It’s been the summer and autumn from hell for very many of the voters in the NSW federal seat of Eden-Monaro, a Labor electorate on under 1% that forms an envelope around the nation’s capital.
Fire ravaged their beautiful bush and coastal lands and claimed homes. Just as the rebuilding started, the coronavirus stopped the tourist industry climbing back to its feet.
There haven’t even been the usual dollars from the Canberrans who own holiday houses around the seaside areas. The strict travel ban has prevented them commuting for their weekends. Now the coming snow season looms as financially bleak.
Amid all the pain Eden-Monaro’s voters wouldn’t welcome a fractious byelection. But they’ll be understanding about what’s triggered it.
Their popular local member, Mike Kelly, has had his own months of hell, with multiple operations and medical procedures due to health issues arising from his military service in Somalia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, East Timor and Iraq.
As an emotional Kelly – who has respect across the political divide – told a news conference, he’s just not able any more to service a seat requiring much driving. He apologised to constituents for causing a byelection at this time.
Neither Anthony Albanese nor Scott Morrison would particularly want a test of strength right now. Byelections in marginal seats are unpredictable; a win can be gold, a loss a minor or major setback. Predictably, both leaders are trying to manage expectations down.
Morrison has had a personal polling boost from his handling of the virus crisis, although the Coalition and Labor remain neck and neck. Apart from narrow politics, his good ratings are coinage when the government has to make hard decisions, or appeal for community patience. He doesn’t want to lose any shine at the moment.
What if Labor holds the seat? That would suggest people aren’t translating their praise for the PM’s crisis management to wider endorsement of the government.
On the other hand, what if the ALP loses, when history is on its side? As everyone keeps saying, a government taking an opposition seat at a byelection last happened a century ago.
A loss would lead to soul searching in the ALP, reinforce the doubts held by Albanese’s critics, and make some in the party wonder if it did the right thing post-election, when he was endorsed without a contest. Remember, however, Labor rules now protect the leader to an extent (but only an extent), which they did not before 2013.
If the Liberals or Nationals won the seat, it would take Morrison’s majority from three to five (that’s including the speaker, who has a casting vote).
What if the victor was not a Liberal but NSW deputy premier John Barilaro, leader of the state Nationals, who appears set to run? Barilaro’s a fire cracker, with strong views and a loud voice.
His victory would mean the Liberals had lost out to their junior partner in a seat that’s a traditional Labor-Liberal battleground.
More important, Barilaro’s arrival in Canberra would unsettle deputy prime minister Michael McCormack. Barilaro wouldn’t take the gamble of seeking to switch parliaments if he didn’t have a lot of ambition.
Eden-Monaro is an electorate with a bit of everything, stretching from the regional centre of Queanbeyan, a dormatory for Canberra, through farming lands and mountains to the coast. From 1972 to 2013, it was hailed as a “bellwether”, going with the government of the day. Kelly, who held it from 2007-13, broke that link when he won it back in 2016.
Authors: Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra