A by-election is on in one of the nation’s most fascinating seats, Eden-Monaro, the electorate that surrounds the Australian Capital Territory and stretches down the New South Wales south coast to the Victorian border.
It is currently held for Labor by Mike Kelly, a former ADF Colonel with a PhD in law; a senior Australian military figure in the Iraq War who also served in Somalia, Bosnia and East Timor.
Late last year Kelly collapsed and was rushed to hospital with renal failure, a legacy of severe dehydration during his service abroad. Kelly’s military experience, knowledge of international affairs and strategic skills are well-respected on both sides of the house, as The Australian’s Greg Sheridan explained in an excellent piece earlier this week. He brings crucial balance to the ALP. His health, however, has forced him to announce his resignation from the parliament this morning.
And this is where the fun begins.
An even more senior military figure, Liberal Senator Jim Molan, a local, has flagged a run at the seat. Molan is a Spectator Australia reader and contributor so, as one member of the family to another, here’s my advice: “Don’t do it, mate”.
A Molan run at Eden-Monaro is problematic for two reasons. It puts his current important role in the Senate at stake and he will face a campaign like none he has ever seen — a campaign with no guarantee of victory.
Let’s look at the implications for the Senate first.
Getting into the upper house may have been Molan’s toughest ever fight. The unholy alliance of centre-right and sanctimonious limp-left Liberal opportunists — the people who put a miserable hack with no education beyond high school and no work experiences outside political staffing and a few short years in lobbying, Trent Zimmerman, into one of the bluest of blue-ribbon seats in the country, North Sydney — that control the NSW party have done their level best to keep someone of Molan’s calibre out of parliament.
He’s only made it by trial and error. Molan got lucky and filled the casual vacancy created by the resignation of the Nationals’ Fiona Nash over dual citizenship issues back in 2017, but the faction hacks denied him a winnable position on the NSW Coalition ticket ahead of last year’s election. He left the Senate — despite an astounding below the line vote in his support — only to strike it lucky again when Arthur Sinodinos departed to become Ambassador to the United States. He now has a Senate position for until 2022.
All this speaks volumes about Molan. It shows he’s his own man, independently-minded — and highly popular among Liberal Party members and voters who scorn the sleaze attached to the faction bosses.
It shows he is a natural Senator. The mixture of independence and his extraordinary experience makes him perfect for the house of review, where he can approach committee work — particularly the vital task of holding public service chiefs and heads of authorities such as the ABC or CSIRO in Senate estimates hearings — without fear or favour.
But it also, unfortunately, creates problems about running in Eden-Monaro.
From 1972 until the last election, Eden-Monaro has been the bellwether seat, changing hands with each change of government. 2016 was the exception, when Kelly took it back from one term MP and Turnbull plotter, Peter Hendy.
It’s a strange seat. It’s biggest centre is Queanbeyan, slap bang on the border of the ACT, effectively now a dormitory town for public servants and other Canberra workers who, ironically, would rather avoid the pissantry that goes with living in the Territory. It includes a string of towns down the NSW south coast and its hinterland that are effectively retirement villages for former pen pushers and members of the Press Gallery. It has tribes of dropout feral Greens who live in the coastal escarpment forests and on old dairy farms and grow their own, well, everything.
The vast expanse of the seat is dedicated to farming and logging, but the Labor/Green centres are big enough to give the electorate its bellwether status.
Molan has been independently minded on climate change, rather than adopting the official position of the Canberra bubble. It was used against him ruthlessly on the first Q&A of the year. He explained his position in these pages, but it will be used against him just as unfairly if he runs in Eden-Monaro. Greens leader Adam Bandt has already attacked him as a war criminal over Iraq. He was forced to withdraw, but imagine the left’s climate hyperbole if Molan is a by-election candidate.
NSW Nationals Leader John Barilaro, a local MP, wants a go at the seat, as apparently also does state Transport Minister Andrew Constance, the Liberal Member for Bega, who received enormous coverage during the fires and in their aftermath by speaking about the experience and acting as an advocate for an appropriate and effective recovery effort.
Constance has said previously he will leave politics when the bushfire relief effort is completed. Yesterday, he was hedging his bets.
And here we face the cruel realities of politics. Molan is the better candidate, but Constance is probably more electable in the wake of the fires. He is better equipped to neutralise the climate claims and concentrate on the shared suffering and importance of the recovery processes. His blunders as Transport Minister have hit Greater Sydney, but despite how Labor might try to use them in any Eden-Monaro campaign, they’ll be of little relevance to the locals.
Also, if Molan runs, he will have to resign from the Senate. For good. He will have to be replaced, otherwise Labor will say he’s not a fair dinkum candidate, that he’s not giving his all.
The Coalition needs to win Eden-Monaro, and not just to shore up its still narrow majority in the House.
Labor leader Anthony Albanese is under enormous pressure from his own side. Many think he’s a dud. The Instagram message below of a lockdown social media Q&A with Member for Perth, Patrick Gorman, produced mocking messages from Labor supporters over his failure to fix his camera angle.
If Labor loses the by-election, the leadership will become an issue — with all the echoes of the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd debacle, amplified by speculation over a Bill Shorten comeback.
The Liberals will need to think very carefully, as will Molan.
By a mixture of luck, grit and determination, he has made it into the Senate.
He should stay there. He has too important a role to play, for the party, the people and the parliament.
There’s no guarantee of victory for the Coalition in the seat. Sure, Scott Morrison might be soaring in the polls, but the two party preferred vote is tight — and that’s before we get to the bushfire politics in Eden-Monaro and the doubtlessly weird ways they will play out.
Even if — there’s always an even if — Molan were to run and win, he would have to spend his time on the ground, on the road, looking after the bread and butter issues of constituents; the lot of marginal MPs. He will not have the freedom to use his experience and expertise in national debates as he does now.
Eden-Monaro is one battle the old soldier should avoid.
Instead, the NSW Liberals — if they have half a brain — should guarantee Molan has a winning position on the Senate ticket for 2022.
Illustrations: Sky News Australia/Instagram.
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