The former Nationals leader is unfazed by polling showing he’s a serious liability in key Liberal electorates, as more reports surface of an internal revolt against Littleproud. By Karen Middleton.

Is Barnaby Joyce after the leadership again?

Barnaby Joyce during question time in the house of representatives last month.
Barnaby Joyce during question time in the house of representatives last month.
Credit: AAP Image / Mick Tsikas

There’s a video doing the rounds in Nationals circles featuring two former deputy prime ministers. Michael McCormack is onstage playing Elvis and Barnaby Joyce is playing the fool.

It was taken on June 17, after the New South Wales Nationals’ two-day annual conference at the West Tamworth League Club, when the proceedings had given way to a party.

The video features McCormack in the spangled powder-blue jumpsuit and black wig he wears to the annual Parkes Elvis Festival in his electorate. He has just finished a rendition of “Suspicious Minds” and moves into “Can’t Help Falling in Love”.

He mimics Presley’s signature move of soaking scarves in his own sweat and bestowing them on adoring female fans. Joyce approaches the stage and McCormack plays along, laying a scarf on the man who rolled him for the leadership two years ago. Pretending to swoon and faint, Joyce falls to the floor.

Joyce says the fall was “100 per cent staged” and he thought it was “kind of funny”.

“Everybody else thought I’d passed out,” he tells The Saturday Paper. “I was just being a goose. It was that time of the night when people are allowed to be a goose.”

Some viewers of the video also think it’s funny, others less so. What they agree on is that it’s typical Barnaby. The larger-than-life persona is why he’s an asset in some Coalition electorates and a major liability in others.

Over the past fortnight, unattributed stories have crept into the media, explicitly and implicitly criticising Nationals chief David Littleproud’s leadership and suggesting another Joyce challenge could be in the offing.

The first appeared on June 25 in Sydney’s Sunday Telegraph, just after parliament had risen for its five-week winter break. The story featured unnamed sources predicting an out-of-the-blue leadership challenge loomed, with Joyce and Queensland fellow conservative Keith Pitt the most likely contenders.

“It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when,” one was quoted as saying.

On Monday another report appeared, this time in The Australian, saying Littleproud was facing an “internal revolt” after taking an “unplanned” proposal to the shadow expenditure review committee (ERC) just before the winter break.

The report said the package included measures valued at only about half what the Liberals had promised the Nationals as part of the pre-election agreement Joyce forged with then prime minister Scott Morrison in government.

The newspaper reported that Dutton told Littleproud the new proposal needed work and to bring it back, revised, when parliament resumed. It also reported that the proposal had come after Nationals MPs questioned Littleproud, in their weekly party room meeting, about which of the net-zero trade-off commitments had been re-endorsed.

Some Nationals are critical of the fact Littleproud has not locked in another agreement with Dutton, which they argue is important, even in opposition. They are especially frustrated, as one puts it, that projects announced during the election campaign may “have to be unannounced” without assurances of Liberal support.

Asked what he made of the report, Pitt said he was not on the shadow ERC but he endorsed the full package previously agreed.

“What I’m saying is that they are important projects,” Pitt told Sky News. “They need to be supported. And we put them in for very good reasons.”

Speaking to The Saturday Paper, McCormack says whoever is leaking “Beltway stuff” should stop. “If I go down the main street of country towns, people are not talking about who the next leader of the National Party will be,” he says. “They’re talking about their electricity bills. They are talking about their grocery bills.”

He says those generating the unrest “need to get their priorities in order” because leadership grumbling is not what constituents want to hear. “David’s doing a good job and we need to get behind him,” McCormack says of Littleproud. “People want to know that we [are] concentrating on them, not us.”

Joyce has denied he is gunning for the leadership or that he is the source of leaks. “I will say till I’m blue in the face – I had no part in that story,” he tells The Saturday Paper. “Everybody’s got to ask themselves who was part of it, because it wasn’t me in any way, shape or form.”

He says he is not on the shadow ERC and couldn’t know what went on there. “I’ve gone from a leader to a mystic,” he jokes. “I can divine what happens in a confidential meeting, which will be useful to me on the first Tuesday in November when the Melbourne Cup’s on.”

Keith Pitt denies involvement in the stories, too. “While there has been some very generous commentary, and of course some not so generous, you can rule me out,” he said, in the same statement he issued when the first report appeared. “I haven’t asked a single member of the Nationals party room for their vote.”

However, both Joyce and Pitt are publicly endorsing some of the published sentiments. The reports contain criticisms that Littleproud has either gone too far or not far enough on issues including nuclear power, and that he is too close to Liberal leader Peter Dutton. Another, in Guardian Australia, quotes both Joyce and Pitt defending the gambling industry after Littleproud backed the Coalition’s proposal to limit gambling ads during sports broadcasts.

Conversations with Nationals suggest concern about Littleproud’s leadership is not substantial or widespread enough to lead to a ballot in the near future. Even some who have previously supported Joyce now say things are going well.

Littleproud is also dismissing what appear to be attempts to undermine him.

“We’re all on borrowed time in politics, don’t worry about that, no matter your political party,” Littleproud said on Weekend Today the day the first story appeared. “Look, a couple of bruised egos.”

He said leading the Nationals was his greatest honour and he would always accept the party room’s decision. “Australians want us to focus on them, not on us,” he said. “And if others want to focus on me, well and good, but I’ll keep going until my time comes.”

Privately, Littleproud is telling colleagues the stories are the work of “the usual suspects”.

Joyce’s return to the Nationals leadership would not be uniformly popular in the Liberal Party, especially for those focused on winning urban seats.

During last year’s election campaign, some Liberals were frustrated that Joyce’s outspoken opposition to net-zero emissions was costing them support in both metropolitan areas and larger regional towns, especially in Victoria. While some Victorian Nationals dispute that Joyce is a drag on the party’s vote there, others insist he was a net negative during last year’s campaign, particularly with women aged under 50.

Victorian Nationals state leader Peter Walsh declined to comment on Joyce’s popularity but joined those urging an end to the leaks.

“Australians suffer by having dormant Labor governments when the Nationals and the Liberals don’t work together sensibly,” Walsh tells The Saturday Paper. “At the moment, at both the federal and the state level, we’re being governed by Labor and I think that is to the detriment of Australians’ future.”

He says Nationals should get on with their work “rather than play games”.

Climate 200 convenor Simon Holmes à Court, whose organisation supported teal independents at the last election, says the group commissioned a RedBridge robo-poll telephone survey of more than 15,000 voters in formerly safe Liberal seats in March last year, with extra surveying in select seats in April. The survey included a question on whether Joyce’s return to the Nationals leadership made voters more or less likely to support the Coalition.

In the seat of North Sydney, the survey found Joyce’s impact on Liberal support was a net minus 42 per cent. The same was true in other Liberal seats lost to teals: Mackellar (minus 27.1), Wentworth (minus 33), Kooyong (minus 36.8), Goldstein (minus 40.8) and Curtin (minus 25.4). The impact was also in negative double figures in the usually safe Liberal seats of Hughes and Bradfield in Sydney, and Flinders and Casey in Melbourne, with Casey recording an impact of minus 24.9 per cent. The polling showed a slight negative impact in the Nationals seats of Calare, Page and Cowper in NSW.

“We found that Barnaby was a small net negative in regional areas but absolutely off-the-charts toxic in urban areas,” Holmes à  Court tells The Saturday Paper. “Never seen anything like it.”

He says teal campaign messages that linked incumbent Liberals to Joyce had “worked a charm” in urban seats. “Barnaby’s an absolute gift to urban campaigns,” Holmes à Court says. “I hope he comes back. Just imagine if the Coalition leadership team at the next election is Dutton and Joyce.”

Joyce is unfazed by this. “Every seat the Nationals stood in, we won, and we got within a hair’s-breadth of other seats … as well as picking up a senate seat,” he says. “That’s the polling that matters to me.”

He says it’s not about popularity. “I am of the view you don’t have to be liked to be a good leader. In fact, sometimes, being liked is not a good attribute for a leader.”

The Saturday Paper understands the Nationals’ own polling during last year’s federal campaign found that outside traditional coalmining seats, outspoken pro-coal interventions by Joyce ally Matt Canavan also cost the Nationals votes. Canavan repeatedly backed coal as a dominant future fuel source and talked down the Coalition’s net-zero position.

During the campaign, even National Michelle Landry, who represents the regional Queensland coal seat of Capricornia, urged Canavan to stop.

“Everyone is working towards that target and I support the government on that,” Landry said after one of Canavan’s interventions. “Pull your head in, Matt.”

This week, Landry expresses similar sentiments about the anonymous leaks against David Littleproud, whose electorate borders her own. “I’m quite disgusted because people are struggling at the moment,” Landry tells The Saturday Paper. “Things are really tough and who wants to be talking about leadership challenges?”

Landry says Australians are focused on interest rates and putting fuel in the car. “They’re probably thinking, ‘What the hell are they talking about?’ ”

She describes the parliamentary party as “the happiest we’ve been for a while” but says “some people are doing a bit of fishing”.

In June 2021, on the morning of what became Joyce’s successful overthrow of Michael McCormack, Landry told Joyce did not rate well with women. “I think that if he became leader again, there would be women out there that would be unhappy with that,” Landry said at the time.

This week, on whether Littleproud could face a leadership challenge as he did in 2021, Michael McCormack says: “If it happens, we’ll deal with it – if and when it does.”

On the prospect of Joyce returning, however, McCormack’s response is unequivocal. “Even Lazarus only rose once.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 8, 2023 as "Is Barnaby Joyce after the leadership again?".

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