SYDNEY, AAP – NSW Labor will not support a ban on new coal mines in the Upper Hunter, despite new polling ahead of a hotly-contested by-election indicating most voters in the area want one.

Opposition Leader Jodi McKay made the pledge while announcing the party’s candidate for regional seat, former coal miner and CFMEU mining and energy district vice president Jeff Drayton.

“We do not support a moratorium on coal mines, let’s get that out of the way,” she said on Tuesday.

The Australia Institute poll for the NSW seat of Upper Hunter found 57.4 per cent support for a moratorium on new coal mine approvals and a remediation plan for existing mines in the Hunter Valley, against 35.1 per cent who oppose the measures.

The moratorium call was recently made by ex-Liberal prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and preceded his dumping last week as the NSW coalition government’s new climate economy chief.

The AI poll of 686 residents was conducted on April 7 and 8.

Both Mr Drayton and Ms McKay dismissed the poll.

“I must be talking to a different 600 (people),” Mr Drayton said.

Ms McKay denied the proclamation damaged her party’s standing on climate change and environmental issues.

“What frustrates me… is that if you’re in this corner, supposedly you can’t accept that corner,” she said.

“We need to be pursuing renewable energy, we all know that, but we also need to make sure that we’re protecting jobs in the coal industry.”

“We can’t demonise people who work in the coal industry, we actually should be thanking them.”

Mr Drayton, whose nomination was reportedly unopposed, was selected as the party’s candidate on Monday night, again framing the May 22 by-election battle firmly around coal.

The Nationals last week picked a little-known construction manager David Layzell as their hope to retain the seat, while local businesswoman and president of the Singleton Business Chamber Sue Gilroy will run as the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party candidate.

One Nation is also expected to contest the by-election but their candidate has not yet been announced.

All candidates have been quick to pump up their credentials on coal, but Ms McKay also singled out manufacturing and education as key issues.

Labor has accused the coalition government of abandoning the area’s manufacturing industry, pointing to the recent sale of the Scone TAFE campus as evidence of a lack of commitment to regional jobs and education.

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.

It’s expected to be a tight race 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 earned 22 per cent.

If the government loses the seat it will have the difficult task of governing in minority status until the next election, which isn’t due until March 2023.