Dominic Perrottet obviously thinks Bega is in play at the by-election on Saturday judging by his presence last week in the electorate. He’s not wrong. Of the four upcoming by-elections this weekend, Bega is the most likely to fall. The premier’s weak leadership, a disintegrating frontbench, a corruption investigation into his predecessor, two policy-induced severe recessions, and a huge swing against the Coalition nationally all point to a loss in Bega. More importantly, so do the numbers.
Sizing up the Super Saturday by-elections it is clear Bega is the weak spot. Willoughby is a cake-walk for conservative Tim James. Berejiklian held the seat with a two-party preferred margin in excess of 20 per cent at the 2019 state election. Labor appears to have taken the view James is the presumed winner given they’re not even standing a candidate, notwithstanding incentives to do so in terms of electoral funding.
Serial political aspirant Jason Yat-Sen Li looks like a shoo-in for Labor in Jodi McKay’s old seat of Strathfield, despite not even living in the electorate. The silvertail, globalist lawyer is the son of wealthy Hong Kong immigrants and grew up in the eastern suburbs. Li presents as an unlikely champion for the middle-class and heavily Chinese voters of Strathfield, outside of his own fixation on race and racial politics.
Labor only held Strathfield with a 5 per cent margin in 2019, but Li is facing down political neophyte Bridget Sakr and is likely to use her as a human pinata in the event of a face-to-face debate. Betting markets are paying out six to one on Sakr.
Monaro sees two lightweights go head-to-head to pick up Deputy Premier John Barilaro’s old seat. The Nationals’ Nichole Overall is running against Labor candidate Bryce Wilson, a local Queanbeyan Councillor who wouldn’t be unfamiliar to Overall given her husband, until recently, was the mayor.
Overall is a self-styled ‘award-winning freelance writer, author, history investigator, and podcaster’ – which is a long-hand way of saying she’s never had a real job since graduating with a communications degree from the illustrious Canberra University. Wilson (no relation) is a former teacher turned low-level political staffer and occasional public servant. Overall will shrink Barilaro’s 11.6 point 2019 margin considerably, but is likely to scrape over the line.
It’s worth pausing, self-indulgently, to reflect on John Barilaro’s career. Barilaro will be remembered as a proud high school graduate who scaled the heights of conservative politics to become Deputy Premier of New South Wales only to be cut down by the scourge of Australia’s virulent anti-Italian racism. Armed with no less than three prestigious Certificate IV qualifications from the Housing Industry Association, Barilaro commanded a salary of $376,000 before tearfully resigning in October citing the toll of ‘vile and racist attacks’ by prolific online hater Jordan Shanks.
Such is the gravitas of Barilaro, revelations that he called fellow high school graduate Andrew Constance a four-letter word derailed Constance psychologically and was sufficient to cause him to abandon his short-lived, intended federal run for Eden-Monaro. Constance, who as Transport Minister installed video cameras around the state to photograph you using your phone in your car (holding it is also an offence), seems to have gotten a second wind and will now contest the federal seat of Gilmore.
Bega sees Liberal candidate Fiona Kotvojs swallow her pride and step down to state level politics after her unsuccessful tilt at Eden-Monaro in 2020. Kotvojs is actually a reasonably impressive candidate. A former high school teacher with a PhD in education and eight years in the Army Reserve, she is now a beef and truffle farmer. The Liberal candidate is highly articulate and the fact she has been smeared by The Guardian (a political badge of honour if ever there was one) on climate change and gay marriage suggests there’s a chance she actually believes things.
Labor’s champion in Bega is a genuine professional and someone who is also able to command the English language beyond platitudes. Dr Michael Holland is an obstetrician and gynaecologist who has worked at Moruya District Hospital for almost two decades, which feels particularly odd given he specifies his pronouns publicly.
The real problem for Kotvojs is that she’s already effectively run for ‘Bega’ at the federal level and lost. To be sure, there are difficulties in transposing federal election results onto state races, but her performance at the 2020 federal by-election in Eden-Monaro contains a lot of useful information.
Eden-Monaro encompasses most of the NSW state electorates of Bega and Monaro. While the two-party preferred vote of 49.6 to 50.4 in 2020 had Kotvojs only just losing to Labor’s Kristy McBain, it was a much different story where it matters now. In those booths based within the geographical confines of Bega, Kotvojs fell short by almost 5 points. Kotvojs performed much better in regional country areas in Eden-Monaro than she did amongst its affluent coastal retirees. Booths in Monaro like Cooma, Jindabyne and Bombala vote much more strongly conservative than areas like Merimbula and Narooma that tend to be lineball.
Starting out almost 5 points underwater is compounded by the Coalition’s slumping popularity at both the federal and state levels since the mid-2020 by-election. In late June 2020, just prior to the Eden-Monaro by-election, the Coalition had the edge, 51 to 49 at the federal level according to Newspoll. Heading into Saturday, the Tories are now fully 7 points below that level, polling just 44 to 56 per cent on a two-party preferred basis. The margin is narrower at the state level, currently 47 to 53 but that’s still down 2 points from where it was in mid-2020.
Kotvojs is still the favourite of betting markets to win Bega. However, that view seems to be largely informed by Constance having won the seat in 2019 with a 6.9 per cent margin. Constance, however, had the benefit of incumbency, profile as a Senior Minister and the Coalition’s standing in the polls was significantly better back then. All these factors point to the real risk of an upset win by Labor in Bega that will leave Perrottet’s already shaky minority government even shakier after Saturday.
Burchell Wilson is a principal of strategic communications firm Blackwell Strategies.
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