At the start of the year, the thought of Scott Morrison’s Government winning a by-election in a bushfire-affected electorate was laughable. Anger at the Government’s handling of the Black Summer bushfires was widespread and palpable. The town of Cobargo rose to national prominence as a symbol of this anger after footage emerged of residents heckling the Prime Minister and refusing to shake his hand. Yet, Cobargo now finds itself in the midst of a by-election, one which the Federal Government believes it has a chance of winning.
Following the retirement of sitting member Mike Kelly, the seat of Eden-Monaro is set to hold a by-election on July 4, 2020. The result of this by-election will provide an important indication to the Federal Government about its handling of both the COVID-19 and bushfire crises this year.
It’s worth noting that it’s usually a fool’s game to put too much stock into by-election results, particularly for seats already held by the Opposition. A federal government hasn’t won a seat from the opposition in a by-election since 1920. Malcolm Turnbull highlighted this foolishness in July 2018, when he infamously labelled the Longman by-election as a contest that was “between me and Bill Shorten as the Prime Minister and the opposition leader”. Turnbull lost the by-election and a month later, the Prime Ministership.
Despite this, Eden-Monaro is a by-election which demands attention. After 1972, Eden-Monaro was considered a bellwether seat, meaning it was always won by the party which secured overall victory in the federal election.
This is a streak that was only broken in 2016, when Labor’s Mike Kelly won back the seat he had previously held from 2007-2013. Kelly further proved that his victory was not a blip by holding the seat in the 2019 Federal Election, despite the Labor Party failing to secure Government. Although he held the seat, Kelly’s margin was reduced to a paper-thin 0.9% against Liberal candidate Fiona Kotvojs.
Whilst Scott Morrison has been restrained in his campaigning for Eden-Monaro, it is clear that the Coalition believes Kelly’s departure marks an opportunity for the seat to return to the Government. In the lead-up to announcing a candidate, NSW Cabinet ministers Andrew Constance and John Barilaro both announced their interest in running for the seat.
The fact that state ministers – safe in their own seats until the 2023 NSW election – were willing to risk their careers on such a risky move is indicative of the Coalition’s confidence it can win the seat. Don’t forget, this confidence is in the same seat in which the Prime Minister was literally hounded out of a town less than six months ago.
Both Andrew Constance, the Liberal NSW Transport Minister, and John Barilaro, NSW’s Deputy Premier and the National’s state leader, pulled out of their tilts at the seat in early May. Embarrassingly for the Nationals, there was then a leak of abusive texts between Barilaro and the federal National leader, Michael McCormack, regarding his failed candidacy. It seems likely that Barilaro’s theatrics will have torpedoed any chance of success for the National’s candidate, Trevor Hicks. The Nationals already faced an uphill battle considering they have never held the seat and received only 6.95% of its votes in the 2019 Federal Election. The Liberal candidate, Fiona Kotvojs, now seemingly has a clear run against Labor’s candidate, Kristy McBain. That’s right, the same Fiona Kotvojs who reduced Mike Kelly’s margin to 0.9% in 2019.
There are clearly local factors that will influence this by-election, such as the fact that McBain was the Mayor of Bega from 2016-2020, or that Kotvojs almost won the seat in 2019. However, the fact remains that a Coalition victory would not only be a rebuke of history, but of their disastrous reception in towns such as Cobargo over the Summer. A victory – or even a marginal increase – for the Government will be read as a vote of confidence in its management of the COVID-19 pandemic, and an indicator that it’s handling of the Black Summer bushfires will not haunt it until the next election.
Despite the Coalition’s confidence of victory, the ALP’s slim margin and Eden-Monaro’s history as a bellwether seat, there is a stronger history to suggest that Governments simply don’t win opposition seats in by-elections. Yet, stranger things have happened. A federal government hasn’t gained a seat in a by-election for 100 years. Still, the world is also enduring a pandemic on a scale that has not been experienced for 100 years. If you’re after the unexpected and unprecedented, 2020 is your year.