• NSW Rural Fire Service crews appear barely distinguishable amid haze after extinguishing a fire that crossed the Monaro Highway, four km north of Bredbo. (AAP)Source: AAP
Following a nightmarish summer of bushfires, flash flooding and the affects of the coronavirus pandemic, the residents in the southern NSW federal division of Eden-Monaro are about to get a clearer indication of the candidates to contest a by-election for the seat.
Shahni Wellington

22 May 2020 - 12:38 PM  UPDATED 22 May 2020 - 12:43 PM

The electoral division of Eden-Monaro is made up of many diverse communities, stretching from the Victorian border, across the mountains that surround the ACT, and down the east coast.

Parts of the electorate have made it through the Currowan bushfire, a 300,000-hectare inferno that began savaging the south coast in December last year, while others like Cobargo in the Bega Valley or the Dunns Road fire in the Tumut region watched flames engulf their towns.

All have dealt with the catastrophic aftermath of the bushfires and more recently the economically crippling impact of the lockdowns designed to prevent an outbreak of COVID-19 in the the region.

Now the federal division faces a by-election, triggered by the resignation of Labor MP, Mike Kelly, earlier this year due to health issues. The shuffling of potential candidates for the seat that has unfolded in the months since has many Indigenous communities concerned about the quality of representation for their interests. 

"We need leadership and we need it now"

Dr Mike Kelly was a long-serving Labor politician who twice represented the Eden-Monaro electorate, first beginning back in 2007.

His departure was triggered by an on-going battle with renal failure after under-going 10 medical procedures in the last six months.

Over his time in the seat, Dr Kelly garnered the support of Bega local and Yuin man, Martin Hodgson.

While Labor was quick to endorse a replacement candidate in Bega mayor, Kristy McBrian, the public is yet to know who she will be running against.

A date for the by-election hasn't been finalised either, and it's this ongoing uncertainty that Martin Hodgson believes has taken a toll on the Eden-Monaro communities.

"We've come through a really bad drought, we've had the fires which has devastated the community," Mr Hodgson recently told NITV News.

"Many people in the community and Aboriginal Elders are still living in tents and caravans and that makes social distancing and isolation at home very difficult, and to lose the continuity of what's been put in place to address all these issues with a by-election - It just adds another obstacle to people overcoming everything we've been through.

"The overwhelming feeling is that we need leadership and we need it now." 

According to Mr Hodgson, Mr Kelly's replacement needs to prioritise mental health services following the string of hardships in the area.

He said not a lot has changed for the Eden-Monaro community in the last five months and that time is of the essence. 

"Understandably, a lot of that has to do with state government and won’t relate to this by-election, generally… But we need that strong advocate in position straight away. 

"Someone who can really pick up where Mike (Kelly) has left off and start advocating both in Sydney with the New South Wales government and in Canberra, because there's a lot of people doing it really tough and they're not in a position to advocate for themselves," Mr Hodgson said. 

Eden Monaro hot seat

The contest for Eden-Monaro has seemed more of a circus than a foot race.

The Liberal party forfeited their nomination of a pre-selection candidate after missing the deadline.

New South Wales Deputy Premier and National's MP, John Barliaro, gave indications that he would make a tilt at federal politics, before announcing he would not be running for Eden-Monaro.

It was closely followed a day later by NSW Transport Minister and state Member for Bega, Andrew Constance, announcing he would contest the by-election for the Liberals, before dramatically back-flipping 24 hours later.

In his statement, he said: "I need to remain focused on the bushfire recovery and be grateful for the opportunities I already have.

"I appreciate people will be confused by my actions over the past couple of days, and for that I am sorry," Mr Constance said.

A public feud played out between Barilaro and Constance, with allegations of "smearing" between the colleagues.

Their withdrawals paved the way for local conservative, Fiona Kotvojs, who narrowly lost to Dr Mike Kelly by 0.9 per cent at last year's election.

Liberal preselection will be on the 22-23 of May between Ms Kotvojs and Mark Schweikert, a Queanbeyan–Palerang councillor and director in the Department of Defence.

If the Liberal party were to win Eden-Monaro, it would become the first federal government in 100 years to win a seat off the opposition at a by-election.

Whispers of re-runs

Under parliamentary rules, there is no time limit for a by-election to be held, and with this infinite window comes infinite rumours of possible candidates.

Throughout the ups and downs since Mike Kelly's resignation, there has been a few names floated by rival parties to contest the seat.

For the Liberal party, the former PM and ‘Special Envoy to Aboriginal Affairs’, Tony Abbott, was rumoured to be throwing a high-vis vest into the ring, after having lost his long-held seat of Warringah to Independent, Zali Steggall, in May last year.

Mr Abbott's office shut down the rumour, labelling it “badly informed mischief-making”.

Warren Mundine, who also failed in his tilt to become the Liberal member for Gilmore after being personally recruited to the seat by the current Prime Minister, was also bounced as a potential running candidate.

Then there was Liberal Senator Jim Molan, who chaperoned a group of women that consisted of some members of the Wallaga Lakes Aboriginal community on a visit to Parliament House in February.

This weekend the field will become much clearer when the Liberal Party faithful go online to finally cast their vote and determine the candidate to run against Ms McBain.

Amidst the conjecture, the residents in towns like Batlow, Bungendore, Narooma and Yass, continue to go about their days.