The New South Wales deputy premier, John Barilaro, has further inflamed Coalition tensions ahead of the Eden-Monaro byelection by refusing to say if he voted for Labor ahead of the Liberal, Fiona Kotvojs, at the last election.
At a press conference on Thursday, just two days out from the byelection contest between the Liberals, Labor, the Nationals and others in Eden-Monaro, Barilaro praised his “mate” – retired Labor MP Mike Kelly – and refused to rule out running for the seat at the next election.
Barilaro’s intervention comes after he contradicted Kotvojs and Scott Morrison’s claims there have been no cuts to the ABC, weighing into another key byelection debate on the side of Labor and the Nationals, which want to restore $84m of funding to the public broadcaster.
The contest in Eden-Monaro is considered close between Kotvojs and Labor’s Kristy McBain, with the Liberals needing preferences from their junior Coalition partner to overcome Greens and Shooters, Fishers and Farmers preferences to Labor.
Barilaro said there was “no evidence” for the claims in some reports that Nationals campaigners have directed supporters to preference Labor ahead of Kotvojs.
“We’ve got a how-to-vote card – you can’t make it any clearer – where it says one Trevor Hicks … two to the Liberal party, and then follow the card, or for all the voters in Eden-Monaro, to decide how they vote,” he said.
Asked if he had preferenced Labor ahead of Kotvojs at the 2019 election, Barilaro replied: “That’s a good question. Can I just say this: like everybody in this country, what you do in privacy of the ballot box is up to you.”
He also refused to comment on suggestions he had told the NSW Coalition party room he had voted for Labor ahead of Kotvojs, but said that “everybody knows I’m a mate of Mike Kelly” and “sometimes you put party politics aside”.
Asked if he wanted to run at the next election – which would require Labor to win on Saturday so there is no Liberal incumbent blocking his run – Barilaro said he hadn’t “ruled it in or out”.
The NSW Nationals leader said the media seemed “obsessed” with the possibility he might try to enter federal parliament, adding “if I do choose to run I’m going to get some of you guys to run my campaign, because you know how to get the message out there”.
At a press conference in Hume on the ACT border with Queanbeyan, Morrison played down the obvious division between the Coalition partners, telling reporters they “must have seen a completely different interview to me”.
“Because I heard both John Barilaro and the National’s candidate for Eden-Monaro [Trevor Hicks] say that under their how-to-vote card, they say vote one National, vote two Liberal,” he said.
“I can only refer you to their absolute statement of support for the how-to-vote instructions.”
Morrison said the presence of both Liberal and National options on the ballot was “the nature of this contest” and argued the Coalition was “very strong” and supporters of both parties did not want “a vote for uncertainty” by backing Labor.
Earlier on Thursday, Hicks told ABC Radio there had been an “influx of political supporters” into the electorate and there are “nasty tactics” used by both sides, including his signs being torn down. Hicks denied that Nationals supporters had directed people to preference Labor.
Hicks, who is a Queanbeyan councillor, claimed the NSW city “hasn’t been impacted that much by covid with the jobs in Canberra, public servant jobs, they’re working from home, they’re OK”.
More than 1,000 businesses applied for jobkeeper wage subsidies in Queanbeyan, while the number of jobseeker recipients has doubled to more than 1,300 people between March and May.
The capital region of NSW around Canberra has suffered a 7.2% reduction in jobs between March and May.
On Thursday morning, McBain and Kotvojs went head-to-head in the only debate of the campaign on ABC South East, with Kotvojs forced to defend her views on reducing fuel loads to prevent bushfires, climate change and religious freedom, while McBain was grilled about how Labor can deliver for the region from opposition.
Kotvojs said the Coalition has a “great plan” to reduce emissions and incorrectly claimed Australia has reduced emissions by 40% in the last 30 years, an apparent reference to its emissions per capita.
Guardian Australia has revealed Kotvojs submitted to the bushfire royal commission that governments cannot address heat as a cause of bushfires so must focus on managing fuel loads, and urged her local council to push forward with a new rural land plan, despite numerous Rural Fire Service concerns that it did not “protect life, property and the environment”.