Eden-Monaro contest lifts lid on Coalition infighting
The score is playground politics one, people of Eden-Monaro nil. Today’s shock withdrawal of NSW Liberal transport minister Andrew Constance from the upcoming byelection has come less than 24 hours after the way was cleared for him by his Nationals colleague NSW deputy premier John Barilaro. At a press conference on the South Coast this afternoon, Constance explained he withdrew after colourful smears against him appeared on the front page of this morning’s Daily Telegraph, including Barilaro calling him a “c***” for forcing a three-cornered contest in the ultra-marginal electorate vacated by retiring Opposition backbencher Mike Kelly. “I woke up this morning and I said to Jen, ‘Bugger this for a joke! Why would I sit here for the next five weeks defending that type of front page?’ You can’t.” Constance was flattered to be compared with rugby league great Mal Meninga, whose political career ended at his first press conference. “Mal’s a champion, so I’m happy for that comparison,” said Constance. “I love him.” At a time of crisis and unusual national unity, the Coalition candidates at state and federal levels have formed a circular firing squad – boosting Labor’s prospect of retaining the seat – and they have wounded their leaders as well. So far, the priorities of the people of Eden-Monaro have barely rated a mention.
NSW Nationals leader Barilaro must take responsibility for much of the damage done to the Coalition. After deciding to pull out on Monday, his texts to federal Nationals leader Michael McCormack were leaked to Sky News and reported this morning. Barilaro had been touted as a potential challenger to McCormack, who is so lacklustre as leader that not even his supporters expect him to survive, as I reported in an essay on the junior Coalition partner’s centenary for TheMonthly in April. Barilaro texted McCormack: “To feel threatened by me clearly shows you have failed your team and failed as a leader. You will never be acknowledged by me as our leader. You aren’t. You never will be. The Nats had a chance to create history, to change momentum, and you had a candidate that was prepared to risk everything to make it happen.” He was backed up in this morning’s Australian[$] by David Gillespie, the member for Lyne and a supporter of former leader Barnaby Joyce, who challenged McCormack in February and who is not happy on the backbench. Barilaro, who followed up the leaked texts with his reported comments against Constance, had a chance to come up the middle between McCormack and Joyce – as a leader who would take the Nats’ fight up to the Libs – but he is now left in limbo and there are worries about his state of mind. If it is true that McCormack has baulked at the chance of strengthening the Nationals arm against the Liberals by contesting Eden-Monaro in order to prop up his own leadership, it will hurt his standing within his own party.
Also playing into Constance’s shock decision to withdraw is fallout from criticism he made of the prime minister over the summer, when he said Scott Morrison probably got the welcome he deserved in fire-struck Cobargo, where residents would not shake his hand. The PM was reportedly underwhelmed at the prospect of Constance joining the Liberals in Canberra. And, after all, it is less than two months since Constance, who almost lost his Malua Bay home on the south coast in the New Year’s Eve fires, declared he would quit politics altogether once the bushfire recovery was complete. He reiterated today that he will not contest the next state election in 2023. Constance confirmed that he would remain as state member for Bega and tend to “unfinished business” as minister for transport and roads. “I need to remain focused on the bushfire recovery and be grateful for the opportunities I already have,” Constance said, adding, “I appreciate people will be confused by my actions over the past couple of days, and for that I am sorry.”
Labor is making hay. A date for the byelection has not been set but the ALP’s candidate, Bega Valley mayor Kristy McBain, is the clear favourite right now – Betfair had Labor priced at $1.05 to win in Eden-Monaro, versus the Coalition at $1.52. Retaining the seat would only confirm the status quo, and so could hardly be claimed as a big win for the Opposition. Still, a loss would bring Anthony Albanese’s leadership into question, so he will campaign hard for McBain. Today he gleefully tweeted footage from the ABC’s Q&A in February, when she challenged Liberal senator Jim Molan over the Coalition’s complacency about the bushfires. Molan, who lives in Queanbeyan and was a mooted Liberal candidate but has his own health issues, confirmed today he would not run.
So it’s not just Nats vs Libs, it’s Nats vs Nats and Libs vs Libs, both in NSW and federally. McCormack and Barilaro are both damaged leaders, and Morrison and Berejiklian are seen to be running divided governments with senior members who hate each other. Shadow health minister Chris Bowen made easy yards ripping into them at a doorstop today. “When John Barilaro was sending abusive text messages to Michael McCormack, he wasn’t saying … you need to stand up for the people of Eden-Monaro. It was about their own petty internal squabbling, at war with themselves and not at war to try and get a better deal for the people of Eden-Monaro.”
Standing on the beach in his own electorate today, Constance said that “Politics is stuffed in this country.” And on that point, at least, he was right.
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Paddy Manning is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly and has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is the author of Body Count: How Climate Change Is Killing Us, Inside the Greens and Born To Rule: The Unauthorised Biography of Malcolm Turnbull.
The score is playground politics one, people of Eden-Monaro nil. Today’s shock withdrawal of NSW Liberal transport minister Andrew Constance from the upcoming byelection has come less than 24 hours after the way was cleared for him by his Nationals colleague NSW deputy premier John Barilaro. At a press conference on the South Coast this afternoon, Constance explained he withdrew after colourful smears against him appeared on the front page of this morning’s Daily Telegraph, including Barilaro calling him a “c***” for forcing a three-cornered contest in the ultra-marginal electorate vacated by retiring Opposition backbencher Mike Kelly. “I woke up this morning and I said to Jen, ‘Bugger this for a joke! Why would I sit here for the next five weeks defending that type of front page?’ You can’t.” Constance was flattered to be compared with rugby league great Mal Meninga,...
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