The mid-winter byelection for the sprawling south-east New South Wales seat of Eden-Monaro will be a real test for our leaders – and it’s going to be as inconvenient as it is unpredictable.
The special poll for the Labor seat – held by Mike Kelly, who’s retiring through ill health, with a skinny, less than 1 per cent margin – will be called by Speaker Tony Smith with voting to take place at the very end of June or early July.
Smith is not rushing because of the times in which we find ourselves, battling with a global pandemic that’s causing rolling and unprecedented health and economic crises. The Electoral Commission has to design a way to hold a poll in such trying circumstances.
However, the contest is here and Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Opposition leader Anthony Albanese can’t avoid it. That doesn’t mean they are looking forward to a test of their respective standing in the community – far from it.
We saw that this past week as both men rushed for that familiar ground occupied by the cornered politician – the underdog desperately seeking to lower expectations.
Morrison jumped before Kelly’s decision to get out of Parliament was announced, saying a Coalition victory would be a “once-in-a-hundred-year event” – a reference to the fact a national government had not won a seat from an Opposition at a by election since 1920.
“That would be a rather extraordinary outcome but it’s one we will put our best foot forward for in this environment,” Morrison told reporters.
“But my expectations, I think you can say, are conditioned by history and I think that would be a reasonable assessment.”
Albanese was not far behind, talking up Kelly’s personal vote, saying it was probably worth up to 4 per cent, quoting an assessment from the ABC elections analyst Antony Green. That seems high for a personal vote, which is usually in the 1 to 2 per cent range.
Morrison has more right than Albanese to grab the low baller’s bat. It is very difficult for a government to win most byelections, especially those in Opposition-held seats where the member leaves with plenty of goodwill.
After all, Malcolm Turnbull couldn’t win any of the controversial citizenship byelections in 2018 – contests which triggered his downfall as Liberal leader.
Morrison wouldn’t like a loss because he’s adorned with an outsized ego and, fed by historically high personal poll ratings, thinks he can keep performing miracles like the one he styled when he won the 2019 election.
However, he has a ready-made and acceptable set of excuses even if it would prick his poll-driven “great leader” bubble.
Albanese is low balling because he’s secretly terrified of a loss. He won’t let on because he can only admit it to himself in his darkest, quiet moments.
There was plenty of opposition to him taking over the Labor leadership after Bill Shorten finally shuffled off (with his outsized ambition intact), especially when the default answer to the question “Why?” was, “It’s his turn”.
The failure of the Right faction to find an alternative to Albanese rankled that group’s members. For the first time in the modern era this once great section of the party didn’t stand a candidate at a leadership contest. It still hurts at the highest levels of the ALP.
Many senior Labor politicians and party figures stifle criticism of Albanese but when they drop their guard they say he talks too much, he’s too willing to make himself a target when the government should be the issue and he can lack gravitas.
The move most criticised was made just before the full reality of the COVID-19 crisis was realised – he put a stake in the climate change ground by committing Labor to a zero net emissions by mid-century target.
If Labor loses Eden Monaro – and it’s probably a 50/50 proposition – Albanese’s leadership will be questioned in the open and not just in the political shadows.
He might be protected by the ALP’s self-serving rules but a loss could expose that his support is really quite shallow.
These background circumstances mean the people of Eden-Monaro will probably see a lot of Albanese over the coming few months, travelling around with the Labor candidate (certain to be Bega mayor Kirsty McBain).
Labor and Albanese could be helped by the determination of the Nationals and Liberals to field their own candidates – setting up a rare three-cornered contest at a national level.
The Nationals will most probably have current New South Wales Deputy Premier John Barilaro flying their flag, and the Liberals might coalesce around current senator and former military man Jim Molan.
Barilaro and Molan are Queanbeyan residents and strong-willed men with firm views. Barilaro is a booster of nuclear power and has ambitions that should worry Deputy Prime Minister and current Nationals leader Michael McCormack.
Molan is a frequent guest on the Sky After Dark opinion shows, who caused deep consternation in Liberal ranks when he said during the summer bushfires he didn’t rely on evidence when assessing climate change.
Picking a winner in this contest is one more unknown unknown in a sea of uncertainty. However, it’s going to a fascinating battle with consequences that could be unexpected and lasting.