In the middle of February, Labor leader Anthony Albanese thought there was only one way for his fortunes to go in the year ahead and that was up. Prime Minister Scott Morrison was still suffering from two months of political hell, starting with what seemed like fatal poor handling of the bushfire crisis that engulfed great tracts of three states.
This was followed by the rorted sports grants controversy that cost the Deputy Nationals leader Bridget McKenzie her ministerial post – an affair that prompted a leadership crisis in the junior Coalition partner as Barnaby Joyce flexed his ambition and aimed for, and failed to get, the job of Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack.
These rolling crises cost Morrison and his government dearly with the standing of both plummeting in the polls. Some Labor figures were letting it all go to their heads and saying the next election was all but won for the ALP. It all seems so distant and before the virus now.
Albanese thought he had enough political gas in his tank to take a risk on climate policy, jumping ahead of where most in Opposition ranks thought Labor should be and plunging a stake in the ground for a net-zero emissions by 2050 target.
Then the COVID-19 crisis hit and day by day, week by week, big decision by big decision, Morrison rebuilt his reputation and is now sitting on an approval rating that surpasses anything enjoyed by any of his predecessors.
Albanese was sidelined and, while Labor remained competitive as an Opposition, he dipped badly in the polls.
This week more bad luck has come visiting for the alternative PM. He has been handed a by-election in one of the most marginal seats in the country and what could have been a difficult but achievable win now could well cause a rewriting of the history books.
Until this morning, Albanese and Labor looked well placed to hang on to the 0.9 per cent seat of Eden-Monaro despite retiring MP Mike Kelly having a strong and valuable personal vote. Kelly is leaving because he can no longer manage long-term health issues from his military service in the Middle East and Europe.
However, some backroom strong-arming has cleared the way for a head-to-head Labor and Liberal contest following the withdrawal of New South Wales Deputy Premier and Nationals leader John Barilaro. Barilaro was convinced he could win, which suggests he’s been made some serious promises to keep in his bottom drawer.
The NSW Liberals have also had some frank discussions with ambitious candidates with limited chances of winning, particularly Senator Jim Molan. Labor’s pick, Bega Valley mayor Kristy McBain, will face another South Coast favourite, local MP and former state minister Andrew Constance.
Labor is gearing up to marshall a protest vote against Morrison, taking aim at his handling of the bushfires and his conservative stand on climate change. This is a gamble because of Morrison’s high personal standing – pushing a protest too hard could cause a backlash if it’s seen as attacking a national leader at a time of crisis.
Also, Constance is the best local voice the Liberals could have in any contest with a significant focus on the bushfires and the failure to deal with the crisis during the summer or to follow up sufficiently on promises made to rebuild and recover.
Constance was a critic of Morrison in January and he is seen as much of a local hero as McBain. He almost lost his house and stood down from the NSW Cabinet to deal with the aftermath of the fires. Finally, he is a moderate making him a more difficult target for Labor to hit than staunch conservatives such as Barilaro or Molan.
The other factor adding to the degree of difficulty for Labor is that the electorate has changed after the 2015 redistribution, which increased the Liberal margin to a notional 2.9 per cent.
This wasn’t enough to save the local Liberal MP, Peter Hendy, in 2016 when Labor notched up a 5.8 per cent swing to return Kelly to Parliament (he had lost in 2013). He became the first member for Eden-Monaro since 1969 to take their post-election seat on the opposition benches, ending the seat’s place as a bellwether electorate which consistently went with the party that won government.
Without Kelly as the Labor candidate the conservative, more rural regions in the western reaches of the electorate should help the Liberal vote.
Kelly was popular in Queanbeyan, the big population centre dominated by government workers and Labor has long had a big federal vote in coastal districts (as high as 60 per cent or more on a preferred basis). His absence could neutralise Labor’s advantage in Queanbeyan and Constance could do the same on the coast.
It’s going to be a by-election like nothing we’ve seen. Albanese will be campaigning on the ground with McBain at a time of social distancing while Morrison will campaign as leader at a time of unprecedented crisis in the adjacent national capital.
The last federal leader to lose a by-election from Opposition was Labor’s Frank Tudor whose Western Australian MP Hugh Mahon was expelled from Parliament for sedition and disloyalty and failed to win back his seat in 1920.
Albanese will not want to repeat this once in 100 years event. He’ll fight every day to avoid that bullet point being added to his CV.
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