Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Barnaby Joyce divides again

The Morrison government was brought to the brink of collapse this week in a confrontation between the prime minister and reinstalled Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce. And while Scott Morrison emerged the undisputed winner after bruising negotiations over the shape of the ministry and direction of the government, the damage is far from repaired.

Joyce has embarked on what one of his own MPs has described as a course of incoherent and divisive politics, pitting regional and rural Australians against those who live and work in the cities. None of it is helpful to the Liberals or the government’s cause.

Government sources say Joyce raised expectations in his party room that he would demand and get a senior financial portfolio. Top of his list was a return of the Trade ministry to its traditional home in Coalition governments. Joyce also insisted he would push for a new Coalition agreement more favourable to the Nationals.

Morrison – who is no fan of the mercurial Joyce – stared down the Nationals leader in their secure Zoom-link discussions. The option put to the junior Coalition party was this: accept the brutal logic of the arithmetic, which establishes the Liberals as the dominant party, or blow up the government.

Joyce didn’t hide his resentment. He told the Sunday Murdoch tabloids he and the prime minister were “business partners, that’s all”. He said they were not in government to be mates and while he respects the office of prime minister, it’s not necessary to like the person.

In the past, Joyce has suggested that maybe the best way the Nationals could serve their rural and regional constituents was to sit on the crossbench and hold the Liberals to ransom on key issues.

That has never been put to the test. Even if Joyce still harboured the view, at least half his party room would not follow him into the wilderness. His strike against his predecessor, Michael McCormack, and the sacking or demotion of McCormack’s supporters, has left bitter divisions in the 21-member party room.

In the end, Joyce achieved no new Coalition agreement. There were no new ministries for the Nationals. He was left to reshuffle the hand dealt to the party at the last election, which Morrison had agreed with McCormack. How Joyce thought it could be any different says more about his delusional self-belief than anything else.

It didn’t take long for the prime minister to call Joyce’s bluff. Besides, Morrison’s own hand was constrained by the fact he has a majority of just one in the parliament. Taking ministries off Liberals or demoting them in favour of truculent Nationals would risk resignations and court the uncertainty of minority government.

What we are left with is a brazen trade of party room votes for jobs. Joyce is unapologetic, telling Channel Nine that’s the game of politics “and everyone knows how it works”. Merit and the national interest run a poor last by this calculus.

The starkest example of that was in the demotion to the backbench of McCormack’s numbers man, the respected Veterans’ Affairs minister Darren Chester. Chester told ABC TV that the conversation he had with Joyce when the new leader called to sack him was “so incoherent” that he “couldn’t actually explain what he was even saying to me”.

Chester was replaced in cabinet by Andrew Gee, who backed Joyce on a promise of promotion following an undistinguished stint in the junior ministry.

Chester, a regional Victorian, has resisted the temptation to switch to the Liberals. Such a move would rob the Nationals of one of their slots on the frontbench. It must have crossed his mind: Chester says he has been twice “screwed over” by his party.

It didn’t take long for Chester’s warning of incoherence to be realised. In those same Sunday interviews, Joyce said we have to learn to live with the pandemic. He wondered what would happen to universities next year if we didn’t, saying: “What? You close all the fucks down, do you?”

When asked about locked-down Melbourne, Joyce said: “In country areas we couldn’t really give a shit. We’ve got record exports of coal. Record exports of beef. But we look at Melbourne and go, you can almost smell the burning flesh from here.”

These comments make no political sense from a deputy prime minister of the nation in a Coalition government desperate not only to hold its metropolitan seats but to win some in order to retain office. Someone needs to remind Joyce of electoral boundary redistributions that have put two and more likely three Liberal seats in jeopardy.

His unsympathetic and bizarre comments on Melbourne’s lockdown and the fate of universities surely undermines the credibility of the Commonwealth’s pandemic response. So does failing to wear a face mask, for which he was fined this week.

There is a similar lack of sense in Joyce taking the Resources and Water portfolio out of cabinet. How Scott Morrison even agreed to this has many in Canberra scratching their heads.

Joyce made the move because he had to create space to deliver on a promise to a new supporter. The relevant minister, Keith Pitt, was expendable: he had switched to Michael McCormack previously.

Labor’s Anthony Albanese was quick to point out that the demotion sends a message to mineworkers everywhere, one that says self-interested power plays take priority over them. Joyce’s assurances that Pitt would still be over “this portfolio like a bad suit” is open to whatever meaning you want to give it.

The fact is, now as a junior minister, Pitt has no one in cabinet to report to except one of the relevant Liberals. Certainly it’s a strange way for Joyce to deliver on his commitment to elevate the Nationals brand in policy areas close to their hearts. Albanese is promising to restore the Resources and Water portfolio to cabinet in a Labor government.

Bridget McKenzie was also rewarded for her loyalty – another strange call. As fate would have it, the release of an auditor-general report this week into the $660 million commuter car park program reminded many of her involvement in sports rorts.

Just over half the car park funds were allocated the day before Scott Morrison called the 2019 election. As with sports rorts, it had “inappropriate and opaque methods” and spreadsheets shared among ministers. The auditor found that 77 per cent of the projects were in shaky government seats. The Labor seats that got funds were ones being targeted by the Coalition.

Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus noted that 511 days after McKenzie “was sacked as Mr Morrison’s scapegoat for his corrupt sports rorts program, she’s back as a minister”. He added: “927 days after Mr Morrison promised an integrity commission, we still don’t have one.”

And while Darren Chester apologised to Australians for his party focusing on itself in the pandemic, there were further signs this week that the Morrison government is losing the political edge it has had during the crisis.

With 12 million Australians in lockdown by midweek, the premiers squarely put the blame on the federal government for its failures in vaccine and quarantine. New South Wales premier Gladys Berejiklian was blunt, saying “until we get the majority of our population vaccinated, we can’t get back to Covid-normal”. She said she couldn’t stress that enough and nominated 80 per cent of the population needing to be fully vaccinated before it could happen.

The returning Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, supported Queensland in calling for the Commonwealth to expedite special-purpose quarantine facilities and to cut the caps on international arrivals. That state’s premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, blamed the Commonwealth for the highly infectious Delta strain getting into the community, pointing to a business traveller who was given permission by the Morrison government for frequent trips between Queensland and Indonesia, a world hotspot.

Morrison’s Monday night announcement that AstraZeneca could be given to anyone below the age of 60 caught every premier by surprise. If nothing else, it added to the confusion and hesitancy now surrounding the vaccine rollout.

Newspoll on Tuesday reported a slip in the way the public views Morrison’s handling of Covid-19. Approval is down from 85 per cent a year ago to 61 per cent. The same poll found 61 per cent believe an Albanese Labor government would be the same or better. The poll found 25 per cent say better, while 36 per cent the same.

One Labor strategist says these figures show there is now no pandemic dividend for Morrison. He is counting on things rapidly improving later in the year, when millions of Pfizer and Moderna mRNA vaccines become available. According to a person who travelled with Morrison to Britain, the prime minister was mightily encouraged by the way his British counterpart Boris Johnson’s stocks improved with the success of the vaccine rollout there.

But on his extreme right flank, billionaire Clive Palmer and One Nation’s Pauline Hanson have embarked on their own anti-vaccine missions. It was their preferences – and in Palmer’s case millions of dollars spent on anti-Labor advertising – that contributed to the Coalition’s surprise election win in 2019. Morrison will need all the help he can get again this time, but keeping Palmer and Hanson on side while at the same time convincing Australians of the importance of vaccination won’t be easy.

Last weekend, in a two-page spread in Brisbane’s Courier-Mail, Hanson said she didn’t think Morrison was a good prime minister. She said he was an “arrogant bully’’ and she prefers Peter Dutton. With friends like that, or Barnaby Joyce, Morrison sure doesn’t need enemies.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 3, 2021 as "You pays your money and you takes your Joyce".

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