SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison will on Saturday vie to secure a 100-year first by winning a seat from the opposition at a by-election, a contest that will test how well voters believe his government has handled the dual crises of catastrophic summer bushfires and COVID-19 pandemic.
The sprawling Eden-Monaro electorate on the south coast of New South Wales state was one of the worst hit by fires and some locals jeered Morrison over his handling of the deadly event when he visited the devastation.
The conservative leader was widely criticised for taking his family on holiday to Hawaii as fires raged across the country.
Political polls soon rebounded, however, with Morrison lauded for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic that has seen Australia record about 8,000 infections and 104 deaths – well below other countries.
“By rights, the opposition Labor party should win the seat – but he has turned his standing around dramatically since the bushfires,” said John Hewson, a former leader of the Liberal Party now headed by Morrison.
“If the Liberals win, then coronavirus has changed the landscape.”
Voters in Eden-Monaro – about 478 km (297 miles) south of Sydney – are voting to elect a new parliamentary member after the retirement of an opposition Labor lawmaker due to ill-health. Election campaigns in Eden-Monaro are historically tightly-fought contests.
While a victory for the Liberal candidate, Fiona Kotvojs, won’t change the balance of power in the national parliament, it would be a boon for Morrison, given voters usually lodge protest votes against the sitting government in by-elections.
The last time the opposition lost a by-election to a government candidate was in 1920, in the West Australia state goldfields electorate of Kalgoorlie.
Haydon Manning, a political science specialist at Flinders University in South Australia, said a victory for the Liberal candidate would provide strong momentum ahead of a tricky period ahead navigating an economic recovery out of the pandemic.
The next federal election is due by mid-2022.
(Reporting by Colin Packham; Editing by Michael Perry)