Mike Kelly’s Labor preselection in Eden-Monaro may break bellwether habit

- First published in the Australian on 5 May 2015

Mike Kelly, the former Labor MP for Eden Monaro, has been preselected to run in the seat again at the next election. Eden-Monaro is a large, mostly rural NSW electorate. The whims and swings of the state with the most seats naturally has most influence on federal election outcomes, and so that’s where the “bellwether” seats — those that have a record of being won by whoever forms government — tend to be found.

Until recently, Macarthur on Sydney’s southwest fringe was the favoured “bellwether”. But in 2007 it remained with the Liberals while the nation went Labor.

Eden-Monaro is as old as federation, but it’s only since 1972 that it’s always picked the winning side. It’s not one of those big-swinging electorates like for example Lindsay (and Macarthur). It just contains a large cross section and sits around the middle of the pendulum. It tends, give or take, to swing at around the amount NSW does. Unless special factors, like personal votes, come into play.

Kelly was the successful 2007 candidate, defeating the sitting Liberal Gary Nairn. After that, like most new MPs, he developed a personal vote. That is, Eden-Monaro people got to know Mike: they might have seen him in the local paper, or perhaps in the flesh at a community function. He’s a former soldier — that’s usually a plus. Kelly has a nice guy image and a cheesy 1970s moustache.

As well, he was often on the evening news, sitting behind the prime minister in parliament, laughing and nodding at the right moments.

For the next election, in 2010, the Liberals preselected former senior staffer David Gazard. Whacko, journalists enthused, Gazard is a high-quality candidate; this contest should be interesting.

Gazard was and is no doubt a talented, hard-working, smart fellow, but unfortunately this meant little to Eden-Monaro voters because, as is routinely the case with challenging candidates, few had any idea who he was.

On election day, while the nation swung by 2.6 per cent to the Coalition, and NSW moved by 4.8, Kelly’s margin in Eden-Monaro increased (that is, swung to Labor) by 1.9 per cent.

This is one of those mundane little secrets buried beneath the colourful stories about elections: the identity, let alone “quality”, of non-sitting major-party candidates rarely makes much difference. It’s only afterwards, if they’re successful, that the supposed brilliance of their campaign is recognised. In reality most of the result has little to do with them, and more to do with national, state and regional movements.

This dynamic, of the creation of a personal vote after a new MP is elected, is sometimes called a “sophomore surge” (the term, obviously, comes from the United States).

It’s also worth noting that at the 2007 election the sitting Nairn had a personal vote. So his absence from the ballot paper in 2010 also assisted Kelly.

This can be called a “double sophomore surge”.

Back in 2010, Labor strategists naturally claimed credit for the fine performance in Eden-Monaro and other sophomore seats. Mate, they reckoned, our “sandbagging” did it. But if that were true you have to wonder why they didn’t apply those secret sauces across the country.

In 2013 Kelly was swept away with the anti-Labor tide — he only just lost — and his replacement was another former staffer (and Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry CEO) Peter Hendy.

Until this week’s news, we could have anticipated that at the next election in 2016 (or perhaps this year) Hendy would benefit from a “double sophomore surge” — from his own new recognition and the absence of Kelly’s personal vote.

But now we know that Labor will be taking a ready-made personal vote to the Eden-Monaro contest — and a substantial one. (By this measurement he retained a high personal vote in 2013 despite losing the seat.

Mumble tables: relative personal votes

So Hendy will only expect a single surge. (And perhaps a modest one because he was not given a “nodding” position behind the leader in parliament. This seems mostly reserved for brightly-clad females; Peter is a chap and a dour one at that.)

Does this mean Labor will probably win Eden-Monaro? No, you couldn’t go that far. But Kelly’s candidacy must be worth a per cent or two more than some other unknown Labor candidate. It’s bad news for Hendy.

The biggest driver of that seat’s result will, as always, be the major parties’ performances state-wise and federally. Hendy should still get that single surge.

There will also, assuming this parliament runs the full term, be a redistribution in NSW, which will affect Eden-Monaro.

But in 2013 Kelly’s popularity almost led the seat’s voters to break their four-decade “bellwether” habit.

If, as is likely, the Coalition government is re-elected with a reduced majority next time, there’s at least a decent chance it will be without Eden-Monaro.

Thanks to Mike Kelly’s personal vote.