newcastle. The pre-pandemic idea was the more tourists and plane loads you could bring in, then when those planes leave, there’s a ratio of passenger to freight and the freight becomes cheaper. At the time it was about $50 million to upgrade the runway and during the campaign it popped up and they announced it federally they were going to put some money into that. If you can get produce straight out on freight, that’s an amazing possibility.
I’ve got a week before I have to go down to parliament and I get signed in so I’m just trying to make the most of it, by meeting people and touching base with others, creating a plan to have pub sessions or drop-in sessions where people can come and talk to me. It’s all part of the plan to allow people to say, here’s my issues and I can write them down now and I’ll break it down and create a thorough plan. It’s just the weighted responsibility now to get things done.
What are you immediate plans?
Right now, I’m focused on connecting with communities, especially those who felt like the Nationals weren’t representing them. My risk in not being re-elected would be if I can’t understand what makes them tick. The campaign was so fast-paced, I met all of these community groups. I’ve just got to consolidate all that, rebuild those relationships that I think have been lost between the Nationals and their local member in some of those groups. That’s my main goal, trying to sit there and understand their issues and plans for their organisations. That’s how I’ll get to know the electorate and my immediate goal more than anything else.
The other side of it is, all the groups who didn’t vote for us at all, or were opposed to us, some of them have really legitimate points. We’ve got to figure out what they’re really worried about, they’ve got legitimate points and fears and we do have to address that. We can’t just say oh we think this, and you think that, we have to grab them in. That would be the second point, going out and meeting those people who were disengaged or against us.
The final thing is, in terms of the National Party and its members, I’ve got to re-build that because that became pretty hard. I was involved in all of the membership and now I feel the responsibility to try and build that as well. I want to have a bunch of functions, where members get something out of it as well. There was a lack of unity before. Luckily, we pulled it together for this election, over 150 people who wanted to help out locals and now it’s a case of me asking who wants to be a part of the nationals and part of the story going forward, so that’s another mission of mine.
With a name like mine, my nick name since I was young has always been “Lazy.” I’ve got to be like the tall man who is a shorty, maybe lazy by name but not by nature. I’ve got to work harder to get over the nickname.
The office will stay in Muswellbrook, but I’m not allowed to step in there until everything is finalised. It’s good for me because we have a farm over in Castlerock which is only 15 minutes away. My father-in-law stays in the cottage, and we always stay in the house, but it is a room my wife walked out of when she was 16, so it’s a 16 year old girls room. I think there’s one extra photo of our wedding but apart from that it’s stayed the same.
The campaign was intense, I was just very aware all I had to do was say one thing wrong and it could have been blown out of proportion. People were always saying, ‘I need you to take a position on this’ but I’m just a person, I can’t just take a position on that because I was going for a job where I represent everyone, it doesn’t really matter where I think. There’s a whole bunch of issues where I don’t really know where I stand on them, but I also don’t know where the community stands on them either, so I need to work that out.
I’ve got two weeks now, then two weeks of parliament but I really have three months to meet all of the groups again and write out what everyone needs and map out a short-term Upper hunter future. I sound stupid though, especially in the big press follow up conference when they said, ‘and what’s your plan now?’ and all I had was, ‘I’m going to make a list.’ I was just being honest, my plan is to make a plan.