Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
The return of Barnaby Joyce

Before the voters got a chance to pass judgement on the Morrison–McCormack Coalition, the Nationals’ party room did. And its judgement was that the deputy prime minister was failing to deliver for his core constituencies.

Dispatched was mild-mannered Michael McCormack. His main sin was that he made the functioning of the Coalition too comfortable for the Liberals. According to an insider, the Nationals wanted a leader who could stand up to Scott Morrison and look after miners and farmers better. They did not want to be sold down the river of “woke” climate change action that would be needed to get to net zero emissions by 2050.

This narrative, at least at face value, is what motivated a majority of the 21 Nationals to re-elect the previously shamed Barnaby Joyce as leader. Dismissed were any concerns that the man who is known around Parliament House as the “Beetrooter” was too big a risk. The nickname is born of Joyce’s complexion and of the controversies that led to his demise in 2018.

At that time he drew the ire of then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull for having an extramarital affair with a staffer. That led to Turnbull’s ban on ministers having sex with their staff, and those close to Joyce say he is convinced Morrison played a significant role in backing Turnbull’s condemnation of him.

At the same time as the story of his affair broke, Joyce was being accused of sexual harassment by a senior woman in agripolitics, Catherine Marriott. The New South Wales Nationals conducted a secret internal inquiry and could not sustain the allegation “for lack of evidence”. On Monday, after his successful party room coup, Joyce again completely denied the claim as “spurious and defamatory” and said it should have been taken to the police.

But the leader of the Nationals in the Western Australian parliament, Mia Davies, is unconvinced Joyce is a suitable person to lead the federal party. Davies is a friend and supporter of Marriott’s, but her views are shared by the Nationals’ deputy leader in Victoria, Steph Ryan, who believes Joyce’s past actions should have precluded his return. In the federal party room, Michelle Landry and Anne Webster expressed concerns that Joyce could be a problem with women voters.

The Labor Party certainly thinks this is a vulnerability, especially in light of the dramatic change in sensibilities at Parliament House after the Brittany Higgins rape allegation. The opposition had its women MPs ask Joyce three pointed questions on his first day back as deputy prime minister. One quoted the head of Women in Agriculture, Alana Johnson, saying his return “would be a demonstration government members haven’t been listening to women”. To howls of derision from the Labor benches, Joyce said that “as a father of four daughters” he had a vested interest in assuring women’s safety.

Scott Morrison is attuned to the problem both the Coalition parties have with women voters. Behind the scenes he is urging state divisions to seek out and endorse as many women candidates as they can. What’s clearly worrying for him is how women on his side of politics and indeed from within the parliamentary parties were so quick to speak negatively about Joyce. Failing to engage with the Me Too moment in politics could prove electorally fatal.

The opposition leader, Anthony Albanese, is convinced that Joyce’s return is a positive for Labor. He was quick to stress the instability of leadership the Coalition has produced since its election win eight years ago: three prime ministers and four deputy prime ministers – counting Joyce twice. But after Morrison’s surprise win in 2019 there has to be a doubt that voters care too much about this leadership merry-go-round. John Howard’s old warning – that “disunity is death” – seemed to fail that test.

The real disunity, though, is on key policy areas. There is no doubt it is precisely here that the Joyce resurrection will prove Morrison’s biggest test. If Joyce and the Nationals’ coal champions from Queensland see their success or survival as being staked on having a separate agenda to the Liberals, then they will have to deliver highly visible showdowns, particularly on climate change.

Midweek, while Morrison and Joyce were locked in negotiations not only over who would be in the ministry but what jobs they were given, the Nationals went rogue in the senate, blindsiding their own government. Bridget McKenzie moved amendments to a Murray–Darling water bill, to the anger of South Australians across the board. The effect of her intervention would take 450 gigalitres of water from the system.

McKenzie’s amendments had no chance of success and were defeated by the Liberals, Labor and the Greens. But no doubt she and Joyce would be hoping their upstream irrigator mates would be noticing. The ploy would have sent shudders up Morrison’s spine.

In parliament the deputy prime minister praised his senate colleagues for showing that they understood jobs in regional towns along the river system are just as important as those in Adelaide or Sydney. Never mind that the minister responsible for the water buybacks they were opposing was none other than Keith Pitt, a Queensland Nationals cabinet member.

McKenzie was making the most of her last days on the backbench. She was on a promise from Joyce she would regain the cabinet position she lost after being demoted for her role in the $100 million “sports rorts” affair. Labor attacked her imminent reinstatement, saying it was a corruption of standards.

No wonder Morrison urged a quick return to unity and discipline at Tuesday’s party room meeting, into which he was beamed, Big Brother-like, on a giant screen. The prime minister was effusive in his praise of the deposed Michael McCormack as a beacon of team virtue. He said, “We will win the election when we show a stable and united front, focus on Australians and not ourselves, get stuff done and have a clear plan to the future.” It all sounds like a wish list.

If “getting stuff done” is to be measured against the vaccine rollout shambles or the quarantine failures, then this is a government in trouble. The so-called Bondi cluster, which quickly spread through metropolitan Sydney and beyond, is the latest example. The worsening Delta strain outbreak had New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian saying there was “a real sense of urgency” in getting Australians vaccinated. Incredibly, the prime minster told parliament the premier was happy with her vaccine allocation. Trump-like, he see things the way it most suits him.

Those with long memories – such as one government backbencher who greeted the return of Joyce with the observation, “Oh no, here we Joh again” – are holding their breath. Thirty-four years ago then Queensland premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen hijacked the federal Nationals, forcing them to take to the election a separate tax policy to that of John Howard’s Liberals. To that point the Coalition looked well placed to defeat a vulnerable Hawke Labor government. It didn’t. To this day Howard blames Bjelke-Petersen for thwarting him.

Voters then weren’t prepared to risk a government that couldn’t agree on such a key area of policy. The parallel to climate change is hard to ignore. Joyce and his co-plotters – Matt Canavan and Bridget McKenzie – seized on the possibility of a net zero emissions target as justification to tear down McCormack. It certainly fits with their broader objectives.

Climate sceptic and coal champion Canavan moved the spill motion on Monday. He was confident Joyce had the numbers against McCormack, or against McCormack and David Littleproud, had the deputy leader also thrown his hat in the ring. Labor believes it shows that the Nationals are nervous about their seats in central Queensland. Joyce all but confirmed this when he bellowed across the dispatch box that he would have “an absolutely laser-like focus” on the coalminers in Capricornia and Flynn to keep their jobs. He widened his gaze to Joel Fitzgibbon’s seat in the Hunter Valley and the neighbouring Labor “coal seats”.

At time of press, there was no decision on the net zero target. There was confusion almost immediately after the Nationals’ party room vote on just how hard Joyce would push Morrison to abandon his preference for one. Joyce seemed to give himself wriggle room by claiming any position he took would be that of his party room rather than his own preference.

David Littleproud, who is Agriculture minister, crab walked away from any perception created last week that dropping the target was non-negotiable. It all depends on the deal Joyce can get from Morrison for farmers, he told Sky News.

“You don’t give away your end price straight up,” Littleproud said. “We’re going to look at it, we’re going to see what we can get and make sure no one’s hurting.”

The jury is out on just how big a negative Joyce’s second coming will be for Scott Morrison and the government. What’s certain is that he’s made the prime minister’s life more complicated.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 26, 2021 as "Oh no, here we Joh again".

A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.

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