As goes Eden-Monaro, so goes Australia. Or so it used to be.
From 1972 to 2013, this regional seat in south-east NSW was the quintessential bellwether electorate.
For 17 elections in a row, the winning candidate in Eden-Monaro entered Parliament and took his seat on the Government benches.
And with Eden-Monaro it has always been ‘his’ seat. The seat lost its bellwether status in 2016, and this Saturday’s by-election will end the seat’s run as a male bastion too.
Either Labor’s Kristy McBain, or Liberal Fiona Kotvojs, will become Eden-Monaro’s first female representative.
The by-election has been caused by the resignation through ill health of Labor’s Mike Kelly.
He won the seat with a margin of just 0.9 per cent at last year’s election, and the loss of his significant personal vote will hurt Labor’s chance of retaining the seat.
A seat like no other
On its current boundaries, Eden-Monaro is a more conservative seat than when Kelly was first elected in 2007.
Eden-Monaro has never been a bellwether because its population was representative of the nation.
Proximity to Canberra means Eden-Monaro has a much higher proportion of its workforce employed in government or related industries. Only the ACT’s seats have more government employees.
History and geography have confined Eden-Monaro to the south-east corner of NSW since Federation. Bounded on three sides by the mountains, Victoria and the sea, Eden-Monaro’s name tells you where it is and has always been, the south coast of NSW and the high country behind.
Like all regional seats, Labor’s vote tends to be in regional cities, with Coalition support stronger in smaller towns.
The extension of the electorate ahead of the 2016 election helped the Coalition by removing Batemans Bay on the south coast and extending the electorate around the ACT to include more traditional conservative voting rural districts.
Map: Eden-Monaro’s election encompasses Yass to the South Coast.
But Eden-Monaro is different from most regional seats, due to the nature of the electorate’s largest centre — Queanbeyan.
Few regional cities are as urban, or urbane, as Queanbeyan. The city is in part a dormitory suburb for the national capital and gets its media from Canberra rather than Sydney.
Labor’s vote is stronger in Queanbeyan than most regional cities, and that explains why Eden-Monaro is always more marginal than most regional seats.
About 40 per cent of Eden-Monaro voters are in Queanbeyan and townships east of the ACT, another 30 per cent on the NSW far south coast, the remaining voters stretched around the ACT in smaller communities from Cooma through to Tumut and Yass.
Labor’s strength at the 2019 election was in Queanbeyan and on the south coast, with the Liberal Party stronger in the rural parts of the electorate.
Labor also won the vote on election day, but the Liberal Party polled more strongly with pre-poll and postal voters.
With the election conducted mid-winter in one of Australia’s coldest electorates, and with concerns over COVID-19 still current, around half of the electorate will have voted by election day. Pre-poll voting rates are slightly up on the 2019 election and postal vote applications have more than doubled.
Postal voting may not favour the Liberal Party as strongly this time. In 2019, Labor mounted only a token postal voting campaign, receiving and passing on only 41 postal vote applications to the Australian Electoral Commission.
For the by-election Labor has forwarded more than 4,400 applications.
All pre-polls and a large slice of postal votes will be counted on election night, along with all votes cast on election day. Unless the result is extremely close, we should know the winner on Saturday night.
Social distancing rules adopted for the count will slow down the reporting of results on election night. While the result should be clear on the night, it may not be clear early.
History tells you Labor should hold Eden-Monaro. The last time a government took a seat from an opposition was at the Kalgoorlie by-election in 1920. Some have noted the coincidence that the Kalgoorlie by-election was held in the aftermath of the great flu pandemic.
Perhaps pandemics and government gains at by-elections are once-in-a-century events.
Big test for Morrison and Albanese
History is against the Government winning the by-election, but history is less relevant than the current political climate.
Eden-Monaro will provide the first electoral measure of Scott Morrison’s popularity following his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. But it will be a measure taken in a seat where he was marked down in January for some tin-eared handling of the bushfire emergency.
It is also the first electoral test of new Labor leader Anthony Albanese at a time when the Opposition has struggled for attention, crowded out of the picture as state and federal leaders led the national response to COVID-19.
The Labor Party will be hoping that national opinion polls, showing little change in voting intentions since last year’s federal election, are a better measure of electoral support than the beauty contest of preferred Prime Minister.
The Eden-Monaro by-election is more important to the Opposition than the Government. The Prime Minister would love to add a seat to his narrow majority in the House of Representatives, but victory is not critical.
A Labor victory with a swing against the Government could be easily explained away by history, as well as the Liberal and National Party’s chaotic initial manoeuvring to choose a candidate.
Labor has lost Mike Kelly’s significant personal support, but started the campaign better than the Government by quickly settling on its candidate, former Bega mayor Kristy McBain.
Social distancing has made it an impersonal campaign; baby kissing and handshakes have been off the agenda.
The Liberal Party has had all the advantages of holding government and been able to dominate coverage through the daily COVID-19 news agenda.
The Government has also been strategic in bringing forward ‘announcables’ for the campaign.
While of little relevance to the by-election, the emergence of internal factional problems in Victoria during the campaign has relevance to the internal workings of the federal Labor caucus.
Scott Morrison may be able to dismiss a loss in the Eden-Monaro by-election, but a loss for Labor will provide ammunition for Anthony Albanese’s factional opponents in the Labor party.