Labor has pulled in front at the close of the count in the Eden-Monaro byelection on Saturday night – but the contest remains tight, with postal votes still to tally.
While senior Labor sources expressed confidence that Kristy McBain would get across the line, and the ABC’s respected election analyst Antony Green predicted a likely Labor win after a five week campaign conducted in the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic, the count remained in progress.
McBain led the Liberal party’s Fiona Kotvojs late on Saturday night. The projected two-candidate-preferred count had McBain in front 50.65% to Kotvojs on 49.35%.
Results varied across the electorate. Voters in the bushfire-ravaged and Covid-depressed regions of the New South Wales south coast swung to Labor both on polling day and in pre-poll, but the Liberals performed more strongly in regions in the Snowy Mountains.
Labor’s primary vote was down on the result at the last federal election, but the opposition enjoyed a significantly stronger preference flow in the byelection triggered by the retirement of the popular incumbent, Mike Kelly, than in 2019 – including a leakage of preferences from the National party.
Labor are now the favourites, but neither side has yet claimed victory or conceded defeat. In an environment where Scott Morrison is enjoying a national approval rating north of 60%, the Liberal party’s primary vote was up by 1% on the last federal election, and the National party’s primary vote was down 0.4%.
The Greens vote was down almost 3%, but the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers party picked up more than 5% of the vote in the seat.
Strategists had hoped that a surge of resources from the Australian Electoral Commission would accelerate the count and yield a clear result on the night. But the huge number of pre-poll and postal votes slowed the work, meaning the final tally could take a couple of days to establish.
The swings in the pre-poll votes counted on Saturday night were variable, with positive swings to the ALP in Merimbula and Yass and to the Liberals in Cooma and Jindabyne.
The Liberals led the count in postal votes processed by AEC officials, with Kotvojs ahead on 2,464 to McBain’s 2,394. That result is an improvement for Labor on the last federal election.
Addressing Labor supporters on the south coast just before 11pm, the Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, said the result remained too close to call, but he noted that at the time he spoke McBain was more than 2,500 votes in front. “I would much rather be Kristy McBain than one of her opponents right now,” Albanese said.
“I said when Mike Kelly resigned that it would be tough for Labor to hold this seat. But we made a commitment at that point in time that we would stand up during this campaign, as the Australian Labor party always will, for the people who are left behind.”
McBain thanked locals for their support. “To all those people in Eden-Monaro, all the people struggling, to small businesses, tourism and hospitality providers, forestry workers, our farmers, those people that have been impacted by this fire – thank you for allowing us to share your stories and shine a spotlight on what matters most, and that is people.
“The lesson we have learnt from the black summer bushfires is that leadership matters,” she said. “It matters when you show up and it matters that you listen to people.”
Kotvojs told supporters in Queanbeyan it had been 100 years since the government had won a seat from the opposition in a byelection, and the average swing against incumbent governments during byelections had been 3.8%, and “so far, we are going the other way”.
“I’m still running,” the Liberal candidate said. “To whoever ends up being the successful member, the successful candidate to become the member, I would like to offer them my best.”
The Liberal candidate said 2020 had been an incredibly tough year, and there were “a tough couple of years coming ahead”.
“Recovering from the fires is going to be tough. It is hard, and unless you have been through it, I don’t think anybody knows how hard it is. It’s going to be tough after Covid-19.”
She said it was important in times like this that a government provided leadership, direction and a base of support. “But the other thing that is essential is a community that loves, cares and respects each other – a community that supports each other, a community that uses that base, and makes it grow.”