Barnaby show’s back in town, but national interest needs to come first
If you view politics purely as a spectator sport, then you will probably welcome the second rising of Barnaby Joyce as Nationals leader. Since he was elected to Federal Parliament, Mr Joyce has traded on his ability to attract attention. With trademark Akubra hat, emotions on full display and an off-the-cuff style of speech that can, at times, drift off into rambling, he has no trouble standing out from the political crowd.
Barnaby Joyce takes questions after regaining the leadership. Credit:Alex Ellinghausen
This is in contrast to Michael McCormack, whose leadership of the Nationals for just over three years is best described as stolid. While his style helped convey a sense of decorum, it and the notion that he was too subservient to his Coalition partner, Scott Morrison, proved his ultimate undoing.
Now with the Barnaby show back in town, expect things to get louder and more colourful. Under him, the Nationals will aim for a more forthright approach, one that takes a stance on policy matters that distinguishes it more clearly from the much-larger Liberal Party.
But for all the showmanship, will the substance be different?
When asked to articulate any changes, Mr Joyce said the party would pursue “Nationals policy” not “Barnaby policy”. In taking on the leadership of a party as fractured and filled with acrimony as the Nationals, even Mr Joyce appears to accept he may need to cover his natural exuberance, at lease initially and in public. That said, the new Nationals leader is not known for hiding his policy leanings under a bushel.
Fractures within the Coalition over climate change have been growing since the Prime Minister began slow-walking towards a net zero emissions target for 2050. Mr McCormack backed the controversial proposal for a coal-fired power station at Collinsville in Queensland and was adamant he would not support the 2050 target. But his low-key demeanour allowed Mr Morrison to move the dial on climate policy without igniting an all-out war. That fact at least in part probably sealed the fate of Mr McCormack’s leadership. Climate policy is an area that the Nationals party room feels strongly about, and one where Mr Joyce is expected to make a lot more noise.
The Prime Minister may also feel some policy heat in other places. Mr Joyce has been a strong supporter of the asylum-seeker Tamil family from Sri Lanka who had been living in the Queensland town of Biloela. Recently relocated to Perth after spending years in Christmas Island’s detention centre, the family have repeatedly been refused permission by the government to move back to Biloela, where the community, with Mr Joyce’s backing, has lobbied for their return.
Mr Joyce’s political leadership comeback is also a reminder of past transgressions. He gave up the leadership in February 2018 after a series of controversies that included having a child with former staffer Vikki Campion (with whom he now lives and has two children), and being accused of sexual harassment, claims that an internal inquiry found did not have sufficient evidence to prosecute.
At a time when the Coalition has just weathered a wave of complaints over its treatment of female staff in Federal Parliament, the lack of a transparent and independent review of those allegations would rightly no longer be considered acceptable.
Mr Joyce returns to the role of deputy prime minister during a financial and health crisis not seen for more than 100 years. For all the spectacle he is sure to provide, he needs to ensure that while his own members’ electoral success and the desires of regional Australia are high on his agenda, the national interest comes first.
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