It's a battle that is too close to call, with no result expected on the night after polls close in the Federal by-election for the bellwether seat of Eden-Monaro this Saturday.
There's a lot at stake and in focus with this by-election, from party egos at play, to major social issues caused by drought, catastrophic fires and now the socially-debilitating and recession-making effects from the COVID-19 pandemic that has put so many jobs on the line.
Eden-Monaro holds an anxious community who are looking for certainty.
In the traditional political scenario, Labor should retain the seat. No Opposition has lost one of its seats to the Government in a by-election for over 100 years.
But these are no ordinary times. There is, as people say, a new normal - but not even 'the new normal' is decided yet.
Labor's sitting member Mike Kelly resigned for personal reasons. He had a strong local following and received 39 per cent of the primary vote at the Federal election last year. Latest polls suggest his potential Labor successor in Eden-Monaro, Kristy McBain, the former Bega mayor, is polling at over 29pc. After preferences she holds a slender lead over her Liberal opponent Fiona Kotvojs, who also contested the 2019 ballot.
The Shooters Party hold number one spot on the ballot paper, and with their voters being urged to preference Labor, it would be strange if the Shooters helped get Labor over the line, a bit like the Greens getting a Liberal up. At one stage in the polls the Shooters were polling better than the Nationals in Eden-Monaro, but the Nationals say they are now into third place.
Labor is still though very excited about its chances, not just because of the traditional trends in voting in by-elections, but because of its candidate. McBain is a true local, the daughter of a small business family, educated in the area, married to her high school sweetheart, who now run a local plumbing business employing two people. She has a double degree in law/communications and as Bega mayor helped guide the council through administration and then as elected mayor had to see her region torn apart by bushfires.
She has worked with all sides of politics including Nationals NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro - the member for Monaro who at one stage considered running for Eden-Monaro, a seat he told The Land he believed he could have won. He has previously blamed Federal Nationals leader Michael McCormack's lack of support for scuttling his bid.
Ms McBain is campaigning on a strong platform of jobs - including for forestry jobs (despite many seeing her having a Green bias). She believes not only in the Snowy 2.0 project but a "Snowy 3.0 and a Snowy 4.0" she told The Land on Tuesday.
She's driven over 9000km in campaigning, including meeting forestry executives from Visy in Tumut to assess what needed to be done to bring the industry (that supports almost 5000 jobs) back , after catastrophic fires in many parts of Eden-Monaro. She says 5000 businesses in Eden-Monaro are in jeopardy unless the Federal Government continues the JobKeeper scheme past September to December for fire-affected communities.
Travelling across the area, she has seen how anxious the electorate is after almost three unexpected bricks thrown at them, and still dealing with all three, including a crippling drought in the southern part of the electorate.
"There is a lot at stake for over 5000 businesses employing over 18,000 in Eden-Monaro who are being supported by JobKeeper. If the Government doesn't extend JobKeeper from September we could lose them all. I want the Federal Government to extend JobKeeper for fire affected communities."
McBain was in the midst of fire relief efforts from early this year, with Bega a major evacuation centre as fires raged for months from all directions. The region is not even close to coming to terms with the tragic losses, families torn apart, some towns half-razed such as Cobargo, vast swathes of forest burnt out - and tourists gone, firstly evacuated from the fire zone, and then told not to return because of COVID-19. That's now getting close to 8 months of business and personal limbo, although regional travel is now allowed, but social restrictions mean businesses are still at half pace, and many people are still reticent to travel.
McBain has been pushing jobs big-time in her campaign advertisements, saying she wants her children to be able to work in the region when they grow up. Opposition leader Anthony Albanese is a strong supporter of McBain's and urged the electorate this week to send a message to the Morrison Government that their reaction to the bushfires was too slow, their support wasn't enough and that cuts to the ABC will hurt regional Australia, including the loss of its emergency warnings and coverage that he said saved lives during the bushfire crisis.
She is also pushing Eden-Monaro as major renewable energy hub and would like to see more wind farms in the region.
Labor sources say they are "proud" of McBain. She hasn't put a foot wrong the whole campaign, while from the start the Liberals and Nationals stumbled over who their potential candidate would be.
She seems to be devoid of traditional Labor factionalism. Some say she has been a little close to the Greens, with her council one of the first to establish environmental zones on private land, known as ezones. Some Bega farmers said the ezones had forced their land values to plummet.
Local farmer Wayne Doyle said he reckoned now 78 per cent of the Bega Valley Shire was either national park or state forest and the remaining 22pc includes Crown Land, parks and racecourses and ezones now cover about 24pc of privately owned land.
"I think that's more protected land than any other shire in the state," Mr Doyle said.
Issues about clearing and native vegetation legislation dominate many farm discussions in the region, especially in the Monaro where even the Morrison government's own Minister for Energy, Angus Taylor, has questioned the Federal and NSW native vegetation laws on Monaro properties he has connections to.
A group of farmers associated with his shareholding interest in a rural business known as 'Jam Land' issued a statement to The Land about their ongoing concern at restrictive clearing regulations on farms. (Jam Land was found guilty in April of illegal poisoning critically endangered grasslands at Corrowong by the Federal environment department. It ordered the company to restore 103 hectares of native grassland.)
But the group is fighting against what it says are restrictive practices imposed on them.
"We now have a 25 year history of Government refusing to work with landholders to achieve good agricultural and conservation outcomes," the group said. "The situation in SE NSW has greatly deteriorated in the last four years with listings under both the EPBC and the NSW BCA Act. The current policy of effectively resuming without compensation large areas of farmland for conservation, and requiring farmers to act as unpaid park rangers, remains unchallenged.
"There is still sufficient goodwill amongst the farming community to identify and conserve higher conservation value grasslands, and in a pilot farm planning project, farmers were typically comfortable to retain 30%-40% of farm area under native pastures. The Federal Government has refused to engage with these proposals.
"The Eden Monaro by-election is likely to be an opportunity to place a national spotlight on native vegetation legislation and management."
Farmers for Climate Action have also entered the Eden-Monaro fray - an appropriate word for the region's connection to the Man from Snowy River legend. It's not strange that this will also be a major issue on people's minds, given the severity of the drought and the ferocity of fires in Eden-Monaro.
They have penned an open letter calling for candidates to state their climate stance.
"We call on all of the candidates contesting the Eden-Monaro by-election to commit to climate solutions and, if elected, advocate for meaningful climate policy," the open letter said.
"Over summer, we experienced first hand the impacts of climate change when faced with the most devastating bushfires in living memory. We can't afford to ignore climate change any longer.
"We need a Member of Parliament who is part of the climate solution. We need someone representing us who will be a champion for the new jobs, the new industries and the new investment that will flow to our region as a result of acting on climate change."
Since 1943, Eden-Monaro has either been held by Labor (6 times) or Liberal (4 times). So when Nationals Deputy NSW Premier John Barilaro was putting out feelers for this by-election that he may run, it set a cat amongst the pigeons. Not only in his party, but also in the Liberals. He eventually pulled out, after claiming McCormack failed to support him (and he would now never support him as leader), while his state Liberal colleague Andrew Constance, the member for Bega, who was physically and mentally exhausted from fighting fires and trauma in his area, at first said he was running for Eden-Monaro, and then the next day pulled out, bringing an expletive-laden reaction from his Ministerial colleague.
Barilaro is all over the electorate and he has even taken up the monicker used by others of "barilarolling" after all the election promises in last year's state election, everything from a new paint job for the big trout at Adaminaby, sealing the backroad to Canberra, putting in a cycleway around Lake Jindabyne, and new police stations and high schools.
Like McBain, he's also a local small business owner. He has not taken a backseat since the bungled campaign start and was even seen handing out party flyers at his home town of Queanbeyan during the week, seeming to obscure the Liberal Party's campaign sign as voters went in to do pre-poll.
On Tuesday, he was in Cobargo giving out details of how the NSW Government was rapidly moving to clean up the fire -damaged zones. He was the only one there, not even his Nationals candidate Trevor Hicks was beside him to share the good news. (At the exact same time Mr Morrison was holding a large presser at Lobbs Hole in the western part of the electorate with Fiona Kotvojs in attendance to spruik the latest planning tick for Snowy 2.0).
The Land asked Mr Barilaro a series of questions and he wasn't sitting back about his ability to have won the seat.
Asked if he could have won the seat, he said: "You can never predict outcomes of any election, but clearly polling and the feedback I have received indicate I could have given it a real shot. But I'm not arrogant to say I would have won . My choice not to run wasn't to do with winning or losing and I'm content with my decision".
What are the main issues you are finding on the ground?: "The bushfire impact on the region needs special focus, attention and investment. It's about community, industries and a future for our kids. Protecting our communities from future fires is top of mind."
How close will it be? "Eden Monaro has always been a bellwether seat because of the diverse communities, an informed voter base and has always meant it will be close."
The Nationals conducted a survey last Thursday of 635 voters and found a slight decline in Ms McBain's primary vote, but she would still win on preferences.
The poll showed Nationals candidate Trevor Hicks, an engineer who lives at Captains Flat and is a former Queanbeyan-Palerang councillor, was on track to overtake the Greens and Shooters into third place with 11.5 per cent of the primary vote. (Labor had 29.3pc of the primary vote, Liberals 34.3pc).
The Nationals took just 6.95pc of the primary vote last year, so 11pc would be a good result for them.
Mr Hicks has found strong support for a Royal Commission into the dairy industry.
The survey found that 63pc supported his call for a Royal Commission.
"I'm fighting for a Royal Commission into the dairy industry and I'd cross the floor to deliver it," Mr Hicks said. "Saturday's outcome will be close and whatever the result I hope the communities of Eden - Monaro remain front and centre as we continue to battle drought and bush fire recovery."
The Liberals candidate Fiona Kotvojs, a scientist and former teacher, stands by her community links including as a volunteer firefighter, and Bega-born credentials. She lives in the more wealthy area of the electorate above Canberra. She would seem to have a moderate chance of winning, given by-election history, although a Sky News poll found she was right on the money with the Liberals sitting on 38pc and Labor on 31pc, enough for political reporter Andrew Clennell to declare the Morrison government was "right in this".
She gave these lines to The Land: "Travelling around the electorate, I've heard heart wrenching accounts of what people have been through. I've also been inspired by people's resilience. As we continue the recovery from bushfires, drought and coronavirus, Eden-Monaro needs a local voice working as part of the Government team to get things done."
But many in the area have been upset at the cuts to the ABC (250 jobs lost) this week, and also especially concerning regional coverage and emergency coverage, especially with Mr Morrison's retort that "there are no cuts".
It even sparked on Wednesday for Mr Barilaro to say denying the cuts "comes across more disingenuous". "I mean, be honest and upfront - say you have frozen the budget for whatever reason, because of budget pressures," he told Sky News. "Tell the truth and people actually respect you for it."
He has had words with Mrs Kotvojs too, having hit out her alleged derogatory comment on Mike Kelly in the 2019 federal election, when she referred to Kelly's defaced poster as showing he'll have a "close shave at the election" and would give him "the full cut at the next".
Barilaro replied at the time: "This post is a disgrace. Everyone that puts themselves forward does so at much personal and family sacrifice. Mike is no different. If this post reflects the measure of the individual that has posted it, well I'm glad then, that you did not get elected. I will not stay silent on this rubbish as I've endured my own crap. No wonder people have lost faith in politics. Wake up to yourself."
Barilaro has form on the Liberals. Once touted as a future Liberal himself in his early days, he launched a surprise attack on Malcolm Turnbull's leadership when he was Prime Minister calling for him to resign in 2017 after the Liberal-Nationals disastrous result in the Queensland state election.
He was also accused by one media outlet on Thursday of undermining the Liberals' campaign.
The irony (especially with Mr Morrison's perceived backroom deals over the Turnbull leadership crisis) in much of the Eden-Monaro campaign though is that almost all major candidates, Liberal, Labor Nationals, are holding onto the coattails of one of Turnbull's biggest political legacies - the Snowy 2.0 pumped hydro scheme. It is yet to be built, but it has been the source of party political boasting, from those who want a renewable future, and to those who want to create real jobs.
Massive drill bits are still being manufactured in Germany for the extremely complex engineering project. The bits will have to drill 27km of tunnels through complex geological strata, including a straight vertical fall of 500m down to an underground generation chamber. When completed, the genius of the scheme is that water can be pumped up and down on demand to create energy into the national grid when needed. It fits nicely into the energy mix of the future.
But not one rock has been drilled yet - but that won't stop politicians using it as a platform. It will be interesting to see how an anxious electorate responds to an uncertain era, and whom they think can carve out the best - and real - future for them.
journalist and author
journalist and author
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