ALEX MITCHELL. Constance dream turns to nightmare

At the start of this week, NSW Cabinet Minister Andrew Constance was Liberal Party front-runner to take the Federal seat of Eden Monaro. Now his long-held career ambitions to shift from Sydney to Canberra are in ruins. What went wrong?

Train wreck. Credit: Wikipedia

NSW Minister for Transport and Roads Andrew Constance is arguably the State’s “most hated politician” in inner-city Sydney but the State’s “most popular politician” in his South Coast seat of Bega.

He earned his unpopularity by spending billions of dollars on roads, railways, tollways, busways, tramways, light railways and, in the process, running roughshod over local communities. On the other hand, he gained immense popularity in Bega by announcing on 10 March 2020 he was resigning the seat to concentrate on helping the recovery of local businesses following the devastating bushfires.

His chance to switch from the NSW Parliament in Sydney to the House of Representatives in Canberra arose when Mike Kelly, the sitting Labor MP for Eden Monaro, announced his immediate resignation due to ill health.

Constance leapt at the chance to go Federal and was declared favourite to take the swinging seat. It was familiar territory for him. In the 1860s his great-great-grandfather, James Constance, drove a team of bullocks through the Bega Valley and his descendants farmed and built businesses in the area.

In his first speech in State Parliament, 29-year-old Constance, then the youngest MP in the House, heaped thanks on the NSW Young Liberals as the training ground for his political career.

He praised to high heavens his fellow Young Liberals who had all pursued promising political careers – former NSW Opposition Leader John Brogden, Upper House MP Don Harwin who became a disastrous NSW Arts Minister, influential Liberal backbencher Catherine Cusack and Gladys Berejiklian, who would later become NSW Premier.

But Constance shifted from his script to give special plaudits to NSW Young Liberals who had climbed to great heights in Canberra – John Howard, Philip Ruddock, Joe Hockey and Marise Payne. “If the Young Liberal movement has shown us anything,” he added, “it is that the journey is its own reward.”

He thanked a long list of political allies who had helped him to secure his seat in Parliament, including Marise Payne, now Foreign Minister; Patricia Forsythe, AM, former MLC (1991-2006) and ex-director of the Sydney Business Chamber, and appointed Australian High Commissioner to New Zealand in March 2019 by her friend Marise Payne (mentioned above); John Fahey, former NSW Premier who became Federal Treasurer after moving to Canberra; Bruce Baird, former NSW Transport Minister who also shifted to Canberra to become Federal MP for Cook (now Scott Morrison’s seat); “Buffalo” Bill Heffernan; Shelley Hancock, former NSW Speaker and now Local Government Minister; Jason Falinski, Federal MP for Mackellar, former staffer for Barry O’Farrell and John Hewson and ex-President of the Australian Young Liberals in 1997-98; and Sam Witheridge, former businessman and factional wizard. Constance told the House: “In different ways, at different times, always, you were there.”

This week the political turmoil over who is standing and who is not standing for the Federal seat of Eden-Monaro has reached fever pitch with candidates dropping in and out and the policy focus shifting from jobs, to COVID-19 testing, to tax breaks, to business relief.

NSW Deputy Premier and NSW Nationals leader John “Barra” Barilaro triggered Constance’s decision to quit the Eden Monaro race by calling him a “c…t” which appeared on the front-page of the Murdoch family’s Daily Telegraph.

[How times have changed. Many
year ago, Neville Wran was called a “c…t” in State Parliament by a National
Party MP and no one batted an eyelid.]

Thursday’s newspaper coverage created more confusion over what will happen next. The Australian reported: “Some MPs believed Mr Constance’s pullout had not harmed their (Liberal Party) chances of taking the seat, putting it at a 50-50 possibility. There was also internal anger that Scott Morrison’s ally Alex Hawke had been calling around to ensure Mr Constance would have no trouble being endorsed as the party’s star candidate.”

The Daily Telegraph reported: “One moderate powerbroker said Mr Constance’s profile soared during the bushfires to national fame and he would be ‘hard to beat at anything’”. The paper also said: “It’s important there is Coalition unity to contest this by-election”, Mr Constance said, adding he believed it [the Liberal Party] could still win the contest.

Bizarrely, The Sydney Morning Herald made Constance its target (Knives out for Constance after late withdrawal) and foreshadowed that he would be dumped from Cabinet in the next reshuffle.

With Liberal Party pre-selection still to be decided, the Federal seat of Eden Monaro is causing jitters for all parties. And so it should.

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Alex Mitchell is a former Sydney Sun-Herald State Political Editor whose commentary appears every Friday. His latest book is Murder in Melbourne – The Untold Story of Palestinian exchange student Aiia Maasarwe.

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5 Responses to ALEX MITCHELL. Constance dream turns to nightmare

  1. Avatar Jerry Roberts says:

    Eden Monaro is such a beautiful region of Australia. It sounds like the politics are not as pretty as the landscape and ocean views.

  2. Avatar (Dr) John CARMODY says:

    I think that John Fahey became Minister for Finance (rather than Treasurer) after his move from State to Federal politics. Leaving that aside, however, perhaps the most perplexing detail in Alex Mitchell’s article is the sentence from Mr Constance’s “maiden speech” in Macquarie Street: “The journey is its own reward”. That was the self defeating attitude of too many ALP members of the Federal Parliament between 1949 and 1972. Furthermore, it makes one reflect on Constance’s possible lack of interest in policy and what the Parliament is really FOR.

    I also wonder why Mr Mitchell considers it “bizarre” that the “Sydney Morning Herald” might foreshadow that Mr Constance would most likely be dropped from Cabinet: after all, the NSW Premier, Ms Berejiklian, has been confronted by the truth that two of her senior Ministers would rather be in Canberra, not in her Cabinet. [Can that Cabinet, therefore, be considered to be at all “functional”?] More importantly, it makes one wonder about Mr Constance’s current mental health (notably after his traumatic experiences with the summer bushfires) and whether his wife told him that he should, for his own and his family’s good, get out of politics.

    When one considers that this “bizarre” episode has revealed not only that BOTH of the Coalition parties are dangerously fractured but, further, that they do not remotely trust each other (would “hate” be an appropriate word for all of the emotion involved?), Mr Mitchell’s wistful conclusion seems uncharacteristically tentative. How could the voters in Eden-Monaro possibly believe that their interests would be best represented and served by voting for a member of the Coalition? Especially when the Prime Minister, apart from appearing to “revert to type”, has, this week, so shrilly attacked a quasi-Royal Commissioner (Mr Walker).

  3. Avatar Peter Bennett says:

    Former Premier, John Brogden? Not in my lifetime.

    • Avatar Alex Mitchell says:

      Oops, you’re right, Peter. I should have said former Opposition Leader. I’ll change it straight away. Many thanks for the correction.

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