For all its reputation as a “bellwether seat” usually going with the government of the day, Eden-Monaro has not been a seat in which has sat many ministerial bums. Since 1943, it has produced only two ministers – Gary Nairn under John Howard and the retired incumbent, Mike Kelly under Julia Gillard.
But it always has produced feisty local members who have been committed to their communities and, regardless of party label, are chiefly remembered as Members for Eden-Monaro. MPs who were re-elected because they were good, decent blokes and not just a number in the House. Nairn and Kelly are two such. But so was the outspoken Allan Fraser and genial pharmacist Jim Snow for Labor, and Murray Sainsbury for the Liberals in the Fraser years.
On Saturday, we’ll be getting a good chick instead. It either will be the Liberals’ Fiona Kotvojs or independent-turned-Labor contender Kristy McBain. They are both strong, attractive candidates well-suited to be a good local member. Both are local, both in their ways are deeply rooted in their community, and both have made a difference already: Kotvojs as a community volunteer and McBain in local government.
Whichever of them wins, it will mean a strong local woman in the parliament but on the basis of their CVs, it’s hard to see either rising much beyond the backbench. Eden-Monaro will continue pretty much as it has with all its members since 1901: strong local representatives but not national stars.
A fascinating thing about this by-election is how little it’s being talked about. It hasn’t been the obsessive focus of our federal political class. It’s not dominating news coverage. Even the prospect of Kotvojs pulling off a boilover and being the first government by-election candidate to take a seat of an Opposition for in a century isn’t getting much airplay, despite her almost snatching the seat off Kelly in the 2019 general election. Even the novelty factor of pronouncing Kotvojs’s name doesn’t’ rate a mention.
From a national perspective, though, it’s different. Large swathes of Eden-Monaro were Ground Zero for summer’s bushfire disaster crisis. It was at Cobargo in Eden-Monaro – home of the Rural Fire Service brigade of which Kotvojs is a member – that Scott Morrison experienced the nadir day of his prime ministership when he was shown on national television being jeered and abused – and worse, ignored – by locals as anger, frustration and despair about the losses of life, property and livelihoods boiled over into selectively-edited TV moments.
And from the coast to the snowfields, tourism is lifeblood in this electorate. Between the double whammy of bushfires and coronavirus Eden-Monaro’s been hit harder economically than almost any other part of Australia. The by-election is a chance for locals to vent their fears and frustrations, which adds to the unpredictability.
As a crisis leader, Morrison performed poorly in that dreadful bushfire summer. Trapped in Hawaii, slow to realise the scale of the disaster, appearing sluggish to get going whatever was happening in the background, and struggling to show compassion and empathy in the touchy-feely way we seem to demand these days, Morrison was badly burned metaphorically, if not as badly as the bushland was physically. After his election win, we no longer saw a miracle worker but a flawed leader with feet of clay.
But then came Wuhan flu, and since then Morrison has flown high indeed. This week’s Newspoll showed his approval at 68 per cent to Anthony Albanese’s 26 per cent. As a national and international leader, including coordinating (to a point) federal, state and territory efforts through his innovative National Cabinet, since late March Morrison has played a consistently strong game while premiers like Gladys Berejiklian, Annastacia Palaszczuk and now Daniel Andrews have fallen and risen, or risen and fallen.
And all the while a nationally-irrelevant Albanese has been forced to carp on the sidelines, reduced to quibbling about the detail in ways that nevertheless endorse what the government’s doing: this week is whether the JobKeeper wage subsidy should be extended indefinitely.
So Saturday will be a referendum on Morrison’s leadership.
If it is Bushfires ScoMo (and frustrations with the Berejiklian government’s bushfire and coronavirus management) that dominates Eden-Monaro voters’ thinking on Saturday, it will be McBain. If it’s Coronavirus ScoMo, it will be Kotvojs.
One thing we can be sure of, however: Labor’s internal shenanigans, industrial-scale branch stacking in Victoria and Manchurian candidates in NSW, as well as mutterings about Albanese’s leadership – are unlikely to figure much in the whys of people voting in the by-election. But if Labor loses Eden-Monaro, or barely holds on, you can lay London to a brick that we won’t hear the end of it, not just from the government welcoming its newest MP and claiming vindication for its “saving lives and livelihoods” coronavirus strategy. Increasingly angry and disgruntled Labor MPs and union leaders will start to break ranks and feed the speculation about Albanese’s future.
For Albo, who has fingers in so many dykes he is doing a fair impression of a drowning octopus, doing his best is never going to be good enough and he must have wanted this by-election like a chicken wants to invite a fox for dinner.
But if Kotvojs falls just short again, the knives will be out for NSW Nats leader John Barilaro who, when Kelly quit played an abortive, egotistical game of preselection chicken with Liberal state minister Andrew Constance, both demanding to be anointed as the Coalition candidate. Then, later in the campaign, he mused about standing at the next federal election, suggesting he – and some Machiavellian Nats – would be happy if Labor wins on Saturday, to clear the way for a Barilaro tilt next time. So if the Liberals lose, Barilaro will deserve every stab wound he gets. And may they all be in his back.
Whatever the parties’ internal polling may claim, and we’ve seen selective leaking to talk up their candidates, we may not even know the result on Saturday night. The number of pre-poll votes and postal vote applications has run well ahead of 2019, when Kelly just won the pre-polls and Kotvojs dominated the postals. And with 14 candidates including the Nationals’ Trevor Hicks and the Shooters and Fishers preferencing neither major party but Labor getting the better of their card, preferences could go every which way and leak in all directions.
In a time of grave national crisis, this by-election is an unwanted distraction, and Eden-Monaro is very much off-Broadway as far as the current national scene goes. But it still matters: its outcome is going to be a big factor in determining the futures of Scott Morrison and Anthony Albanese.
Illustration: Australian Electoral Commission.
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