Meet the Liberal Party’s candidate for the key by-election of Eden Monaro: Fiona Kotvojs lives on a solar-powered, off-grid south coast property, and has raised controversy by suggesting the people of Tuvalu are more likely to be killed off by diabetes than rising sea levels.
Climate change and renewable energy are set to be central issues in the Eden-Monaro by-election, now scheduled for the first weekend in July. It will be the first electoral test of the Morrison leadership that floundered in response to a bushfire crisis, but sought to redeem itself in response to Covid-19 that have both impacted the electorate.
Eden-Monaro captures a diverse snapshot of the Australian community; it reaches from the township of Queanbeyan that neighbours Canberra, to the rural Monaro plains and east to the communities that run along New South Wales’ south coast.
While it initially appeared like the by-election was set to be a battle of high profile candidates parachuted into the electorate from the State parliament, the by-election as settled as a battle between two locals; former Bega Mayor Kirsty McBain as the Labor candidate, and previous Eden-Monaro candidate Dr Kotvojs representing the Liberals.
Kotvojs narrowly missed out on taking the seat the 2019 federal election, losing out to Mike Kelly by a margin of just 1.7 per cent.
Climate change will remain a present issue after much of the electorate was impacted by severe bushfires over the last summer. Many communities throughout Eden-Monaro are still trying to recover from lost homes, businesses and farmlands.
Recovery in some parts of the region has been painfully slow, with townships like Cobargo, only recently commencing clean up works, months after being devastated by bushfires at the beginning of the year.
On paper, Dr Kotvojs appears to have the credentials of a moderate candidate for the Liberal Party in the by-election.
Dr Kotvojs, who has a doctorate in education and has served on the board of Oxfam Australia since 2012, having specialised in the field of international development and foreign aid programs, has a home near Narooma that she says runs completely off-grid with solar power.
In fact, Kotvoj’s energy-efficient home has featured as part of Sustainable House Days, due to its solar installation and self-dependency for water supplies.
But Kotvojs has shown indications that she may harbour regressive views on climate change, that could see Kotvojs more aligned with some of the Liberal party’s more regressive backbench members.
Kotvojs once wrote an opinion piece published in the Australian Financial Review that downplayed the seriousness of the threat of climate change to Pacific Island countries, by saying “the population of Tuvalu will be destroyed by diabetes long before the island is drowned by a rising sea level.”
The Liberal Party candidate has also repeated some of the attack lines of prominent deniers such as Craig Kelly and Andrew Bolt, by pointing to data they claim shows that small-island states like Tuvalu are growing and that there is no real threat to the island communities due to sea-level rise caused by climate change.
“We are told that climate change will lead to countries such as Tuvalu, Kiribati and Tokelau drowning under a rising ocean. But the reality is that research consistently shows that the land area in these countries has increased over the past 40 years,” Kotvojs wrote.
Seemingly aware of the likely perceptions of her past comments on climate change, Kotvojs stressed the importance of the Morrison government’s climate policies during one of her first campaign events.
“I believe that the climate is changing, I believe that humans contribute to that change in climate and I believe that we need to have a reduction in emissions,” Kotvojs told a press conference in Murrumbateman.
The Liberal candidate did, however, appear to stir arguments about the role of hazard reduction burning on the severity of the summer bushfires. Kotvojs’ own property was impacted.
“The difference in areas where the fuel had been managed and the national parks and state forest had done hazard reduction burns – I know that in those sections around our property, the fire came through with far less intensity, it was much easier to manage,” Kotvojs added.
Kotvojs will compete with former Bega Mayor Kristy McBain, who grew up in the electorate and has been a member of the Bega Valley council since 2012, before becoming mayor in 2016.
While mayor, McBain led the involvement of the Bega Valley council as a founding member of the Climate Council’s Cities Power Partnership, which works to facilitate co-operation and knowledge sharing between local councils on measures to reduce emissions and support investment in renewables.
Last year, McBain oversaw a formal declaration of a climate change emergency made by the Bega Valley Council.
“Climate change goes beyond partisan politics or state and federal responses. It is critical to mobilise all levels of government in order to inspire change and coordinated policies,” McBain said at the time.
The development of renewable energy resources and energy storage projects is set to be a central issue in the Eden-Monaro by-election, with the federal government’s planned massive expansion to the Snowy Hydro scheme recently receiving planning approval from the NSW government.
The massive, almost $5 billion, project is set to provide a massive boost for many communities within the Eden-Monaro electorate. The NSW government is hoping the fast-tracked Snowy 2.0 project will deliver more than 2,000 extra jobs into the region over the multi-year construction timeline.
Conventional wisdom would suggest Labor is in prime position to retain Eden Monaro, with history showing that it is very rare for governments to pick up seats from oppositions at federal by-elections.
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