Barnaby Joyce has talked so often and so freely for so long that plenty of Nationals have heard him claim he would not stay in politics for too many years if he ever had the chance to lead his party again.
The vague idea that he would not stay too long in Parliament was planted with colleagues over the past few months and helped him gain the edge over Michael McCormack in this week’s leadership spill.
Re-elected Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce during question time on Thursday.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen
But now the Nationals are waking from that moment to wonder how long they will have to live with a volatile leader who is like a Catherine wheel on bonfire night – a frenzied whirl of energy, throwing off sparks, a risk to anyone who comes close.
Scott Morrison will be wondering when he might be burned by some of the gunpowder. The early signs are that the Prime Minister is awake to the danger to city Liberals in looking too close to Joyce and his agenda. On the first test, water policy, the answer has been to tell the Nationals to talk to the hand.
Joyce is electoral poison to many women after the harassment claims against him, which he denies. But he has always been divisive and has always had strong support where the Nationals need it – in regional NSW and especially Queensland.
For all his incoherence when he falls into indistinct muttering, some voters get his message even if they do not catch his words. He projects frustration with the world in a way that resonates with Australians who feel they are victims, too.
Barnaby Joyce with Vikki Campion and their two sons at his swearing-in this week.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen
What worries his colleagues, however, is his narcissism. The common fear? It is all about Barnaby. Every fight will be about his own ego, every victory will be about his own skill, every setback will be about someone else’s mistake.
Joyce promises to change and become a “better man” after the turmoil of his last time as leader, but few really believe him. His first public pledge after the ballot was that he would consult his colleagues, but few really believe that, either.
The only change so far has been an unnatural silence this week as he avoided interviews and held no press conferences after being sworn in as Deputy Prime Minister. He has achieved his goal, which, by the way, vaults him from a $211,000 salary to a package worth more than $433,000 a year, but he is in no rush to tell Australians what it was all for.
Nationals MPs are not asking too many questions in public. Joyce sent a message to the party room WhatsApp group on Wednesday morning telling them all to clam up about last Monday’s vote. The obvious reason is that it came so close to a very different outcome.
The sliding doors moment came after Joyce’s closest ally, Matt Canavan, moved a spill motion against McCormack and won the ballot. Only after this could Joyce take the next step. He stood in the room as a candidate for leader.
McCormack stood, too. His decision confounded some in the room because he had already lost the spill motion. But his decision blocked the other likely candidate, David Littleproud, the deputy, who had promised not to run against the leader.
“When Michael stood up, I felt that I’d made a commitment, and I could not stand knowingly against Michael McCormack after I made that public statement,” Littleproud said on Thursday morning. He told radio station 2CC he would have run against Joyce if McCormack had stayed in his seat.
There were several deals done. Andrew Gee swung behind Joyce, and many Nationals think Keith Pitt did the same. But there is no sign of a leadership pact like the note a Liberal minister kept in his wallet to remind people that John Howard would one day step aside for Peter Costello.
If that note exists, it is not worth much. Joyce is always promising a succession at the same time he positions himself as the indispensable leader. He promoted Littleproud into cabinet in 2016 with the claim that he was preparing for someone else to take the top job. Nationals are not holding their breath for the change.
“He will cling to office for as long as he can,” says one. Joyce will believe the nation needs him and the government will fail without him. If Morrison wins the next election, the spin will be that the revitalised Nationals helped save the day.
The first job for this saviour, however, is to look after Northern Territory senator Sam McMahon, who backed him on Monday but might have celebrated too hard on Tuesday. Colleagues say she was heavily under the influence of alcohol during important votes, but she denies this. The test for Joyce is in what others heard him tell McMahon before the leadership spill – that he could save her preselection.
The chances of that do not look good. The Liberals of the Territory are likely to prefer Alice Springs mayor Jacinta Price this Saturday for the position of Country Liberal Party candidate, sending Joyce a message about his influence. Price would sit in the Liberal party room if she wins.
This helps explain why Joyce wants George Christensen to change his mind on leaving Parliament. After a narrow victory on Monday, the new leader needs every number he can keep.
Barnaby Joyce supporter Senator Sam McMahon denied being under the influence of alcohol while in the Senate on Tuesday night.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen
The bigger test is the Coalition agreement with Morrison, something the party room has not seen while Joyce and Canavan work out their demands. “It’s the same old thing – the Matt and Barnaby show,” says one observer. So much for the promise of consultation.
Morrison is in no hurry to seal an agreement. This is a different dynamic for Joyce, who made an urgent agreement seem vitally important when Turnbull was prime minister. Morrison, secure in his job, has no need to give the Nationals too much.
That is why the Liberals delivered a quick rebuff to the Nationals when a few of them, led by Bridget McKenzie, tried to amend the Murray-Darling Basin Plan to favour irrigators upstream rather than the environment downstream.
The Nationals discovered they were badly outnumbered when they tried to press the point in the House on Thursday. Defence Minister Peter Dutton argued the Nationals’ amendments were out of order. Labor tried to put the question to a vote, but the Nationals backed off to avoid a Coalition split on the floor of Parliament.
One thing stood out. Joyce, sitting alongside Dutton, did not argue one side or the other. As a member of the executive, he could not freelance. The Nationals revolt went nowhere.
But there will be another one, and one after that. Joyce is a disrupter. Every crisis is a chance for the Catherine wheel to send off more sparks.
David Crowe is chief political correspondent.
Most Viewed in Politics
From our partners
Source: Read Full Article