Date of election: July 4, 2020
Candidates in ballot paper order
The by-election in Eden-Monaro follows the resignation on April 30 of Mike Kelly, who has held the seat for Labor since 2007, outside a one-term interruption following his defeat in 2013. Kelly cited medical issues deriving from his overseas service while in the army, which required surgery for kidney and gallbladder failure in October. There were also reports that he was aggrieved at being overlooked for the defence portfolio in shadow cabinet, with one going so far as to say Kelly had given his blessings to John Barilaro, state Nationals leader and member for the corresponding state seat of Monaro.
Barilaro reportedly hoped to enter federal politics with a view to deposing Michael McCormack as Nationals leader, hoping his local popularity would overcome the party's historic weakness in a seat it had never previously held. However, his plans came to a dramatic end when he withdraw in the days following Kelly's retirement announcement, ostensibly to give a free rein to prospective Liberal candidate Andrew Constance, state Transport Minister and member for Eden. Constance himself then withdrew amid heavily publicised recriminations involving Barilaro, and the by-election has instead developed into a contest between Labor's Kristy McBain of the Liberal candidate from the 2019 election, Fiona Kotvojs.
The Australian Electoral Commission's COVID-19 service plan for the by-election encompasses a familiar set of social distancing rules at polling booths, and an end to the practice of mobile polling at hospitals and aged care facilities. The latter will instead be accommodated by “support teams” to assist with postal and telephone voting (the latter still only available to the visually impaired). Thirteen pre-poll voting centres are in operation, compared with eight at the 2019 election.
Locked into the south-eastern corner of New South Wales, Eden-Monaro has maintained fairly consistent boundaries since its creation at federation, currently accommodaing the Canberra fringe suburbia of Queanbeyan, the coastal towns of Eden and Narooma, the rural centres of Cooma and Bega, and agricultural areas sprinkled with smaller towns. Queanbeyan is an area of strength for Labor, but most of the electorate is typically finely balanced.
Eden-Monaro has taken in the south-eastern corner of New South Wales since federation, and was held by conservatives of various stripes for all but one term until 1943, the exception being Labor's 40-vote win when Jim Scullin's government came to power in 1929. Allan Fraser held the seat for Labor from 1943 until his defeat in 1966, recovered it in 1969, then finally retired in 1972.
The seat's famous run as a bellwether electorate began when Bob Whan retained it for Labor upon Fraser's retirement in 1972, although this was only barely achieved after the Country Party outpolled the Liberals for the first time and landed 503 votes short after preferences. The Country Party further reduced the margin to 146 votes in 1974, but ran a distant third when Murray Sainsbury gained the seat for the Liberals in the 1975 landslide and were not seriously competitive thereafter.
Jim Snow unseated Sainsbury with the election of the Hawke goverment in 1983 and retained it throughout Labor's period in government, eventually being defeated by Gary Nairn with the election of the Howard government in 1996. Nairn was in turn held the seat through to the defeat of the Howard government in 2007, when the seat was one of seven gained by Labor in New South Wales.
Mike Kelly has since held the seat for all but one term, bucking the statewide trend to pick up a 2.0% swing in 2010 before being narrowly defeated by Liberal candidate Peter Hendy after a 4.8% swing in 2013. Kelly ended the seat's bellwether record when he recovered the seat off a 5.8% swing in 2016, and narrowly retained it in the face of a 2.1% swing in 2019.
Shortly upon Mike Kelly's retirement announcement, it became apparent that Kristy McBain had unassailable support for Labor preselection. McBain achieved a national profile at the time of the bushfire crisis as mayor of Bega Valley Shire, and promptly won the public endorsement of Anthony Albanese. Her candidacy was confirmed by the party's national executive, contested only by Yass businessman Michael Pilbrow, who ran in protest against the lack of a role for local party members in the selection.
Liberal candidate Fiona Kotvojs is a beef farmer who came within 1685 votes of winning the seat when she ran at the May 2019 federal election. Kotvojs retained strong support in the local party to run again when the by-election loomed, which reportedly had a lot to do with the sudden withdrawal of Andrew Constance's nomination at the start of the campaign. Concern for local sensitivities was heightened by the recent experience of Warren Mundine's imposition as candidate for the neighbouring seat of Gilmore at the federal election, a seat the Liberals conspicuously failed to win. Kotjovs went on to score a 106-27 victory in an online plebiscite of local members over Mark Schweikert, a Department of Defence official and deputy mayor of Queanbeyan-Palerang.
In lieu of John Barilaro, the Nationals have endorsed Trevor Hicks, deputy mayor of Queanbeyan-Palerang, while the Greens candidate is Cathy Griff, a colleague of Kristy McBain on Bega Valley Shire Council. There are fourteen candidates overall, making it particularly unfortunate for Kotvojs that she has drawn last place on the ballot paper.
In the immediate wake of Mike Kelly's retirement announcement on Thursday, April 30, a view took hold that John Barilaro posed a formidable challenge to Labor, encouraged by the circulation of internal Nationals polling showing him with a modest 52-48 lead over Labor. However, talk that the Liberals might make way for him were immediately scotched with the emergence of two substantial figures as potential candidates: Andrew Constance, state government Transport Minister and member for Bega, most of which corresponds with Eden-Monaro, and Senator Jim Molan, who hoped to extend his ever-tenuous grip on a parliamentary career beyond the expiry of his Senate term in mid-2022.
Constance was felt to have the stronger claim, having been the subject of sympathetic media attention when he nearly lost his house in the summer bushfires, and Molan duly made way for him. This was despite Constance having announced in March that he would be quit politics when the bushfire recovery was complete, without being specific about when that might be. A factor in this equation was that Gladys Berejiklian's state government faced by-elections in two seats if both Barilaro and Constance ran, causing both to say they would withdraw if the other ran. It quickly became apparent that influential figures strongly favoured Constance, among them Scott Morrison and centre-right faction powerbroker Alex Hawke. Liberal sources provided the Sydney Morning Herald with internal polling showing Constance would win in a canter, and claimed Constance's seat of Bega would be easier to defend at a by-election than Barilaro's, where trouble might emerge from Shooters Fishers and Farmers or an independent.
Barilaro announced his withdrawal on the Monday, putting paid to the public image of comity by making it known to a parliamentary colleague that he considered Constance to be a “c**t”, a fact related by a front page report in the Daily Telegraph. Liberal sources cited in The Australian claimed Constance's real concern was a backlash against his candidacy among local party branches, where feelings remained tender over the imposition of Warren Mundine as the candidate in neighbouring Gilmore at the election.
While there have been no media-commissioned polls published as of the start of the campaign's final week, numerous reports have emerged of internal party polling or polls conducted by private organisations. Relating these in reverse chronological order:
On the Monday before polling day, The Australian ($) reported the Nationals were hawking internal polling showing their primary vote had surged over a fortnight from 6% to 11.5%. While this clipped Fiona Kotvojs' primary vote from 36% to 34.4%, and Shooters Fishers and Farmers from 7% to 4.6%, its effect was said to be sufficient to potentially put Kotvojs over the line. Kristy McBain had supposedly slumped from 36% to 29.3%, with the Greens up slightly from 7% to 8.7%. The more recent poll was conducted on June 25 from a sample of 630; the sample for the earlier poll was said to be rather larger.
A uComms robo-poll conducted for the Australian Forest Products Association on June 16 from a sample of 816 reportedly had Labor with a 52-48. This was related in The Australian, which only provided information for smaller parties on the primary vote, with the Nationals on 6.7%, the Greens on 6.3% and Shooters Fishers and Farmers on 3.6%.
Another uComms robo-poll, in this case conducted by uComms for the Australian Institute on June 15 from a sample of 643, had Labor with leads of 54-46 on respondent-allocated preferences and 53-47 on previous election preferences. Including forced responses for the initially undecided, the primary votes were Labor 39.0%, Liberal 32.1%, Nationals 7.0%, Greens 9.0% and Shooters 6.7%.
On June 12, News Corp journalist Andrew Clennell reported on Sky News that an internal party poll which party was not disclosed suggested the Liberals were the front-runners. After exclusion of the 11% undecided, the primary votes as reported round to Liberal 43%, Labor 35%, Nationals 7%, Greens 7%, Shooters and Fishers 6% and One Nation 3% (although the latter are not actually contesting). Clennell reported that the Liberals do not consider their position to be quite as rosy as the poll suggests. Beyond that, the only detail on the poll was that it was a robo-poll with a sample of 600.
Two sets of internal polling did the rounds as John Barilaro and Andrew Constance positioned for advantage in the days following Mike Kelly's retirement announcement. The Australian reported a Nationals robopoll conducted that evening from a sample of 1296 had Barilaro with a 52-48 lead over Kristy McBain, from primary votes indicating he would outpoll Jim Molan as Liberal candidate by 30% to 21%, with McBain on 35% and Patrick McGinlay on 8%. Liberal sources cited in multiple news reports rubbished the poll for excluding Andrew Constance as a response option and drawing its sample from the Nationals' voter database. The Liberals responded with polling conducted over the following weekend by C|T Group (formerly Crosby Textor) which, according to the Financial Review, showed “a close race between Constance and McBain, with Barilaro coming a distant third”.