Federal Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese (Image: AAP/Bianca De Marchi)

Despite unfolding against the backdrop of a global health and economic crisis, there is remarkably little expectation that tomorrow’s Eden-Monaro byelection will find voters behaving much differently from how they did in the immeasurably more settled circumstances of a year ago.

Famously marginal bellwether electorate that it is, this means all concerned are bracing for a result to rival outgoing Labor member Mike Kelly’s slender 1685-vote (0.8%) winning margin at the election.

Admittedly, such expectations are based largely on polling — the latest poll, conducted by uComms for the Australia Institute on Tuesday night, is typical in recording a Labor lead inside the margin of error at 52-48.

That the government appears to be competitive plainly reflects the positive response to its handling of coronavirus, as it is otherwise weighed down by just the kind of negatives that typically make governments quail from mid-term byelections.

The Liberal campaign has been blighted by fractious relations with its coalition partners, culminating in suggestions that John Barilaro, state Nationals leader and thwarted preselection aspirant, is actively seeking a Liberal defeat so he can take the seat himself at the next election.

However, most of the lead in the Liberal saddlebags relates to the summer bushfire crisis, which devastated large parts of the electorate.

It was for this reason that the Liberal hierarchy wished for the seat to be contested by state government minister Andrew Constance, who gained considerable public sympathy through his own experiences defending his threatened house from the fires.

However, Constance fell foul of fierce resistance from local Liberal branches, who remained loyal to the narrowly unsuccessful candidate from the election, Fiona Kotvojs.

Such sentiment was difficult to ignore given lingering bitterness over Warren Mundine’s conspicuously unsuccessful candidacy in the neighbouring seat of Gilmore, which had been imposed on the local party against its wishes.

But while Kotjovs is a proven campaigner with an established profile from council politics, Liberal hopes of neutralising the bushfires issue have been complicated by her record of skeptical noises about climate change and opposition to “green tape” restraining development in bushfire-prone areas.

The latest flare-up around ABC funding, which Labor promised on Wednesday to boost by $83.7 million, has also been unhelpful to Kotvojs’ campaign, and has further exacerbated tensions with the Nationals.

Labor candidate Kristy McBain has stayed out of trouble, but the Liberals have made mileage from the fact that she was preselected by the fiat of the party’s national executive, as compared with Kotvojs’ landslide win in a plebiscite of Liberal members.

It is also the case that Labor is losing the substantial personal vote of a member who was popular enough to have won the seat at losing elections in 2016 and 2019, something the seat had famously not done since 1969.

Overarching Labor’s challenge is the simple fact that the stakes are so much higher for Anthony Albanese than they are for Scott Morrison.

Whereas governments are expected to do poorly at byelections, oppositions are certainly not expected to lose seats at them — the last such occasion having been fully a century ago, as Albanese is constantly reminded.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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