Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Joyce’s war on metropolitan Liberals

“Stare the bastards down, Malcolm, they have nowhere to go.” This was the advice from two of Malcolm Turnbull’s closest allies given to the newly installed Liberal leader immediately after the September 2015 coup. The Nationals were holding out for a tougher Coalition agreement. Then Nationals deputy leader Barnaby Joyce told journalists in the parliamentary courtyard not to take the survival of the Coalition for granted. It was at that moment the seeds were sown for the Coalition’s five years of turmoil exploding spectacularly again this week.

The Nationals were always distrustful of Turnbull, none more so than Joyce. History recalls that, far from staring down the reluctant Coalition partner, Turnbull capitulated to their demands to stay with the defeated Tony Abbott’s agenda. And for good measure he even handed over water management to Joyce, with disastrous results for his own Murray–Darling water plan.

Turnbull, almost certainly acting on the advice of John Howard, saw preservation of the Coalition as vital to his government’s survival. But in not calling their bluff he passed up the opportunity to stamp his authority on the government. After his 2009 dumping as opposition leader, at the active urging of the Nationals, Turnbull was always afraid the hard right would blow up the show again. Joyce’s bomb-throwing this week was vindication for this view.

The broader electorate was looking to the moderate Turnbull to drag the government to the sensible centre on climate, energy, marriage equality and even the republic. Turnbull’s surrender on issues that voters identified him with undermined his government’s public support. His internal opponents in the Liberal and National parties blamed him rather than themselves for the government’s malaise in the polls. Then last August, in what was always a fit of self-harm, they cut Turnbull down.

This week began with the Coalition government recording its 50th consecutive Newspoll loss, and that by a margin of eight points. A National Party source has no doubt it was that result that triggered Joyce’s declaration of war on metropolitan Liberals, as he demanded the government underwrite a coal-fired power station in north Queensland. Prompting his outburst was his assessment that the government is doomed. It is now everyone for themselves.

Joyce couldn’t have put it more starkly than he did in his explosive RN Breakfast interview: “I’m not going to throw someone under a bus in Mount Morgan [Queensland] because of the views in Sydney or Melbourne – sorry.” An indication of just how damaging his intervention is, was the fact that the Opposition leader’s office distributed transcripts of the interview to the press gallery. Not surprisingly, Joyce even canvassed ending the Coalition so the Nationals could “look after our own people”.

The toxicity of Joyce’s intervention was not lost on the Liberal National MP Trevor Evans. He sits as a Liberal in Canberra and his inner-city seat of Brisbane definitely has a green tinge. Evans dismissed the idea of a government-underwritten coal-fired power station in Queensland as something he would not support in the party room and said he would characterise its proponents “as a very small and lonely minority whistling Dixie on this”. His views were echoed by urban Liberals elsewhere. A cabinet minister says there is no doubt climate change action is every bit as potent in this election as it was in 2007, when Labor’s Kevin Rudd swept to victory.

Joyce’s election fatalism is surely only going to make matters worse for the government. Consider this: to save at the most four Queensland “coal seats” north of Gympie, Joyce is putting at greater risk a dozen or more knife-edge seats not only in Sydney and Melbourne but throughout metropolitan Australia. A key Labor strategist bets we won’t hear the embattled Peter Dutton in his Brisbane seat of Dickson speaking out in support of new coal-fired power. The home affairs minister has been studiously silent on it.

Joyce’s backing for the six rebel Queensland Nationals who called for new coal power is made all the riskier because the argument cuts both ways. Coal projects can create jobs but they can also threaten jobs, particularly in regard to the Great Barrier Reef. Deloitte Access Economics estimates the reef’s economic contribution is $6.4 billion annually. This estimate is considered conservative, as is the figure of 64,000 jobs in tourism and related industries generated along the 2000-kilometre length of the reef.

In what many of his colleagues consider to have been a reckless outburst, Joyce raised the spectre of a challenge to current Nationals leader and deputy prime minister Michael McCormack. He said he would feel “no guilt” about putting up his hand if a spill motion was moved when parliament comes back for the budget in April. A spill was something his party room colleagues were quick to deny was on the cards. Joyce described himself as the “elected deputy prime minister” ignoring the factors that saw him “unelected”, such as his dual citizenship and the scandal around his marriage break-up and affair with a staffer, now his partner.

Unlike Tony Abbott, his former ally in the energy wars while Turnbull was prime minister, Joyce has not caught up with the changing times. Abbott, under siege from the independent Zali Steggall, who has plugged into the electorate’s climate change concerns, has backflipped on his opposition to Australia’s Paris conference emission reduction targets. His reasons are hardly reassuring for voters wanting the government to do more, though.

Abbott says the government, under a new prime minister and energy minister, has now “shaken off its emissions obsession, which needed to be broken”. His frankness confirms analysis by the Climate Council and others that our Paris commitments are woefully inadequate anyway. And the new energy minister, Angus Taylor, was until recently an outspoken critic of renewables. Taylor is now actively considering 10 coal-fired energy proposals vying for government underwriting.

Scott Morrison seemed to cut across Taylor’s bows during the week when he slapped down Joyce’s Queensland coal power station advocacy. He said the Queensland Labor premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, had “no intention of approving any such projects at all”, so he intends “to work in the area of the practical”. He quickly pivoted to renewables, spelling out “the practical” in terms of Snowy Hydro 2.0 and pumped hydro in Tasmania. It was a very different emphasis to the lump-of-coal-wielding champion in parliament two years ago.

Some coal spruikers, though, such as Resources Minister Matt Canavan, take Morrison to mean that other projects may well attract state government support elsewhere and therefore could go ahead. He says the Nationals will keep arguing the “clear need” north Queensland has for additional power. But even Canavan has read the tea-leaves by saying we may not see any coal projects before the election, “because Angus Taylor is diligently working through the details” and that takes time. The independent candidate for Kooyong, in Melbourne, Oliver Yates – a former head of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation – says the government is delaying any announcements because they fear a “negative reaction” in his and a string of other hitherto safe Liberal seats.

The rest of Australia may not have noticed but New South Wales is in the final week of a very tight state election. The most searing judgement on the Joyce-generated civil war came from the deputy premier, John Barilaro. The Nationals leader urged his federal counterparts to “shut up”, and in a scathing broadside said they should “wait until after they were annihilated” at the federal election before fighting among themselves. If the Berejiklian Coalition government falls, the recriminations will be fierce.

Bill Shorten says the Australian people don’t want to hear what he thinks about the Liberal Party – “they can work out for themselves the government’s a mess”. But he can’t resist spelling out how big a mess. He says it’s “the most divided government in many generations”, with “two prime ministers, 22 ministerial reshuffles, 12 energy policies, five defence ministers”. At a news conference in Canberra he stressed most of his frontbench have been in their jobs for five years working on policies. The irony is the Abbott opposition was stable for five years, too, before Abbott took office as PM, but if the polls are right, voters are getting ready to give Shorten the chance to deliver the stability we haven’t seen since the end of the Howard government 12 years ago.

Certainly Labor doesn’t have the bitter internal policy divide on energy and climate tearing the government apart. Shorten is now keen to push his agenda to the fore and is going out hard on the need for a “living wage” to lift full-time workers above the poverty line. He pointed to analysis in Guardian Australia showing corporate profits have risen 40 per cent since 2016 but wages have gone up just 8 per cent. And company tax cuts already paid have not been passed on to workers as the government forecast they would.

Governments lose elections rather than oppositions winning them. It’s a rule of thumb playing out in spades this time.

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

Paul Bongiorno
is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a 30-year veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery.