NSW deputy premier John Barilaro (left), NSW Minister for Transport Andrew Constance (centre) and Liberal Senator Jim Molan (right). (Image: AAP/Joel Carrett, Mick Tsikas)

Eden-Monaro in southern NSW has always been a funny electorate.

For years it was the perennial bellwether seat, before Labor’s Mike Kelly reclaimed it in 2016, having first held it from 2007 to 2013. Since Kelly announced his retirement last week it’s provided a return to pre-COVID political drama as the Coalition tries to work out who to run in the seat.

Just days ago two prominent state politicians — NSW deputy premier John Barilaro and Transport Minister Andrew Constance — were both being talked about as potential candidates. Now they’re both out of the race.

So what the hell is happening?

Barilaro’s text message madness

Over the weekend, Barilaro tweeted a photo of temporary accommodation pods for Cobargo residents who’d lost their homes in last summer’s bushfires. The tweet was quickly seized on as a PR stunt for a politician wanting a crack at the byelection.

By Tuesday, Barilaro was out. But that didn’t stop him lobbing a text message hand grenade at federal Nationals leader Michael McCormack on his way out the door, accusing the deputy prime minister of having. “failed his 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,” Barilaro wrote.

Constance enters, exits soon after

Barilaro’s departure should have paved the way for Constance, who is member for Bega. The two men said they wouldn’t run against each other.

But after Constance put his hand up he withdrew it abruptly this morning, earning unfortunate comparisons to Mal Meninga.

Constance would have had a decent shot. While in Sydney he’s best known for being the face of over-priced, frequently delayed infrastructure projects like the light rail, and for giving us “Ferry McFerryface“, he’s a popular local member.

And his reputation rose substantially after this summer’s bushfires when, visibly shaken, he spoke with an uncommon honesty about the trauma of watching so much of the devastation in his community. The minister had also launched an attack on Scott Morrison, saying the prime minister’s hostile reception in Cobargo was probably deserved.

Constance’s decision to withdraw is one of several backflips.

After taking a break from his ministerial duties after the fires, he announced he would leave politics in March. Then this week, he said he wanted to stay in to continue the bushfire response at a federal level.

Today, he apologised for the confusion and later indicated that the lingering effects of a spat with Barilaro might have tipped him over the edge. This morning, The Daily Telegraph reported that Barilaro, despite calling Constance a friend, had described him as a “cunt” in conversations with colleagues. 

So who’s left?

Despite speculation that Liberal Senator Jim Molan would throw his hat in the ring, the MP said he wasn’t interested.

Molan suggested there would be six candidates for preselection now that the big names have stepped aside. According to The Australian Financial Review Fiona Kotvojs, who narrowly lost to Kelly in last year’s election, is the frontrunner — Constance was never confident he’d beat her for preselection.

Kotvojs is a beef farmer, small-business owner and Oxfam Australia director. Pru Gordon, a general manager at the National Farmers Federation and trade ministerial adviser, is also reportedly in the mix. But none of the candidates have Barilaro or Constance’s star power.

Today the plot thickened further as Nine reported that Teena McQueen, the NSW vice president from the Liberal Party’s hard right, had been sounding out the possibility of parachuting former PM Tony Abbott in as the party’s candidate.

Labor sees a shot

All the Coalition turbulence should be good news for Labor’s chances of retaining the seat. Last week Bega Shire Council Mayor Kristy McBain was quickly unveiled as Kelly’s potential successor.

McBain had attracted attention for her strong leadership during the summer’s bushfire crisis. She’d also impressed in her response to the Tathra fires back in 2018. 

McBain, who recently said she was “dismayed” by the federal government’s response to the fires, had run for council as an independent and remained coy about her political allegiances.

But she’d had a progressive bent during her time as mayor, voting in favour of controversial council motions on safe schools and declaring a climate emergency. 

With no experience beyond local politics, winning Eden-Monaro will be a big test for McBain and Labor.

But with chaos and mudslinging on the other side, it just got a whole lot easier.