The end is in sight to a Covid-impacted by-election campaign that has placed the national spotlight on communities across a bushfire-ravaged Eden-Monaro electorate.
Residents will head to the polls tomorrow in a seat on a razor thin margin.
The by-election was prompted by the resignation of Labor MP Mike Kelly on April 30.
A former Army Colonel, Mr Kelly suffered dehydration-related damage to his renal system after serving tours in Iraq, Somalia and East Timor. He resigned after going through ten medical procedures in six months.
His decision to step down triggered fierce competition for the seat of Eden-Monaro, which suffered some of the nation’s worst bushfire damage last summer. The contest could also prove historic if the Liberal Party’s candidate, Fiona Kotvojs, is successful – it would be the first time in 100 years that the Federal Government won a seat from the Opposition during a by-election.
“We remain the underdog, but it will be close and I’m working very hard and meeting with members of our community right across Eden-Monaro,” said Ms Kotvojs on Thursday.
“The choice is very important. Right now, Eden-Monaro needs someone who can work as a part of the Government and get things done as we rebuild our communities and economy after drought, bushfires and coronavirus.
“I have broad experience and am passionate about my community; and with the community’s support I’ll work to ensure we have a bright future.”
Hopes that the attention of the by-election might bring with it a flood of project promises have largely not been met. There was a measly $150,000 for the airport, but the big winners have been the forestry and apple industries, which shared in an $86 million stimulus package.
The campaign may have been hindered by social distancing, but it got away to a lively start.
An early scuffle between the Liberal and Nationals Party candidates saw NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro and NSW Minister for Transport Andrew Constance ruled out as candidates. Instead, voters are faced with a daunting list of 14 candidates vying for the seat.
Ms Kotvojs suffered a setback when the ballot order was announced, with her name falling last on the long list of candidates. Labor candidate Kristy McBain sits at number eight and The Nationals’ Trevor Hicks is at fourth position.
“My number one hope from this election is that next week the people of Eden-Monaro remain front and centre of government decision making and support,” said Mr Hicks.
“Drought, fire and the impacts of Covid-19 have impacted on our communities like no other in the country. I’m proud to have brought to the national attention issues like a dairy royal commission.”
The University of Canberra held an online focus group earlier this week, selecting 19 participants from across Eden-Monaro to discuss their perceptions of the candidates and issues in the by-election.
The respondents felt that the Coalition had run a very traditional campaign using “old media”, while they thought Labor had run a “new media” campaign with more emphasis on social media platforms.
They also felt positively about both the major candidates, though some suggested that the presence of senior Coalition members reduced Ms Kotvojs’ “community standing.” Overall, Ms Kotvojs was considered an “excellent” candidate even by Labor supporters and Ms McBain was seen as having run the better campaign.
Requests for comment from Ms McBain’s campaign were not returned by the time of publication.
Other results of note from the study included a small increase in support for the Greens party, as well as the Christian Democratic Party and the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers.
Early voting is expected to play a major role in the election, with a surge in pre-polling, linked to Covid-19 concerns. More voters are marking their ballots ahead of election day, but the Australian Electoral Commission said the papers will be left untouched for at least 48 hours, in accordance with coronavirus safety regulations.
More than 16,000 voters applied for postal votes. As of Wednesday, another 25,000 had voted early.
Polling results will be delayed by coronavirus safety measures at polling locations and counting centres, but the AEC said it was aiming to have a result on polling night.
In the leadup to the vote, Liberal candidate Fiona Kotvojs has been facing persistent questioning about her stance on climate change. Ms Kotvojs made a submission to the Bushfire Royal Commission in which she pointed squarely at hazard reduction as the key to preventing future large-scale fires.
Reporters at this week’s Snowy 2.0 announcement repeatedly asked the candidate if she personally believed that climate change caused the fires which she fought as an RFS volunteer and Dignams Creek landholder.
“I believe that the climate is changing and I believe that humans are contributing to that change,” said Ms Kotvojs, anticipating accusations that she is a climate change denier.
“In my experience where I live, the fires came through our farm… and the areas where there had been hazard reduction already [completed], the fire came through low intensity and much slower. It caused much less damage,” she said.
“The area where hazard reduction hadn’t occurred, the fire was just so intense.”
“In the area where I live, the key thing is hazard reduction and that’s a critical factor. The submission I made was about my experience in my area.”
Ms Kotvojs said it was the responsibility of the Royal Commission to determine the causes of the fires and welcomed their findings.
The Prime Minister also faced criticism for holding an announcement on the JobKeeper program until after the by-election, with reporters asking if he was afraid voters would be upset with the government’s plan.
“These are not linear and simple things that we are seeking to resolve at this point,” said Mr Morrison, saying $50 billion has been spent in the last few months to support the economy through Covid-19.
“There will be a next phase [of JobKeeper] and we are calibrating that next phase and targeting it to ensure the support is there for those businesses and those employees who will continue to need it, because of the ongoing restrictions that we see in place.”
Mr Morrison said he’s been “pleased to see there has been some improvement” in other industries, hinting that some industries may not need as much support moving forward.
“We don’t rush to meet Labor’s timetable,” he said, justifying the decision to withhold the JobKeeper announcement.
“Thank goodness Labor isn’t making this decision, because they’d do it in a hurried and rushed way and they’d completely bungle it like they did last time [during the Global Financial Crisis].”
Labor candidate Kristy McBain has also been the subject of criticism, but in her case it’s mainly been a “disinformation campaign” via strangely-worded chain emails.
The emails make a variety of false claims about Ms McBain, including that she has coronavirus, that she withdrew from the contest, that she is connected to witnesses against Cardinal George Pell and more.
The ALP’s National Secretary Paul Erikson issued a statement about the emails, describing them as “particularly offensive to the communities of Eden-Monaro that have lost so much during the Black Summer bushfires”.
The emails have been referred to the Australian Federal Police, since they interfere with the democratic process and are designed to sway the election away from the ALP.
Polls open 8am and close 6pm sharp at Snowy Valleys polling places.