After months of rumours, Dr Mike Kelly has made the “gut-wrenching” decision to stand down as the Member for Eden-Monaro, citing significant health issues that preclude him from doing the job.
Bega Valley Mayor Kristy McBain is understood to be considering standing for Labor in the seat, with ALP leader Anthony Albanese’s support.
Speaking this morning at Parliament House, Dr Kelly apologised to his electorate for distracting people during a national crisis. But he’s revealed that in the past few weeks, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs has classified him as permanently impaired.
Dr Kelly suffered renal damage from severe dehydration during military tours in Somalia, East Timor, Bosnia and Iraq and said today that he’s had 10 procedures in the past six months. This prevented him from being active around the electorate during the bushfire crisis that wracked the electorate last summer.
“We are coming to a time now where [COVID-19] restrictions are likely to be eased and it will be time for the member for Eden-Monaro to be back on the road again,” he said. With that came the realisation that he could not physically or mentally meet the challenge without letting down the community and Caucus.
“My great-grandfather ran for the seat in 1940 but missed out,” Dr Kelly said. “It was great to bring it home for the family.”
Dr Kelly said that no single electorate had suffered more in recent times than Eden-Monaro as more than a million hectares were burned, thousands of homes and livestock were lost, and lives taken in the natural disaster that came hot on the heels of devastating drought.
“End to end, top to bottom, we were devastated,” he said. “We need clear, thought out, imaginative policies to rebuild our economy.”
Skiing alone is worth $2 billion to the regional economy, Dr Kelly said, and apart from the destruction wrought during the summer, the area also faces a major challenge from climate change.
“Candidates and parties are going to have to get out there and accept the science and propose meaningful action. Right now we need a contest of ideas. It’s not about personalities but about what they stand for,” he said.
Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese thanked Dr Kelly and his family for their service and described him as a tenacious Member of Parliament who had always put his electorate first. He said Dr Kelly would continue to play an advisory role within the ALP, particularly with regard to defence matters.
Speculation has been rife that Member for Monaro John Barilaro will stand for Eden-Monaro, but he’s so far refused to make a call, citing his longstanding friendship with, and respect for, Dr Kelly.
“I have had the privilege to serve alongside Mike Kelly MP for years now,” he said today. “Over that time we have built a friendship. The people of Eden-Monaro are losing a wonderful local member and it is especially unfortunate it is due to Mike’s health. I wish him all the very best.”
But the resignation now means a vacancy exists and Mr Barilaro says he’ll take the weekend to consider the possibilities with his family.
There have also been suggestions that Andrew Constance, the neighbouring NSW Member for Bega might stand, along with Monaro-based NSW Senator Jim Molan. Mr Constance has refused to comment.
Senator Molan told Region Media earlier this week that his focus is on serving NSW as a senator and recognising that the needs of fire-affected people in Eden-Monaro are best represented in the Lower House.
Dr Kelly has held the traditional bellwether seat for the ALP for four out of the five elections since 2007. However, a 2015 redistribution made the seat notionally more conservative as coastal areas were reallocated in exchange for Yass and Tumut.
All sides are claiming underdog status in the forthcoming by-election.
Mr Albanese said it was “a no-brainer” that the Coalition starts as favourite in the seat. Prime Minister Scott Morrison also said today that it would be a once-in-a-100 year event for a government to pick up an Opposition seat at a by-election.
Former Liberal candidate Fiona Kotvojs has indicated that she’s interested in pre-selection and it’s not clear yet whether both Coalition partners would be comfortable with a three-cornered contest.
But the most interesting competition could come from the opposite side of the House: if Kristy McBain was preselected by Labor, she would have a strong start after gaining a national profile for her leadership during the bushfires.
Elected as Mayor in 2016, Cr McBain is locally born and raised and has a law degree from the University of Canberra. She is a senior associate with David Griffiths lawyers and is currently an unaligned member of Council.