After a brutal few weeks of electoral brawling that captured the attention of the nation, Eden-Monaro Liberal Party branches have chosen Dr Fiona Kotvojs as their candidate for the upcoming by-election.
While the ALP pre-selected former Bega Valley mayor Kristy McBain weeks ago, the unseemly stoush between NSW Deputy Premier and National Party leader John Barilaro and Member for Bega Andrew Constance had delayed the process for the Liberals, who have always held the seat when it wasn’t in Labor’s grasp.
The showdown came hot on the heels of a similar debacle in the neighbouring seat of Gilmore in the last Federal election, where former ALP national president Warren Mundine was parachuted into the seat as a Liberal “captain’s pick” just weeks before the vote after local candidate Grant Schultz was disendorsed.
That move caused considerable anger among Liberal Party faithful along the coast and it was perhaps also with this in mind that Liberal pre-selection was postponed for Eden-Monaro following the spectacular falling out between Mr Constance and his Nationals colleague, Mr Barilaro.
Instead, local Party members took part in an electronic preselection vote to determine the outcome of the contest between remaining candidates including Dr Kotvojs and Queanbeyan Palerang Councillor Mark Schweikert. Party members were able to question the preselection candidates and had 24 hours to vote.
Region Media understands that Dr Kotvojs has won preselection comfortably, after having been the 2019 Liberal candidate for Eden-Monaro less than a year ago when she cut former MP Dr Mike Kelly’s margin in half.
At the time of the public spat between Mr Barilaro and Mr Constance, there was quiet speculation that Dr Kotvojs had already sewn up the support she needed among local branches, meaning that despite Mr Constance’s profile, he would not necessarily have won pre-selection in any case.
Dr Kotvojs is an Oxfam Australia board member, a former teacher, coastal geomorphologist, beef farmer, small businesswoman, volunteer firefighter and Anglican Church Property Trustee. She lives at Dignams Creek and has made no public comment about her former high profile rivals.
The Liberals have claimed underdog status for the by-election after an Australia Institute poll of almost 1000 Eden-Monaro residents last week found that Labor was ahead 51.1 per cent to 48.9 per cent on a two-party preferred basis, based on preference flows at the 2019 election. Voters nominated the economy as their biggest issue.
The Federal Liberal Party has consistently reminded voters that it is extremely rare for a government to win a seat from the Opposition at a by-election. The present campaign was triggered when the well respected and longtime member for Eden-Monaro Dr Mike Kelly announced his retirement on April 30.
Dr Kelly had a strong personal vote in the electorate, which stretches from the coast around Canberra and the Liberals will be hoping that Dr Kotvojs can rely on similar skills to take on Kristy McBain, who also shot to national prominence for her community leadership during the bushfire crisis.
No date for the by-election has yet been announced by the Speaker, but a vote late in June or early in July seems likely.