NSW Liberal minister Andrew Constance says he pulled out of the Eden-Monaro preselection battle because a Sydney newspaper reported on its front page that Deputy Premier John Barilaro had used a crude smear to describe him to colleagues.
Mr Constance unexpectedly announced his withdrawal from the contest on Wednesday morning, just 24 hours after he’d put his hand up.
“I read the paper this morning and thought ‘Nah stuff that’,” Mr Constance told the ABC on the South Coast.
“I hadn’t signed up to contest federally to be called that kind of smear.
“That kind of white-anting doesn’t just stop with that page it goes on and on.”
The Daily Telegraph ran images of Mr Constance and Mr Barilaro on its front page on Wednesday with the phrase: “C#?! He called him what?”
Mr Constance said the spat was “disappointing” and “humiliating” but he forgave the Deputy Premier and they remained mates.
“I’ve had a gutful of this stuff. I know John didn’t mean it, in that discussion I had with him today, but ultimately who does all this benefit?”
Earlier, the state Transport Minister had issued a statement admitting people would be “confused” by his decision.
On Tuesday, Mr Constance, the state MP for Bega, had said he wanted to head to Canberra to put several issues on the national agenda, including bushfire recovery and the COVID-19 crisis.
Asked about Mr Constance’s about-face before his ABC interview, Mr Barilaro’s office said: “The Deputy Premier has just learned of this and his position hasn’t changed.”
Mr Barilaro revealed on Monday he would not contest the South Coast seat for the Nationals.
The NSW Nationals leader then delivered a scathing attack on Nationals federal leader Michael McCormack in a text message leaked to Sky News.
Mr Barilaro said Mr McCormack – the Deputy Prime Minister – felt threatened and his lack of support was partly behind the Deputy Premier’s decision not to run in the upcoming byelection.
Liberal senator Jim Molan, who had been considered another likely candidate, also ruled out contesting Eden-Monaro on Wednesday.
An hour after Mr Constance’s withdrawal, Senator Molan announced he wouldn’t nominate for Liberal preselection.
“It is my belief that the most important contribution I can make to the Morrison government, and to serve the people of NSW who supported me so strongly, is to continue to engage on national security and sovereignty issues in the Senate,” he said.
Senator Molan said his decision was “strongly influenced” by the fact he’s due to have surgery on Thursday for an undisclosed condition, from which he expects to make a full recovery.
Eden-Monaro was vacated last week when popular Labor member Mike Kelly retired due to ill-health.
The Liberals’ 2019 candidate for the seat, Fiona Kotvojs, is believed to still be considering another run. Comment is being sought from Dr Kotvojs.
NSW Liberal Party president Philip Ruddock said earlier this week he thought the party potentially “had a Melbourne Cup field” contesting the pre-selection. Nominations close on Friday morning.
Bega mayor Kristy McBain has been selected as Labor’s candidate.
On Wednesday, senior Labor frontbencher Chris Bowen said the Coalition was focused on internal squabbling rather than the people of Eden-Monaro.
“[They are] focused on personalities, not people, on careers, not community,” he told ABC TV.