A day after the prime minister indicated he would sign a statutory declaration that he did not racially vilify an opponent during a 2007 preselection battle, Scott Morrison appears to have walked back his words.
Mr Morrison has strenuously denied claims he told party members they could not have a Lebanese person as a candidate for the NSW seat of Cook following the 2005 Cronulla riots.
He described the allegations as "malicious slurs" and revealed to Nine newspapers he is prepared to sign a statutory declaration to combat the claims.
But the prime minister appeared to walk back the comments when questioned by reporters on Monday.
"(Court proceedings) is the only reason you would be required to do that - there's no court proceedings on any of those matters," he said.
"I've been very clear. I absolutely reject that as malicious slurs. I fully rejected those issues ... but more importantly, leaders of the Lebanese community have made their own statements and I think puts that matter to rest."
Liberal elder and Mr Morrison's direct predecessor as member for Cook, Bruce Baird, also defended the prime minister's character after reports two Liberals involved in the preselection process - including challenger Michael Towke - signed statutory declarations saying Mr Morrison made the comments.
Nine newspapers and Schwartz Media reported Mr Towke signed the declaration in 2016 but it only came to light last week after dumped Liberal senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, who backed Towke in 2007, used parliamentary privilege to lash Mr Morrison's character.
Mr Baird said he never heard any racist comments, or allegations of bullying or dirty tricks.
"I'm not aware of any and I was as close as anybody to it," Mr Baird told the ABC.
"Yes, I am a friend (of Mr Morrison), and I'm doing it because this is the truth. I am not about spin, I'm just stating it like it is, and to claim as others have that Scott is racist and a bully I think is wrong."
Mr Towke initially won the 2007 preselection battle with more than 80 votes to Mr Morrison's eight. Mr Morrison was selected after a second ballot following media leaks about Mr Towke.
Mr Towke successfully sued a media outlet for defamation and was cleared of any wrongdoing by the NSW Liberals.
Mr Baird said the allegations made by Mr Towke came after he was "ceremoniously dumped as the candidate".
"He dumped some 450 members into one branch not that long before the preselection and that's called outright stacking, whether it's Labor or Liberal," Mr Baird said, referring to usual branch sizes of 30 to 40 members.
"There was an investigation of some of those who were put in and I won't go into the details, but it decided that he should be just disendorsed, so obviously he has a few bones (to pick) in terms of the preselection."
Mr Morrison also dismissed claims his management of a preselection stoush in NSW is a microcosm of his ability to lead, saying he is pleased with the candidates he installed in the state.
The federal Liberal body has overridden the state division to install a number of candidates for NSW seats ahead of the federal election, which is expected to be called this week.
A court challenge has been launched over the intervention but Mr Morrison would not comment on what would happen if the court overturned his picks.
"I'm very pleased with the candidates we've been able to select and I look forward to campaigning alongside them over the course of this election," he told reporters.
In his first on-camera interview since the story surfaced, Mr Towke was asked if he believed the prime minister was racist.
"(Morrison) has certainly used race in the past, on several occasions," he told 10 News on Monday.
Mr Towke said he did not think Morrison deserved to be prime minister.
"I think it's pretty obvious he is (lying) and he's got form on that, just ask Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull, Emmanuel Macron," he said.
"(Deputy Prime Minister) Barnaby Joyce called him out as a compulsive liar."
Australian Associated Press
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