Malcolm Turnbull returned from Washington in an ebullient mood, very early on Monday morning. He had just been feted by President Donald Trump and by all reports his visit had been a success. He and Trump were now “mates” and indeed “allies” in promoting the good news of high-powered trickle-down economics. But the prime minister was also relieved that a new day was dawning for the Coalition government he leads. At least, that was his hope.
After three agonising and hopelessly distracting weeks for the government, Barnaby Joyce had bowed to the inevitable and quit as Nationals leader and deputy prime minister. To the end, Joyce believed his career unravelled because of a media witch-hunt and Turnbull’s “inept” handling of the political firestorm it generated.
To save face, Joyce cited the complaint of sexual harassment made against him by a prominent woman in Western Australia’s agricultural sector as “the final straw”. Even there, his allies in the Nationals believe the leaking of the woman’s name, given her high profile, was doubly damaging and they suspect it was leaked by a Turnbull ally to blast Joyce out of his job. Whatever the truth of that – and after Labor picked up on it, the prime minister challenged the party to name names if it has evidence – it is an indication of the resentment harboured by Joyce towards Turnbull.
On Monday he was a sorry sight on the back bench, scowling in “cockies’ corner” along with his colleagues representing rural and regional seats. The last time he was on the back bench was five years ago in the Senate. There for eight years, he made a name for himself as a floor-crossing maverick. On Tuesday he said he has a “lot of experience on the back bench” – it’s a job he’s done before.
Joyce now sees his situation as “a circuit-breaker” for himself, his family and his pregnant partner. Turnbull is certainly hoping it is. In Michael McCormack he is hoping he has a low-key Nationals leader and deputy prime minister, more in the mould of Warren Truss or any of the top Nationals who worked with John Howard. He may finally get lucky, but Joyce’s capacity to destabilise from the bleachers cannot be underestimated if another former leader, Tony Abbott, is any guide.
After his election on Monday, McCormack did his best to publicly lock in Joyce as part of the team. He said, “I wish him well into the future and I look forward to him being part of our strong National party going forward.” Indeed, some in that team, no sooner had they elected the new leader, were talking about a Joyce comeback. But McCormack doesn’t see himself as a seat warmer; he says he has been elected to the job and intends to get on with it.
His problem is he comes to it with very little political capital. It is something he will have to accumulate in the less than 12 months between now and the next election. Some of his colleagues in Queensland fear he will never have the “oomph” of Barnaby Joyce as a checkmate for Pauline Hanson and One Nation. They are talking about a campaigning role for him. Joyce does not rule out a “Churchillian” style comeback, proffered by Victorian National Andrew Broad for him. Joyce says he “never rules anything in or out, otherwise later on in life you look like a hypocrite”. He added he didn’t “expect to return but I will always do the very best job I possibly can in any role that’s given to me”.
For many Nationals, inside the parliamentary party and outside it, the “Joyce experiment” is over. It should be remembered that Joyce is the member for New England because he was blocked from being preselected for a safe Queensland seat. The veteran member for Maranoa, Bruce Scott, harboured deep concerns about Joyce and stayed on longer to stall him. As did Warren Truss as federal leader before he had to succumb to Joyce’s relentless ambition.
That ambition and populism did much to make Joyce a divisive figure, “factionalising” the small Nationals outfit in Canberra. That’s the considered view of the man who ran the organisational wing of the party for five years, Scott Mitchell. Writing in The Australian, he said the party’s success in holding all its seats in 2016 was not because Barnaby was a household name but because the “Nationals ran a series of electorate-by-electorate campaigns focusing on important local issues”.
The party room election for a Joyce replacement was a near-run thing, as the Joyce faction battled the rest for the heart and soul of the enterprise. Joyce acolyte David Littleproud – catapulted into cabinet in his first term at the expense of the more experienced and respected Darren Chester – came exceptionally close to the top prize. His colleagues believe he was urged to run by Joyce and only pulled out at the last minute when he couldn’t get a couple more votes across the line. New South Wales National David Gillespie is hoping the new leader “can heal the turmoil and hurt in our party”.
The fate of the Turnbull Coalition government depends on McCormack holding his party together. It is no easier task than Turnbull has with his party – although the Liberals seem to have come to the realisation that Tony Abbott is no longer the answer to their problems, nor is anyone else on offer. The government’s one-seat majority makes every member – Liberal and National – capable of bringing down the whole show. Despite a flash of incipient recovery before the Barnaby bombshell hit, the performance of the government has many despondent.
Queensland National George Christensen believes survival for him and his party would be better served if they pulled out of the Coalition. On Facebook last weekend, as a prelude to the leadership vote, he wrote: “I believe the formal Coalition is too restrictive. I would rather see a Liberal prime minister, Liberal deputy prime minister and a full cabinet of Liberal ministers than have to compromise our values and the welfare of the good people we represent.”
This view, of a more assertive National Party even being prepared to sit on the crossbench, was shared by Joyce at one time. Of course, it would mean forgoing the whiff of ministerial leather and a $400,000-a-year salary as deputy PM. Christensen shocked his colleagues by breaking Nationals’ convention and running against McCormack for the top job. He thus denied the new leader the appearance of being the consensus candidate, but by what margin we will never know as the party keeps the ballot details secret. His view of the way forward was rejected.
Christensen undermined the government’s concerted character assassination of Labor’s Bill Shorten this week, as well. In a piece of orchestrated media management, The Australian and the TV networks’ bureaus in Parliament House were given a USB drive with a recording of the Labor leader’s speech to miners locked out of Glencore’s Oaky North coalmine last year. Although there was nothing new in it – the speech received coverage last October – it was given front-page treatment as a foretaste of question time tactics. Shorten was accused of telling “militant CFMEU miners” that he promised he would change industrial relations laws to make it harder to lock out workers.
Turnbull and a succession of ministers ignored the details. In their telling, Shorten was the puppet of “union thugs”, some of whom had threatened the families of fellow workers they accused of being scabs during the long-running dispute. He was going to scrap Gillard government laws to strengthen the militant union’s power.
The seven-month lockout by the multinational mine owner, whose record of tax minimisation is controversial, is the longest in Australian history. It was exploiting a loophole in the Fair Work Act where an employer can go back to the award as a basis for negotiation rather than the previous enterprise agreement. The Fair Work Commission finally ordered an end to the lockout this week.
Shorten told parliament that the miners were not on strike, they were locked out by the company in an attempt “to force them to accept a cut in pay and conditions”. He said he had often made the point publicly that the “industrial relations system is being abused and distorted to disadvantage workers” and in government he would legislate to fix this.
Christensen, whose highly marginal seat has “decent men from my electorate who were locked out”, told parliament minutes before the question time onslaught he would lobby the government to change these lockout laws. He said, “Mining companies need to stop this practice, or government is going to stop it for them.” It’s a brave call his own government is unlikely to heed.
And that is because there is a view at its highest level that their last best chance to hold on to power is to attack Shorten at every opportunity. But as one veteran Liberal says: “They don’t get it. It’s not about Shorten; it’s about them. It’s about Malcolm and Barnaby and Scott.”
Meanwhile, Labor strategists can’t believe their luck. Turnbull has not only doubled down on his big corporations’ tax cuts but has linked them to the lead of his new best buddy, Donald Trump. Shorten called the cameras into this week’s caucus meeting to make the point: “If Malcolm Turnbull thinks that Trump’s America is a vision for Australia, he is more inept than we thought, more out of touch than we thought, and doesn’t have a proper plan for Australia.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 3, 2018 as "PM hopes for no McCormack spice".
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