Mike Kelly confirmed what everyone knew already when he officially announced his resignation as member for Eden-Monaro yesterday, thereby initiating the first federal by-election of the current term, the last having been the Wentworth by-election in October 2018. Kelly cited medical issues deriving from his overseas service while in the army, which required surgery for kidney and gallbladder failure in October.
The immediate question is how a by-election might be held amidst the coronavirus crisis, but it would seem radical solutions such as all-postal elections can be ruled out. These would require a fairly radical legislative overhaul, and David Crowe in the Age/Herald reports Speaker Tony Smith has “asked the Australian Electoral Commission for its advice on how to ensure polling stations comply with social distancing and whether to encourage more postal votes”. The current schedule in New South Wales is for existing lockdown measures to remain in place until June 29, so it may well be thought prudent to hold off for the time being, particularly given that parliament will not resume in any case until August 11.
It is already clear that the by-election will be a three-cornered contest, with state Nationals leader John Barilaro confirming his long-anticipated decision to gamble on a run for the seat and making no effort to deny ambitions to depose Michael McCormack as federal party leader. According to Geoff Chambers of The Australian, the Nationals claim recently conducted internal polling has Barilaro in a “winning position”.
Suggestions that the Liberals would vacate the field have already been scotched, with The Australian reporting it plans to hold an online plebisicite of around 200 members on May 22 to 23. Senator Jim Molan has said he is keeping his options open, and The Australian reports that the candidate from last year, local farmer and businesswoman Fiona Kotvojs, might also be a starter. The only name mentioned so far for Labor preselection has been Bega Valley Shire Mayor Kristy McBain.
I have a preliminary by-election guide in action that features a 2019 election booth results map and various charts and tables laying out demographic indicators and the seat’s electoral history. I also had a piece anticipating the by-election announcement for Crikey on Wednesday that emphasised the risks entailed by Barilaro’s mooted candidacy:
Barilaro also has formidable historical hurdles to clear: the seat has never been held by the National/Country Party through a history going back to federation, and a victory would make him the first government party candidate in a century to take a seat off the opposition at a byelection.
While he might hope to be boosted by the positive response to the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis, it should be noted that the weekend’s Newspoll result found Scott Morrison to be enjoying a largely voteless recovery, with booming approval ratings matched by only muted improvement on voting intention.
Furthermore, the summer bushfires that have been relegated to distant memory for most of the country are certainly not forgotten in Eden-Monaro, which encompasses some of the worst-affected areas — notably the town of Cobargo, where Morrison’s post-Hawaii attempt to ingratiate himself with the locals marked the lowest ebb of his prime ministership.