EXPLAINER

Burnt by bushfires and stomped on economically by the pandemic, which way will Eden-Monaro swing this time?

Declaring the nominations in Eden-Monaro. Picture: Jamila Toderas

Declaring the nominations in Eden-Monaro. Picture: Jamila Toderas

In the midst of a worldwide pandemic, around 114,000 people in NSW are heading to the polling booths to choose their elected representative for the federal seat of Eden-Monaro.

This first byelection of the 46th Parliament will usher in the strangest voter dynamic in living memory.

The candidates' supporters cannot hand out how-to-vote leaflets outside the polling booths.

Voters on the day are required to bring their own pencil or pen to mark their ballot paper, to hang outside the polling booth and observe social distancing before being waved inside. Staff will regularly disinfect the cardboard booths and if you are unwell, then you will be asked to stay away.

The successful candidate won't be back-slapped and celebrated in the customary way, either. Any celebrations will need to be restrained and very different in style to the fanfare which usually accompanies a successful campaign.

If you're an Eden-Monaro voter, or just taking a keen interest, here's what you'll need to know.

Why is this byelection being held?

The byelection was called for July 4 when long-serving and well-respected Labor MP Mike Kelly resigned from Parliament due to ill health.

He has had long-running medical issues and undergone at least 10 procedures as a result of damage to his renal system caused by the severe dehydration he suffered while serving overseas in the military.

Mr Kelly was elected to the seat back in 2007, lost it in 2013, then won it back again in 2016.

What are the main issues?

The government response to the pandemic and assistance given to ailing businesses is the big issue, because it directly affects so many people; employers and employees alike.

People have been largely supported but now they're now wondering how quickly that support will dry up.

The bushfires and the aftermath is a pervasive issue in Eden-Monaro. Many small towns and centres suffered the double-whammy of the fires and the pandemic. Some communities are still suffering badly economically and will take years to recover.

There's also climate change concerns, of which farmers are well familiar after the long drought.

Who are the front-runners?

It will ultimately come down to a battle between the two major parties and either way, the seat will go to a female candidate for the first time in 119 years.

Standing for Labor is former Bega mayor Kristy McBain, and for the Liberals, Fiona Kotvojs. Preferences are expected to flow in the usual way.

There will be some curiosity around the strength of polling for candidates fielded by the Greens, the Shooter, Fishers and Farmers party, and the Nationals. Bredbo mother-of-five Karen Porter is standing as an Independent and is likely to do well in her geographic area.

The 41,600-square-kilometre electorate's largely rural areas have been hit hard by drought, bushfires and then the economic smackdown of the pandemic.

Although rural voters generally support the Liberal-National party, Queanbeyan is the largest urban voter block and it has a strong Labor constituency. Mike Kelly had a significant personal following and there will be keen interest to see if voters carry that sentiment to his Labor successor on polling day.

Why should the rest of the country care?

If only to observe if the electorate has the memory of a goldfish, and whether the federal government's response to the COVID-19 has swung voter sentiment significantly since March.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison was received poorly when he brought an entourage down to hard-hit parts of this electorate in the immediate wake of the NSW South Coast bushfires in January. His personal political support flailed for some months thereafter.

How quickly will people forget the PM's Hawaii holiday while the bushfires raged, his creepy hand-grabbing episode of a woman at the Cobargo relief centre, and his snub from an exhausted local RFS volunteer?

The Cobargo whistle-stop nationally exposed a lack of personal empathy and sensitivity. For a politician, he "read the room" (or the relief centre, in this case) very badly.

But given all that has occurred in the months since and the positive support which has flowed from the government's willingness to follow the science to stem the spread of COVID-19, while it fiscally supported people stood down and laid off, will the PM's post-bushfire fiasco be forgotten?

Labor leader Anthony Albanese needs this win to claw back some lost ground but it will be a close-run thing.

What's at stake?

A win for the Liberals would reveal just how much the government's COVID-19 response and its big-spending programs such as JobSeeker and JobKeeper have resonated with the community. It would be a huge vote of confidence in the government's handling of the crisis.

Labor has struggled to gain any political traction in recent months as the government's pandemic response has dominated the media. It hasn't been all good news for the LNP, of course, because as restrictions have slowly eased, there have been other issues creeping back into public consciousness such as the robodebt scandal and the unspent bushfire donations.

In the 2019 election, Labor polled strongly in Queanbeyan and on the South Coast, with the Liberal Party stronger in the rural parts of the electorate.

It needs to do so again. Labor candidate Kristy McBain can expect to carry strong support from her South Coast area and preferences from the Greens vote, of which there are are many along the coast and in the artist communities in the smaller regional town, will help her numbers.

However, it's wise to remember Ms Kotvojs came within 1685 votes of winning the seat at the last election.

Why was Eden-Monaro called a bellwether seat?

The term refers to the practice of placing a bell around the neck of a castrated ram (a wether) to lead the flock of sheep. In other words, whatever party carries the seat, carries government.

The electorate doesn't carry that status since Dr Kelly's win in the 2016 election (no Eden-Monaro MP since 1969 had been in the Opposition) but it has such a diverse voter cohort that issues which resonate in one area don't necessarily carry to another.

This story Burnt seat of Eden-Monaro will yield close-run contest first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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