The upcoming byelection in the traditionally marginal NSW seat of Eden-Monaro takes place in a political scene utterly transformed since the federal election only a year ago.
The twin catastrophes of the summer bushfires and the coronavirus pandemic have tested the national leadership of Scott Morrison, and devastated parts of the electorate. With the retirement of the popular local member, Labor’s Mike Kelly, for health reasons, the byelection is a challenging first electoral test for Anthony Albanese, as the Coalition hopes to pull off the rare feat of gaining a seat while in government.
Eden-Monaro is an original federation seat in the south-eastern corner of New South Wales. The core of the electorate includes Bega and the far south coast, Cooma and the Monaro region, and Queanbeyan on the outskirts of Canberra. Recent redistributions have expanded the seat to cover Tumut and Yass, so that it now completely surrounds the ACT.
The classic bellwether seat seat went with whichever party formed government at every election between 1972 and 2013, before Kelly bucked the trend in 2016.
The former military officer first won the seat in 2007. He was re-elected in 2010 and narrowly lost in 2013 to the Liberal Peter Hendy, before defeating Hendy with a margin of just under 3% in 2016, despite an unfavourable redistribution. Kelly suffered a swing of 2.1% against him in 2019, but held on to win a fourth term with a margin of only 0.85%.
The area has been trending away from Labor, with the state electorates of Monaro and Bega held firmly by the Coalition. There was a large gap between the Labor vote in the Senate and the House at the last election, which may indicate a strong personal vote for Kelly.
No candidates have been formally announced, but Albanese has thrown his weight behind the Bega mayor, Kristy McBain, widely admired for her work during the bushfires.
.@KristyMcBain saw her community through their darkest days – literally.
During the bushfire crisis, they went 40 hours without sunlight.
She was there for her community when it mattered most – and now I want her there in our nation’s Parliament, fighting for them every day. pic.twitter.com/yMnriMr70J
— Anthony Albanese (@AlboMP) May 2, 2020
On the Coalition side, the state Nationals leader and NSW deputy premier, John Barilaro, has considered running, although on Sunday night it appeared he had decided not to pursue the seat. Barilaro holds the overlapping state electorate of Monaro, where he gained a 9% swing at last year’s state election, but the Nationals have never held Eden-Monaro, and came fourth in 2019.
Potential Liberal candidates include sitting senator Jim Molan, who is based in Queanbeyan, and the Bega state MP and senior state government minister Andrew Constance, who also came to prominence during the bushfires.
Constance won national attention for his comment that residents of Cobargo – which falls within Eden-Monaro – gave Scott Morrison “the welcome that he probably deserved” during the prime minister’s visit to the fire-ravaged town, when he was jeered and heckled.
Only once has a federal government won a by-election in a seat held by the opposition – in Kalgoorlie in 1920. But we don’t have much of a sample size.
By-elections are usually caused by an MP choosing to quit, and they don’t tend to go if they are worried about their party holding their seat.
There have been 14 by-elections in opposition-held seats in the past 20 years. The party holding power contested only four: Gippsland in 2008, Griffith in 2014, and Braddon and Longman in 2018. In Griffith, where the byelection was caused by Kevin Rudd’s retirement, the Labor opposition held on, but suffered a swing of 1.25% against it – greater than that needed for the Coalition to claim Eden-Monaro.
Eden-Monaro was one of the seats hardest hit by the bushfires, and even towns not directly affected by fire, such as Queanbeyan and Yass, suffered weeks of smoke. If the damage to Morrison’s popularity thanks to his performance during the fires persists, you would expect to see the impact here – but of course all the news since then has been consumed by the Covid-19 pandemic, during which national polls suggest Morrison has improved his standing.
It seems likely that there will be a big increase in pre-poll and postal voting in the electorate. Barely half the electorate voted on election day in 2019, and physical distancing imposed by Covid-19 restrictions is likely to reduce that figure further.
By-elections can often by over-interpreted and given more national significance than they deserve. But Eden-Monaro is a proper marginal, and one of the seats that will matter at the next election. Whichever party wins will take huge encouragement for what the result says about the political landscape in a post-corona world.