The retirement of Mike Kelly, the popular local ALP member in the marginal seat of Eden-Monaro, was always going to make it difficult for Labor leader Anthony Albanese, facing his first by-election test.
The history of by-elections very strongly suggested that Labor would comfortably hold the seat. Historically, the average swing against governments in by-elections is about 2.2 per cent, and the last time a governing party won a by-election formerly held by the opposition was about 100 years ago.
But by the end of counting on election night, the final outcome between Labor’s Kirsty McBain (pictured, above right), a mayor of Bega, in the south of the electorate, and the Liberal’s Fiona Kotvojs (above left), was going to depend on postal votes and preferences of a dozen minor party candidates.
One reason for the uncertainty was the very high number of pre-poll votes, amounting to around 40,000 ballot papers (more than a third of the total), many of which could not be counted on election night.
The most surprising outcome was that the Liberal primary vote went up by about 1.3 per cent, while Labor’s vote declined by 3.2 per cent, the National Party’s vote declined by 1.2 per cent, and the Greens fell by 3.1 per cent.
The decline in the Labor vote was no doubt partly the result of the retirement of a popular local MP. But the factional warfare unleashed by Victorian Labor Premier Daniel Andrews, and Andrews’ failures in managing the covid19 pandemic in Victoria, undoubtedly played a part.
The most worrying thing for Labor was that Mr Albanese campaigned strongly on sending a message to the Prime Minister, but to the extent there was a swing, it was against him and his party.
Labor did manage to win the seat, but only as a result of preferences of minor-party candidates.
The National Party not only suffered a decline in its primary vote, but there was a large vote for the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party, which harvests votes predominantly from disillusioned National Party voters.
The Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party won over 5 per cent of the vote counted on election night and, due to a preference deal with Labor, funnelled votes to the ALP.
An analysis of the election outcome shows that a number of local factors made a contribution to the outcome.
In the area around Bega, which was ravaged during the horrendous bushfires in January-February 2020, and where the Prime Minister was unfairly blamed for the bushfires, the local vote swung towards Labor’s candidate Kristy McBain.
However, to the north of the electorate, where Fiona Kotvojs is a farmer, there was a swing to the Liberal Party.
Significantly, electors living in Queanbeyan, which had previously been solidly Labor, swung towards the Liberals, probably because of Scott Morrison’s leadership during the covid19 pandemic.
In particular, electors expressed support for the multibillion-dollar JobKeeper and JobSeeker programs to keep the economy going during the pandemic shutdown, and his announcement of a big increase in defence spending in the days before the by-election.
If Labor holds on in Eden-Monaro, despite the 3.2 per cent decline in its primary vote, it will be largely due to its success in organising preference deals with a dozen minor parties that together secured about 15 per cent of the total vote.