NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro (Image: AAP/Joel Carrett)

At this inopportune time, voters in one of the country’s most hotly contested seats may soon face a byelection: Labor’s Mike Kelly is expected to announce his retirement as the member for the New South Wales seat of Eden-Monaro by the end of the week.

Since electoral legislation does not provide for radical workarounds such as postal elections, the byelection would probably resemble the recent local council and state byelections in Queensland for which there was limited campaigning, a deluge of postal and pre-poll voting, and enforced social distancing at lightly attended booths on election day.

Intimations of Kelly’s departure were first heard in October. One story at the time suggested he was aggrieved about being passed over for the shadow defence portfolio. But he has since made it known that he was undergoing surgery for kidney and gallbladder failure, and that related medical issues deriving from his overseas service in the army made it doubtful he could continue in the job.

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Kelly has held the south-eastern NSW seat for all but one term since 2007, including wins in 2016 and 2019 that ended its famed record as the “bellwether” electorate that had gone with the winning party at every election since 1972.

However, the Liberals pared back the margin last year to just 0.8%, and there seems to be remarkable confidence in the conservative camp that the seat will be restored to its rightful place as a prize of the governing party.

It has long been known that the prospect of a byelection had piqued the interest of the NSW Nationals leader, John Barilaro, who sees an opportunity to pursue ambitions that extend to toppling Michael McCormack as federal leader.

But the seat is also being eyed by the Liberal Senator Jim Molan, who is threatening trouble if his party vacates the field to give Barilaro a clear run, as an unidentified party figure quoted in The Sydney Morning Herald suggested it might.

Barilaro has formidable historical hurdles to clear: the seat has never been held by the National/Country Party through a history going back to federation, and a victory would make him the first government party candidate in a century to take a seat off the opposition at a byelection.

While he might hope to be boosted by the positive response to the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis, it should be noted that the weekend’s Newspoll result found the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, to be enjoying a largely voteless recovery, with booming approval ratings matched by only muted improvement on voting intention.

Furthermore the summer bushfires that have been relegated to distant memory for most of the country are certainly not forgotten in Eden-Monaro, which encompasses some of the worst-affected areas — notably the town of Cobargo, where Morrison’s post-Hawaii attempt to ingratiate himself with the locals marked the lowest ebb of his prime ministership.

The government is also constrained from holding the byelection soon enough to exploit fully the prevailing mood of goodwill, with the lockdown in NSW set to continue until June 29.

For all that, Barilaro’s appeal to voters in the area cannot be doubted: he holds the corresponding state seat of Monaro by a double-digit margin after narrowly gaining it from Labor in 2011.

Certainly his entry would dramatically raise the stakes, ensuring either a historic defeat for Labor or a humiliating failure for a rising star of conservative politics.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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