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You can count on Queensland to keep federal parliament interesting. Meet the state's newest straight-talking senator and self-confessed trouble-maker. By Sophie Morris.

Barry O’Sullivan replaces Barnaby Joyce in the senate

It’s unlikely Tony Abbott was watching when Liberal National Party heavyweight, former homicide detective and developer Barry O’Sullivan made his maiden parliamentary speech. But perhaps the prime minister should have been taking note. 

Clive Palmer was. The Queensland billionaire, who hopes that the rerun of the bungled West Australian senate election next Saturday will deliver his eponymous party the balance of power in the upper house from July, is close to O’Sullivan, who replaced Barnaby Joyce in the senate, and watched his speech from the chamber. 

Palmer was the LNP’s biggest donor when O’Sullivan was the party’s treasurer. O’Sullivan says they have a “respectful relationship” and that he stands ready to help persuade the Palmer United Party leader to back government legislation. 

Just when Abbott seems to have tamed Joyce, bringing the former renegade into the tent by giving him a role at the cabinet table, another straight-talking Queenslander and self-confessed troublemaker has emerged to replace him. O’Sullivan jokes he was chosen for the job because he is ‘‘like some sort of love child out of Barnaby Joyce by Ron Boswell’’.

Queensland’s newest senator, based in Toowoomba, is a big bloke with a stentorian voice and hands that pummell the air as we talk. 

‘‘This place has nothing I want,’’ he says, grabbing a fistful of air. ‘‘I have not been flopping around in bed the last 20 years wondering how I could get a career in politics. I intend to be true to myself. I intend to be true to the issues that are given to me. If that means that sometimes it seems I am the only one talking about something, then so it shall be. 

‘‘I love the saying, ‘I may often be wrong, but I’m never uncertain’.’’

Attention is focused on the crossbench of the new senate and to what extent the Abbott government will rely on their votes. Some 77 candidates are contesting six spots in the rerun of the WA election. The Coalition has sought to turn it into a referendum on repeal of the carbon and mining taxes, which Labor and the Greens blocked in the past week.

The outcome could add to the complexity in the new senate, which already features a fantastic array of minor and micro-parties. Incoming senators include Glenn Lazarus and Jacqui Lambie from the Palmer United Party; motoring enthusiast Ricky Muir, who has struck an alliance of sorts with PUP; Liberal Democrat David Leyonhjelm; and Family First’s Bob Day. 

Independent Nick Xenophon and the DLP’s John Madigan are continuing on the crossbench and could find their power enhanced if the Coalition fails to secure the three senate spots that it won in WA last September. The ABC’s election pundit Antony Green says that, based on last year’s vote and the new preference tickets, the most likely outcome is three Liberal, two Labor and one PUP senator, unless the Greens’ vote rises.

There’s even an outside chance the Lismore-based candidate for the Help End Marijuana Prohibition Party will pick up a seat, according to Glenn Druery, the “preference whisperer” who advises micro-parties on how to get elected.

But within the government’s own ranks there may lurk some surprises. The Coalition is going into the WA poll with 30 seats. Labor has 24 and the Greens nine. As Joyce well knows, a tight senate can make things interesting for those who might otherwise have been absorbed into a solid government majority and overlooked.

O’Sullivan beat 11 other candidates – including former Howard government minister and Nationals MP Larry Anthony – to secure preselection, perhaps because he combines the rural populism and doggedness of the two senators the Nationals were losing in Queensland, Joyce and Boswell.

His appointment to fill the casual vacancy when Joyce quit the senate to contest a lower house seat was delayed due to a Crime and Misconduct Commission investigation, which touched on O’Sullivan’s former role as LNP treasurer. The commission looked into allegations that MP Bruce Flegg was offered inducements to vacate his seat for Campbell Newman, now Queensland premier. It concluded in December that there was no evidence of a criminal offence.

Normally, when state parliament confirms a senate appointment to fill a casual vacancy, it is a civil and straight-forward procedure. Queensland does things differently. 

In 1975, Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen famously appointed someone who was not on Labor’s shortlist to fill a vacancy after a Labor senator died, contributing to the downfall of the Whitlam government. 

This time, Joyce’s replacement complied with convention to the extent that it had the backing of his party, the LNP, but it generated extraordinary levels of vitriol from the state Labor opposition. 

O’Sullivan’s grandchildren sat in the Queensland parliament as the debate about his appointment raged for an hour and a half, with Labor MPs referring to the new senator as “a scandal-tainted, potty-mouthed enforcer” and a “big, boorish bad-mouthed bovver boy”. To his supporters, he was a “no-nonsense” man of integrity who would, as the premier put it, fight for Queensland and “not get the Canberra disease”.

Working for the bush

When The Saturday Paper meets O’Sullivan in his new senate office a day after his first speech to federal parliament, he is anxious to dispel the idea he is “just this one-dimensional cranky back-room fella”, who is known for “inclement language”. 

The latter refers to an expletive-laden tirade to an LNP candidate in 2011, which was taped unbeknown to O’Sullivan, and reinforced his image as an obscene brawler. There are no profanities when we meet – he seems thoughtful, diligent and decorous – though he does admit that “you’ve only got to come up when I’m drafting cattle on a Sunday and you’ll hear a bit more of it”.

In his speech, he railed against the reduction since the 1960s of government-funded services to the bush, a process that he said had been “compounded by the overarching principles of economic rationalism”. Stay tuned for future clashes with free-market Liberals.

The senator promised to work daily for the “rehydration” of the bush, adding that “if the senator in me finds the going a bit too tough in reaching these goals, it will give the troublemaker in me a crack”.

Later, he reflects ruefully that this line was proof he’s “spent too much time watching Barnaby Joyce’s career”.

O’Sullivan’s policy priorities will be familiar to those who have followed Joyce’s rise. He wants more rural infrastructure, is concerned about foreign investment in agriculture – believing there is already too much foreign ownership of sugar processors – and argues there is a role for incentives to develop rural areas, particularly in northern Australia. 

Like others in the Nationals, he thinks Australia cannot afford Abbott’s $5.5 billion paid parental leave scheme. “The prime minister and the Coalition are well aware of challenges that exist within our economy that probably weren’t there when the PPL scheme was put forward in the first instance,” he says.

And he is firm in his conviction that Joyce will be the next Nationals leader, saying this will make for exciting times in the party.

When Joyce delivered his first speech back in 2005, there was intense media interest. The ruddy-faced accountant from St George had already made a name for himself with his ability to deliver a quirky sound bite and willingness to break ranks with the Coalition, at a time when it needed every vote. He would go on to cross the floor some 19 times, including on voluntary student unionism and trade practices legislation. Now he is positioned to be the next deputy prime minister.

By contrast, O’Sullivan’s parliamentary debut was low-key and went largely unreported. He tells The Saturday Paper there may come a time when he has to vote against the government on causes close to his heart, though he does not arrive in Canberra with any plans for floor-crossing.

“When you see me crossing the floor, it will be a tired walk. Because I will have worn myself out trying to find a solution within before I pick up me bag and stroll that 10 metres,” he says.

“I’ll remain true to myself, and the day I can’t is the day I’ll hand my commission in and they can send someone else down.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 29, 2014 as "The next Barnaby". Subscribe here.

Sophie Morris
is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.