MUNGO MACCALLUM. Eden-Monaro: For whom the bellwether chimes ring

A three cornered contest, they warned us – messy and unpredictable. But what did they know? The fiasco of the Eden-Monaro by-election already has at least seven corners, and counting.

The only apex approaching stability appears to be Labor’s Kristy McBain, a prominent local who has remained a constant candidate for more than a fortnight. Her opponents will presumably also be locals, since the stars of Macquarie Street have cut and run with almost indecent haste.

The NSW Nationals leader, John Barilaro, apparently decided it was all too difficult and defied the travel bans to retire to his country mansion for a weekend of rest and recreation. And he slammed his federal counterpart, Michael McCormack for not supporting him, which was silly and also for being a failure and a wimp, which was not.

And in the process  Barilaro gave his friend and colleague, the Liberal Transport Minister Andrew Constance a hefty backhander, which so spooked the sensitive Constance that he too pulled the pin, for which he was penalised by losing his job as leader of the Legislative Assembly

Constance was already on the nose with his own federal leader, Scott Morrison, whom he had sideswiped over ScoMo’s blundering over the bushfires in the electorate and was probably warned that he would have a seriously limited future in Canberra if he ever got there. The friction between Scott Morrison’s home state and his national administration remains unabated.

But both coalition parties insist that they will, somehow, sometime, locate viable candidates and leave the four cornered brawl between the big boys to resolve itself – or not.

In the meantime the darling of the hard right, the bellicose fundamentalist Jim Molan, also announced his non-appearance in the contest, citing health reasons. At least he didn’t blame any of his colleagues – not yet, anyway.

Obviously this exercise in self-indulgent bickering is  seen as a free kick for Labor and its leader Anthony Albanese, who needs a highly marginal by-election at a time of Morrison’s sudden rise in popularity like he needs a positive COVID test.

But in fact it may make things harder for the opposition. History should, on paper, make a coalition win most unlikely, and now it will be regarded as another of Morison’s miracles if he can pull it off – and thus a disaster for Albanese, who has everything to lose.

He can and will exploit the coalition’s wobbly heptagon of competing disloyalties as far as possible, while concentrating on local issues – particularly the aftermath of the bushfires, still a source of resentment in the area.

But he must have been wishing that the deranged suggestion  that Tony Abbott should be resurrected and parachuted into the south coast could have become more than a fantasy. Yet another corner in the shit fight would have provided a punchline worthy of the Three (no, the Eight) Stooges, as well as producing a pleasing symmetry.

However, the current imbroglio shows that however COVID-19 ends up, it will not be the new bipartisan consensus politics some wishful thinkers were hoping.  Eden-Monaro is traditionally described as a bellwether seat, an electorate which leads and mirrors the political mood of he country.

But a bellwether is in fact the treacherous sheep who leads its trusting flock to the abattoir for slaughter. And the bellwether’s chimes are ringing long and loud this week.

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Mungo MacCallum is a veteran political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy.

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