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As the Nationals quietly shift positions on climate change and energy, Barnaby Joyce is wreaking havoc as coal’s last defender. By Karen Middleton.

Barnaby’s last stand

Barnaby Joyce in parliament last month.
Credit: Lukas Coch / AAP

When former Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce sparked talk of yet another leadership challenge by declaring himself the “elected deputy prime minister of Australia” and hijacking his party’s energy agenda to demand a coal-fired power station for Queensland, respected Nationals elders decided enough was enough. The blunt retort from New South Wales Nationals leader John Barilaro was that Joyce should just “shut up”.

Other senior Nationals echoed the sentiment. In so doing, they confirmed why the party has been quietly shifting position on the divisive twin issues of energy and climate change – firmly away from the one Joyce is spruiking.

The Saturday Paper understands the federal Nationals recently conducted polling that confirmed climate change has leapt up the list of issues of greatest concern to the party’s rural constituents – including in Queensland where the pro-coal push is based.

Ever since, a public repositioning has been under way, except in Queensland, where Nationals MPs whose marginal seats are clustered in the central coal belt are still calling for a new power station.

This is despite pro-coal LNP candidates suffering dramatic defeats in the same areas at the 2017 state election.

That shift in position burst into the open this week with a series of surgical strikes against the coal spruikers and Joyce himself.

On Tuesday, Victorian Nationals’ leader Peter Walsh revealed the party has abandoned its support for new coal-fired power stations in the wake of the Coalition’s drubbing at the state election last year. It has “listened to the people”, Walsh said, who want renewables and action on climate change.

Walsh called Joyce a wrecker and urged him to focus on proving he can do his current job, not trying to wrest back the one he lost.

Former deputy prime minister Tim Fischer also spoke up to admonish Joyce, interrupting his leukaemia treatment to be interviewed on ABC regional radio in Victoria. Fischer said Joyce should “take a cold shower … [and] go back to writing books” and campaigning for Nationals in seats at risk.

He also said the biggest issue in the bush was climate change, although he avoided using the term directly.

“There’s terror in the eyes of thinking farmers about the weather,” he said.

“The weather, it ain’t what it used to be. Now whether it’s a swing of the pendulum or whether it’s a permanent trend, snap spring droughts in the Mallee and the Riverina are part of the furniture this century – wreaking havoc … It is a situation where the only MP, the only candidate seeking election in the federal elections who will get traction in my book is someone who understands what is happening in regional Australia with regard to the weather and indeed more broadly.”

Walsh followed Fischer on air, having also given an earlier interview to ABC Radio in Melbourne.

Asked if Joyce was a wrecker, Walsh said he was “starting to show that he is at the moment” and that he owed the same support to successor Michael McCormack that had been shown to him.

“The team is always greater than the individual and somebody should take Barnaby aside and explain that to him,” Walsh said.

Walsh distanced his party from its previous support for a new low-emissions coal-fired power station for Victoria’s Latrobe Valley, saying the private sector wasn’t interested in backing it. Walsh said the Nationals had never wanted a government-built plant, just the “policy setting and the investment certainties” to encourage private enterprise.

But even that has changed.

“We’ve listened to the people,” Walsh told presenter Nicole Chvastek. “People are very concerned. They want more done on climate change and we’ve heard that.”

Chvastek asked: “Isn’t it a bit late now?”

“Well, it’s never too late to actually change position, based on the science, based on feedback from people,” Walsh said. “If you think we should sit somewhere for the next 50 years because that’s where we started, the world would never evolve … We have listened and we are changing, and we will continue to evolve and change.”

Some of the Queensland Nationals have not changed though, and this is where Joyce’s support base lies in the federal party room.

Joyce’s self-description as the legitimate Nationals leader came on Monday on ABC Radio National’s breakfast program – a show with significant reach in regional Australia.

The interview followed six Queensland Nationals penning a letter to McCormack, advocating a new coal-fired power station in their home state. The rebels also wanted action on power prices in the form of an urgent parliamentary vote on what has been dubbed the “big stick” legislation to force energy companies to divest if they don’t bring prices down.

The government shelved the bill after it faced defeat in parliament last month and possible amendment by the Greens to include a clause banning the use of public money to underwrite coal-fired power stations.

With public sentiment against fossil fuels strengthening, including in inner-city Liberal-held seats, Prime Minister Scott Morrison does not want to be seen to be embracing coal.

Faced with complaints that they are defending miners over farmers, most Nationals MPs appear to be embracing the shift.

Those in Queensland marginal seats are not among them, though, and neither is Barnaby Joyce nor one of his chief backers, Queensland Nationals senator and federal resources minister Matt Canavan.

“We need coal-fired power stations in this country,” Canavan said. “We rely on them for jobs and I firmly believe we’ll have new coal-fired power stations built in the future as well.”

This week’s collective slapdown of both Joyce and those sentiments suggests the pro-coal Nationals in Queensland are mounting the wrong arguments, electorally speaking.

In his radio interview, Tim Fischer spoke of the need to push for better management of the Murray–Darling Basin and to develop the proposed Hells Gate Dam in Queensland. A veteran campaigner, Fischer is no fool.

One-time National and now long-time independent MP Bob Katter has long advocated for Hells Gate. Preferences from his Katter’s Australian Party will be crucial in those Queensland seats.

Fischer is suggesting the Queensland Nationals should be talking about issues other than coal-fired power. Recent history supports that view.

In state seats that overlap those federal marginals, the 2017 Queensland election delivered a shock to the Nationals, who belong to the merged Liberal National Party there.

The LNP hoped to win the state seat of Rockhampton, but it went to Labor ahead of One Nation. The LNP came in fourth – second last – on a stunningly low primary vote of just 17.85 per cent, behind a local independent and only just ahead of the Greens.

This was despite running hard in favour of the proposed Adani Carmichael coalmine, after the state Labor government – which was re-elected – announced it would veto a federal loan to Adani.

In the next-door state seat of Mirani, the result was reversed, with One Nation winning the seat over Labor and the LNP finishing third, just ahead of the Greens.

Those seats fall within the federal seats of Dawson, Capricornia and Flynn – all LNP marginals whose members signed the letter to Michael McCormack.

Queensland LNP leader Deb Frecklington criticised the rebel federal Nationals this week, saying she would “not stand idly by” and allow the forced sale of private assets that the divestment legislation represented.

In the southern states, city-based Liberals Tim Wilson, from Melbourne, and Trent Zimmerman, from Sydney, also pushed back against the Queensland agenda.

Member for Dawson George Christensen dismissed complaining colleagues as “latte inner-city Liberals”.

“Despite what Labor and the Greens may think, neither solar panels nor wind turbines nor fairy dust nor unicorn farts will supply the baseload power needs of this nation, particularly if we want to keep our heavy industries,” Christensen told journalists.

Trying to fight his own state election campaign, NSW Deputy Premier Barilaro hit back at the federal sniping, saying on Tuesday, “… shut up. It’s simple, you know? Stop navel gazing. Stop talking about yourselves.”

This week, a group of prominent rural women, including National Farmers’ Federation president Fiona Simson, also launched a broadside about behavioural standards, particularly aimed at Barnaby Joyce and those contemplating returning him to the leadership. The women told Guardian Australia that reinstating Joyce would undermine public trust. They cited both the damage from Liberal leadership instability and the reason Joyce resigned from his job – an extramarital affair with his then media adviser Vikki Campion. They also noted the allegations that Joyce sexually harassed West Australian farmer Catherine Marriott. Joyce has denied these allegations, which were not referred to police.

When Joyce defended the Nationals and Liberals having differing policy positions, remarking that the Coalition was “not like a marriage”, McCormack could not resist a swipe at Joyce’s personal circumstances.

“I understand what it takes to have a successful marriage and to make sure that we work together,” McCormack said.

His deputy, Victorian senator Bridget McKenzie, also rebuked Joyce, but on policy.

“What Barnaby Joyce is saying publicly is very different to what the party room is saying,” McKenzie said.

Asked if the leadership brawling frustrated her, McKenzie said: “I think Australia’s frustrated, you know, that there’s a politician out there that’s not focused on their needs and issues.”

By Wednesday, Joyce had got the message, at least about his own ambition.

Still talking up the need to boost coal jobs in Queensland, he backtracked on the leadership speculation.

“After the election I’m hoping that Michael McCormack is federally elected and also Scott Morrison is federally elected,” Joyce told the Nine Network’s Today Show. On his claim to be the real deputy prime minister, he added: “Maybe it was a misstep on my part.”

Morrison welcomed Joyce’s mea culpa.

Steering back to unity, Morrison also compared himself to the Liberals’ longest-serving prime minister, the late Sir Robert Menzies, and McCormack to the then Country Party leader, John McEwen.

“In the same way that Ming and Black Jack worked so well together, I can tell you that ScoMo and Big Mac over here are doing exactly the same thing today,” Morrison said.

Perhaps most mystifying was the fact the deputy prime minister’s nickname isn’t actually “Big Mac”. Some friends call him “Mick Mac”. It seems only the prime minister has swapped that for the name of a popular hamburger.

Although, McCormack can take comfort in one thing: it’s still better than what some colleagues are calling Barnaby Joyce.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 16, 2019 as "Barnaby’s last stand". Subscribe here.

Karen Middleton
is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.