Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Barnaby Joyce wreaks havoc again

The exasperation in the government is palpable. “The only thing anyone is talking about this week is the Barnaby Joyce soap opera,” was the reaction of one fed-up backbencher. But it is not only the distraction that is the issue; it is the spectre of the former deputy prime minister out for payback against his own side of politics.

The publicity for Channel Seven’s paid interview with Joyce and his new partner, Vikki Campion, with a cameo appearance by their newborn son, Sebastian, has been priceless. A heavily scheduled promo on the network has alarm bells ringing in the ministerial wing. So sensational was it that rival channels ran it in their news bulletins. The couple who complained loudly that their privacy had been invaded have now traded it for a reported $150,000.

To quote the voice-over, this is “the illicit love affair that rocked Australia”. Now it is threatening to rock the government. The tease is that they will name the people “who tried to stop the baby being born”. Campion says she can’t repeat the words they said, but then speaks of “political pressure” that “if you don’t, they’re going to come after you”. Joyce chimes in, “They did”. In a pre-emptive reaction, one senior government source said this was a baseless smear.

The furore that greeted Joyce, a serving politician taking money to give a TV interview, was apparently unforeseen by him. On Tuesday night, after a sullen appearance in parliament, he produced a doctor’s certificate seeking leave. The Nationals whip told the Opposition it was for the remaining eight days of this session. Labor granted him a pair, meaning there were no voting consequences for the government.

Joyce played down the absence as “routine after a check-up” and contradicted his own party whip by saying he would be back for the June sittings. The discrepancy is an indication of just how unwelcome he is for the two weeks the government plans to put as much heat as it can on Labor over company and personal tax cuts.

The decision to reignite the controversy over his private life in such a venal way has certainly damaged whatever power and influence he once had. No more “Australia’s best retail politician”. Now, close to its most ungracious one, blaming his partner for the cash grab. He told The Australian it was Campion who decided to take money for their interview because she and their baby were being “screwed over”. He said the media were hounding them and her view was, “If everybody else is making money, then [I am] going to make money out of it.”

The government has good reason to believe the tawdry exercise is damaging it. Midweek on RN Breakfast, Hamish Macdonald told listeners that his usual practice of reading out texts and tweets after the 8am news had to be abandoned. “They are pretty much all about Barnaby Joyce this morning and none of them very nice, so I think we might just leave it there for today.”

On the same show, Revenue and Financial Services Minister Kelly O’Dwyer didn’t hold back when she agreed serving politicians should not “ever put a price on being accountable to the public”. She thought Joyce had made a mistake and in a scarifying assessment said: “Ultimately it’s a matter for him and his judgement. I personally wouldn’t do it. I don’t think it’s right. And I think most Australians are pretty disgusted by it.” Veterans’ Affairs Minister Darren Chester, a National, said Joyce’s behaviour was “unprecedented in my 10 years as a member of parliament”.

The Joyce pasticcio coincided with attempts by his good mate and ally in the energy wars, Tony Abbott, to ignite a revolt against the national energy guarantee. Abbott demanded the party room be given the full details of the version of the NEG that Environment and Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg would take to the states and territories in August. But Frydenberg rebuffed any early veto of the plan, which he said had already been considered by the party room.

Frydenberg is confident the work done by the energy security board in addressing concerns raised earlier by the states and territories, particularly the Labor ones, will meet their approval. Labor’s Mark Butler is not so sure, but this worries Abbott. He thinks Malcolm Turnbull and Frydenberg’s energy mandarins are “biased against coal” and the government is “pretending” to be technology-neutral in its approach to energy.

A government insider says Abbott is becoming a figure of fun. Not one MP in the party room backed his call for scrutiny ahead of the crucial states’ meeting. Further weakening the influence of the internal party coal lobby, which badges itself as the Monash Forum, is the fact that its other prominent member, Barnaby Joyce, is so damaged. There was talk in the corridors that the Nationals were thinking they may even need to replace him as their candidate in New England.

Joyce won his reputation as a formidable retail politician for the leading role he played in destroying Labor’s “carbon tax”. He was the first to call it “a tax on everything” and warn against skyrocketing energy and food prices – “the $100 lamb roasts”. Abbott joined the campaign with gusto after he deposed Turnbull as opposition leader in 2009.

But there is compelling evidence these nine-year-old arguments are not working this time. In fact, they are counterproductive and have helped destroy the Coalition’s credibility on energy. Besides the fact that energy prices have continued to soar in the five years of Liberal government without a carbon tax, the conflict in the Coalition is a public running sore.

Newspoll on the morning of this week’s party room meeting stunned them all. It went out of its way to ask: “In your opinion who would be best at maintaining Australia’s energy supply and keeping power prices lower, Malcolm Turnbull and the Coalition or Bill Shorten and the Labor Party?” The poll found 37 per cent went for Turnbull and 39 per cent went for Shorten.

One of the Monash Forum’s most outspoken members, Liberal backbencher Craig Kelly, warned the party room that not enough is being done to highlight the differences with Labor. He said Labor was promising a 45 per cent cut to carbon emissions and higher renewable energy targets, which he says “would force power prices higher”. Coal, on the other hand, would give cheaper energy security. This claim is not supported by any serious analysis. Australian Energy Market Operator chief executive Audrey Zibelman infuriated Abbott and Kelly recently when she said the equivalent of a coal-fired power plant was being added to the energy system every year through rooftop solar panels.

Kelly’s tireless spruiking for coal, and undermining through frequent Sky News appearances of Turnbull and Frydenberg’s efforts to come up with a durable and credible energy policy, has robbed him of goodwill in the higher echelons of the government. Turnbull as prime minister has gone through the expected motions of giving the sitting member an endorsement for his upcoming preselection but there will be no strongarming of Liberal moderate and Turnbull ally Kent Johns to pull out of his challenge. Party sources say Johns has more than enough in numbers to knock off Kelly. To head off that challenge, Abbott went on Radio 2GB to warn there would be a campaign of disruption that could harm the government’s election prospects. Essentially, he would declare war to save Kelly.

Turnbull told the party room that by this time next year the general election would be over. He insists it won’t be held this year. But Labor is convinced that could depend very much on July’s five byelections. The precedent has been well and truly set that prime ministers call elections when they think they have the best chance of winning. Newspoll this week showed the weak recovery for the government since the budget had stalled, with Labor gaining a point in the two-party-preferred measure.

But at 52–48, history shows that is a gap a government can bridge in a campaign. John Howard did it against Mark Latham in 2004. Turnbull is encouraged by the fact that he is half as unpopular as Bill Shorten and clearly the preferred prime minister. But he appears spooked by his Labor opponent. It is one thing to think Shorten is the best thing going for the government; it is another to elevate him to the main focus of nearly every interview, doorstop and answer in parliament. In last weekend’s New South Wales Liberal Party State Council speech in Sydney he named Shorten eight times.

Turnbull breaks a cardinal rule observed by one of Australia’s most successful politicians, former NSW premier Neville Wran. Wran, who was later a business partner of Turnbull’s and much admired by him, would never mention his political opponent’s name in campaigns. He would ignore the Opposition and let them struggle for their own headlines.

It is not only the prime minister running the “Kill Bill” strategy; the treasurer and the finance minister are equally exercised by the Opposition leader. Mathias Cormann seized on another Newspoll finding on Monday, highly criticised by polling analysts, that 63 per cent “back lower company tax cuts”. He announced the government would bring them and the personal tax cuts into the parliament this month and it would be a test for Shorten – “whether [he] wants to stand in the way of personal tax relief”.

Shorten’s up for the challenge and, based on recent history, can look forward to Barnaby Joyce and Tony Abbott doing their bit to help him with it.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 2, 2018 as "Barnaby’s reality cheque". Subscribe here.

Paul Bongiorno
is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a regular commentator on ABC Radio National Breakfast.

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