News ‘An ugly win’: Labor claims victory to hold Eden-Monaro in photo finish
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‘An ugly win’: Labor claims victory to hold Eden-Monaro in photo finish

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Counting continues on the NSW south coast, but Labor has claimed victory in the seat of Eden-Monaro after one of the more unconventional byelection contests Australia has ever seen.

As of Sunday afternoon, ALP candidate Kristy McBain had amassed 50.77 percent of the two-party vote, a slim but potentially insurmountable lead. Just after 1.30pm, Ms McBain fronted the media to claim victory, even with some postal votes still to be counted and her lead over Liberal candidate Fiona Kotvojs just 1335 votes.

The Australian Electoral Commission said a “small amount” of new votes are to be counted on Sunday, with postal votes also still to come in, but as things stand, it would be difficult for the Liberals to overturn Labor’s lead.

Ms McBain said only around 4000 votes were still to be counted, claiming she was “pleased and honoured” to claim victory, considering her current lead.

“We are not claiming the win yet, of course, we are very cautious about that, but things are looking very good for us and they will continue to, I think, over the course of the balance of the counting,” Labor frontbencher Joel Fitzgibbon said on the ABC’s Insiders program on Sunday morning.

“It’s a bit of an ugly win for us, I concede, but it is a win just the same.”

Mr Fitzgibbon called it a “difficult election”, which may be an understatement.

Eden-Monaro, which produced a knife-edge at the 2019 election when Kelly claimed the seat by a 50.85 per cent to 49.15 per cent against Kotvojs, was thrown very much into play and proved difficult to predict.

A combination of factors – the sudden retirement of a popular local member, the coronavirus pandemic making traditional campaigning almost impossible, and lingering trauma from the summer bushfires which walloped the region – left the result up in the air, with tips ahead of time that the final result perhaps wouldn’t be known for days.

Labor spoke of Mr Kelly’s personal popularity as representing three or four percent of the vote.

Election watchers went to bed on Saturday night without a result, Ms McBain herself saying it was “too close to call”.

With a huge number of pre-poll and postal ballots, the result in part of voters deciding to avoid lining up on election day, the AEC on Saturday praised a “huge effort” to count all pre-polls.

A government party hasn’t pinched a seat off the opposition at a byelection in a century, and despite all the record-breaking craziness of 2020, that doesn’t seem to be in danger of changing in Eden-Monaro.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison tempered his reaction to the results, praising Ms Kotvojs on her second run for the seat, after she came up short in 2019.

But the analysis and punditry has turned to what the result can tell more broadly about the state of Australian politics.

The current two-party vote represents a slim 0.19 per cent swing towards the ALP – but Ms McBain also saw Labor’s first preference vote drop by three percent, with Ms Kotvojs picking up a 0.77 percent swing on first preferences.

Mr Morrison has been buoyed with enormous results in recent opinion polls, but following damaging headlines earlier this year over his handling of the bushfires – including his disastrous forced handshakes with Eden-Monaro locals before he was heckled out of town – those good numbers haven’t filtered through to the NSW south coast.

On the ABC’s Insiders, Mr Fitzgibbon admitted “we do need to lift our primary vote” and that the drop in Labor’s primary “means that we still have a lot of work to do”, with some turning the attention to Anthony Albanese’s leadership and how he has steered his party through the pandemic so far.

It might still be some time before we have a definitive official result in Eden-Monaro, but the wider discussion about what it means for post-COVID Australian politics has already begun.