Tumultuous 24-hours in state politics

Andrew Constance speaking to the media on Tuesday.

Just 24 hours after announcing that he would stand for pre-selection as a Liberal candidate for the Eden-Monaro by-election, Bega MP and Transport Minister Andrew Constance announced his withdrawal on Wednesday, adding to an already tumultuous week for state politics.

“I need to remain focused on the bushfire recovery and be grateful for the opportunities I already have,” he said on Wednesday, stating his reason for withdrawing.

“The community’s needs at this difficult time must be at the centre of the campaign.

“I appreciate people will be confused by my actions over the past couple of days, and for that I am sorry.

“I also have unfinished business as Transport and Roads Minister. I want to deliver crucial life-saving reforms in road safety and a safer, cleaner future in public transport.”

Mr Constance thanked Premier Gladys Berejiklian for her “incredible support” and said he will continue to lead the bushfire recovery in his community by working with her, Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons and recovery coordinators Dick Adams and Andrew Colvin.

“As Bega MP, I will be supporting the Liberal campaign and ask the people of Eden-Monaro to reflect on the benefits of having a member of the Federal Liberal Government,” he said.

Mr Constance announced in March this year that he would resign from politics once the bushfire recovery was complete.

“Recovery first, and then I will go,” he told the Sydney Morning Herald. “I’m not leaving until the recovery is complete. I’m not abandoning these poor people.”

His decision to first announce his eventual resignation, then pursue federal politics, and now continue to persist with his state electorate, has undeniably caused some confusion.

The sequence of events is at odds with comments Mr Constance made to 2GB in March, stating that “I’m going to do the recovery and then resign, because this changes you. It makes you realise politicians are spending too much energy on internal machinations and forget why they’re elected.”

A date for the by-election is yet to be set, with the Covid-19 pandemic expected to cause delays.

When Mr Constance announced his plans to run on Tuesday, he said he believed he had a good chance of winning due to his experience in state politics, with 17 years in the seat of Bega.

“People just want someone who can give it a go and I think I can bring something special given that state-wide experience,” he said.

During the bushfires of 2019-20, Mr Constance made headlines for telling the Prime Minister that he got “the welcome he probably deserved” following Scott Morrison’s frosty reception whilst visiting bushfire affected residents in Cobargo (within the Eden-Monaro electorate).

Mr Constance said on Tuesday that he shared “strong words” about the PM, but that Mr Morrison had personally apologised to him at the time.

“And he and I both share this incredible passion in how we can improve Eden-Monaro,” Mr Constance said on Tuesday. The key issues he said he would focus on was bushfire recovery, drought and Covid-19.

Mr Constance has spoken openly about his mental health struggles this year after almost losing his home in the fires and seeing the effect of them first-hand. During that time, he stepped down from his cabinet duties for a few weeks to focus on his community.

Also on Tuesday, text messages were leaked to the media revealing an explosive exchange in which NSW Nationals Leader John Barilaro blamed Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack for his decision not to contest the federal seat of Eden-Monaro at the upcoming by-election.

The text messages, obtained by Sky News Political Editor Andrew Clennell, show an emotional Mr Barilaro, who told Mr McCormack that “you will never be acknowledged by me as our leader. You aren’t. You never will be.”

Mr Barilaro told Mr McCormack that his lack of public enthusiasm or support for his candidacy went “a long way” to his final decision making.

“Don’t hide behind the ‘members chose the candidate’ rubbish, as you were the only one saying such lines,” Mr Barilaro wrote.

“To feel threatened by me clearly shows you have failed your team and failed as a leader.

“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.

“What did you risk? Nothing.

“Hope you are proud of yourself.”

Mr Barilaro had announced on Monday that he would not be running in the Eden-Monaro by-election, seemingly making way for Bega MP Andrew Constance to run. Mr Constance confirmed he would be running on Tuesday, before announcing his withdrawal just 24 hours later. Both politicians had expressed a desire to avoid a three-way cornered contest, saying they wouldn’t run if the other was going to.

Mr Barilaro’s accusations against Mr McCormack rattle an already unstable National Party, still reeling from Barnaby Joyce’s unsuccessful attempt to take leadership in February this year.

Speaking to Sky News, Mr McCormack said he had “never done anything but provide support” to Mr Barilaro.

“I have never done anything but provide support for John Barilaro…he’s been great for regional NSW,” Mr McCormack said.

“I gave him fulsome support. I still did say the local branches would have to endorse him. I have never given away the autonomy of local branches.”

Less than 24 hours before these text messages were leaked, Mr Barilaro had publicly said that “the last thing we need is an argy-bargy about what is right for that seat.”

“I’m comfortable being the Deputy Premier and the state leader [of the Nationals] and I’ve got a lot to contribute.”