There’s rarely been a dull moment in Eden-Monaro

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“Yesterdays” columnist NICHOLE OVERALL looks back on the colourful history of the federal seat of Eden-Monaro, the subject of a July 4 by-election.

“It’s the most exciting election since 1929 …”–”Don’s Party”.

FROM the setting for the 1976 world premiere “Don’s Party”, the provocative Australian film on disillusionment in life and politics, to accusations of “the dead voting”, the federal seat of Eden-Monaro has rarely had a dull moment in its 119-year history.

Nichole Overall.

In the lead up to its second by-election since its 1901 creation (the 159th nationally over that period), taking place on July 4, there’s been in-fighting, record breaking and as many visits from pollies as in a non-socially-distanced world. All ensuring the country’s 16th physically largest electorate (of 151) remains one to watch for a smorgasbord of reasons.

Outdoing the 2001 record of 10 candidates, 14 want-to-be politicians, with addresses from Bega to Bredbo, have decided to give it a crack. Not to mention those who didn’t make the cut – including one perennial independent who apparently missed the close of nominations, as well as the withdrawal of certain State members who’d looked at jumping the Federal fence. 

In addition, the Nats alone had four willing to try their hand for pre-selection.

Why all the sudden interest?

As it stands, the seat has garnered attention from the get-go.

One of the original 75 “Federation Divisions”, it’s seen everything from uncontested elections, mammothly long-serving members and lots of talk about its “bellwether” values… let alone winning margins that are frequently by skin-of-teeth. 

E-M has gone to Labor in 22 elections and the Liberals nine, though until 1943 it went the way of “conservatively-aligned” parties (Protectionists, Nationalists, etcetera) on 16 occasions.

It’s had just 11 different members to date.

Another record for this outing is the six female candidates (previous high of four in 1996). Given both major parties have women running, in all likelihood the electorate will have its first female member of parliament. 

And so, to E-M’s quirkier history: on November 10, 44 years ago, at the Nova Cinema in the voting heart, Queanbeyan, the curtain and eyebrows were raised with the first screening of Bruce Beresford’s adaptation of David Williamson’s 1971 play, “Don’s Party”. (The commercial opening of the provocateur Phillip Adams-produced piece took place at Center Cinema in Canberra a week later).

It’s based around the actual ‘69 federal election in which a resurgent Labor Party, after two decades of voter aversion, is all but the victor – until it’s not. The Canberra Tally Room rolls out the count as celebrations turn to misery, and Eden-Monaro is repeatedly mentioned. 

When John Gorton’s Coalition snuck through with a wafer-thin majority against Gough Whitlam’s Labor, E-M had not yet officially turned “bellwether”. Rather than voting in as its representative a member of the party that took government, it reinstalled previous long-serving Laborite, Allan Fraser. 

First elected in 1943, Fraser prevailed for the ALP through seven Federal elections when the Liberal Party was at the helm (from 1949). 

He’d be defeated after 23 years by Lib Dugald Munro when the conservatives secured the then largest majority in Australian political history. Only the second ALP member to hold it, Fraser outdid the seat’s inaugural member, Sir Austin Chapman (25 years), for longevity after taking it back in 1969.

Standing down at the 1972 election (two years later he’d cross the border and become the Member for Fraser in the ACT), at this juncture Eden-Monaro earned further prominence as the nation’s primary political barometer.

In the olden days, a bell round the neck of a castrated ram (a wether) let the shepherd know what his flock was up to.

Politically, a “bellwether” tolls the way an electorate is leaning, indicating an overall trend.

In the 2010 campaign, Tony Abbott declared, “We cannot win the election unless we win Eden-Monaro”. The Coalition failed to do both.

The election of 2016 saw E-M lose its record status for going with the elected government to Roberston (since 1983). Nor did it return to form in 2019.

With even the experts apparently unable to get a handle on it, are all the mixed signals indicative of something more widespread?

In the current circumstances, COVID-19 and harrowing bushfires mean voter focus may not be on their multiple choices. Tough going for candidates too, with no real chance to get out “on the hustings” to sell themselves.

So, will the status quo hold or will an independent be able to outdo Jim Collins’ 10.4 per cent of 1990? Do the Nationals have any hope of again reaching double figures, something not done since Peter Cochran’s 16.4 per cent in 1987 (the Nat became Member for Monaro a year later). 

Oh, and that “dead voting” thing? 

At the only other E-M by-election in 1926, on the death of former Braidwood publican, Sir Austin, the Tumut-born, one-time Mayor of Cooma, John Perkins, retained the seat for the Nationalist Party, and again two years later. 

In 1929, a return to the polls following a no-confidence vote in the Nationalist-Country government saw Perkins outdone 49.9 per cent to 50.1 per cent by Labor’s John Cusack (father of Stan Cusack, of Canberra furniture renown). 

Controversy erupted with claims that 49 of Perkins’ votes were credited to Cusack and that names of residents from Canberra and Moss Vale appeared on the Queanbeyan rolls. Even more sensationally, that some had voted although they were in fact, dead.

Unsuccessful in the High Court, Perkins was returned in 1931. He’d lose to an ascendant Allan Fraser a dozen years later.

Ultimately then, as well as being one of the country’s most colourful electorates, the unpredictability of Eden-Monaro makes it eminently watchable – even for those not partial to such machinations.

I have my popcorn at the ready for election night.

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Nichole Overall
Nichole Overall is a Queanbeyan-based journalist, author and social historian.

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