Mike Kelly's resignation was no surprise to insiders because it had been coming for some time. All sides of politics had plenty of time to prepare for the coming byelection in Eden-Monaro. Potential candidates, both celebrities and ordinary local contenders, had their eye on it. It is a swinging seat, currently held by Labor by less than 1 per cent, so both Labor and the Coalition, more likely the Liberals than the Nationals, had some chance to win.
The pandemic also shaped the context. The Prime Minister has such high levels of popularity that potential Coalition celebrities were eyeing off the seat more than usual, thinking that perhaps the abysmal record of governments in federal byelections might just be reversed on this occasion.
This background shaped what followed. The first days after Kelly's announcement were dominated by the media circus around the three potential celebrity Coalition candidates, the two Liberals, Andrew Constance and Jim Molan, and the Nationals' John Barilaro. All were sitting members, senior government ministers Constance and Barilaro in NSW state politics and federal Senator Molan. Effectively they were all locals too, with claims to represent the electorate. The two categories of celebrity personality and local person can overlap, but the special attraction of these three as candidates was that their personal profile was built on their public standing.
Labor must have been expecting this possibility, because they attempted to outflank the circus and reclaim media attention by framing the election as about local issues. The devastating bushfires within the electorate in the Christmas/New Year period, which had brought the Prime Minister unwelcome negative publicity, gave the local issues-type approach special leverage.
Labor leader Anthony Albanese jumped the gun by endorsing the Mayor of Bega, Kristy McBain, even before Labor preselection had concluded. Whether or not Labor ever had a potential celebrity up its sleeve this was a smart move by undermining the potential advantage of a Coalition celebrity candidate, despite interfering with due party process.
It's history now that the celebrities all imploded. McBain does not yet know who she will be facing, Liberal or National. Her main opponent may be Fiona Kotvojs, another well-credentialed South Coast local, who had performed well for the Liberals against Kelly in the last election in 2019. Both major parties, and the Nationals too, can now revert to ordinary local candidates rather than toying with celebrities.
Labor must now readjust to avoid being locked into the sort of local campaign which it had first planned under different circumstances.
The type of candidate or leader can determine the type of campaign run in any election. In the May 2019 federal election, for instance, Scott Morrison was a critically different target for Labor than the high-profile Malcolm Turnbull would have been. Morrison ran a "local" campaign. Arguably Bill Shorten failed to adjust to this change of circumstances brought about by the August 2018 Liberal leadership coup.
The disappearance of the celebrity blokes means that it is likely that Eden-Monaro will be represented for the first time in its long history by a woman.
Eden-Monaro is an atypical electorate. It is still known as a bellwether seat because until recently it always swung to the winning side nationally, but equally important is its location adjacent to the ACT. In fact, a recent redistribution has meant that it now surrounds the ACT. Its largest centre, Queanbeyan, is an atypical regional city, heavily reliant on federal government employment and integrated into the extended Canberra-Queanbeyan urban area.
The national capital factor has in the past shaped the type of major party candidates attracted to Eden-Monaro. Many have had a background in national politics. The three most recent members have all become ministers.
Kelly was criticised for his lack of local credentials when he first stood despite his earlier family links through his grandfather. The Liberal member from 2013-2016, Peter Hendy, had considerable national credentials, including as a senior federal staffer to both Peter Reith and Brendan Nelson. Kelly was also once opposed by Howard government staffer, lobbyist, and Morrison confidante, David Gazard. Earlier longstanding Liberal member Gary Nairn, 1996-2007, had been a successful president of the Country Liberal Party in the Northern Territory from 1990-94, before returning to NSW.
Major party candidates and Eden-Monaro MPs have invariably been based in Queanbeyan rather than on the coast, reflecting not just the Canberra effect but also the population distribution. Now it appears probable that Queanbeyan will lose its preeminence and the far South Coast will be the home of the federal MP. In a large electorate divided by the Great Dividing Range this may come as a shock to Queanbeyan residents used to easy access to their federal member.
The disappearance of the celebrity blokes also means that it is likely that Eden-Monaro will be represented for the first time in its long history by a woman.
How the byelection campaign will be fought remains to be seen. Byelections are often framed by the Opposition as a chance to send a message to the government. The Super Saturday byelections in July 2018 became a test of national leadership which rebounded on Turnbull. This time the government will be hoping that Morrison's strong performance during the pandemic and the inevitable sidelining of the Opposition leader, may even cause an upset win.
What impact the social restrictions caused by the pandemic will have on the campaigning remains unclear. For the sake of fairness it must be as normal a campaign as possible.
The character of such normal campaigns means that, although the candidates will now be ordinary locals, the electorate will still be awash with celebrities as Morrison, Albanese and many other senior federal MPs strut their stuff. Eden-Monaro will never escape being in the shadow of Canberra.
- John Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University.