a short history of lunacy in the Country Party


No one’s ever heard of The Nationals, either.

They were once united under the banner of the Country Party, and had leaders everyone recognised: blokes (it was always blokes in the Country Party) like Archie Cameron and Artie Fadden and Black Jack McEwen and Doug Anthony.

The Country Party, foolishly, went to water and decided it needed a name-change in the 1970s after one of its lesser lights, the marvellously named Sir Winton Turnbull (no relation) declared in one of his endless speeches to Parliament that “I am a Count-ry Member”.

“Yes, I remember”, Gough Whitlam was unkind enough to respond, and it was mostly downhill from there.

Here’s a quick quiz.

Who have been leaders of The Nationals since, oh, say, 2005?

The answer is Mark Vaile, Warren Truss, Barnaby Joyce, Nigel Scullion (for a month in 2017) and, for the past year and a bit, Whatsisname.

Each of these blokes was a mere stopped heartbeat from leading the nation, and actually ran it when the prime minister was away.

And yes, we had to look them up, too, with a notable exception.

Jammed among the ranks of the beige and the pleasantly forgettable was the dazzlingly colourful – beetroot, to be precise – Barnaby Joyce.

Suffering complications relating to his spectacular love life, Barnaby resigned a year ago, and has apparently loathed his decision ever since.

Now he wants his old job back, arguing that he is the “elected deputy prime minister of Australia”.

Joh Bjelke-Petersen at the height of his “Joh for Canberra” baroque period could barely have been capable of such bulldust.

Apart from the small matter of the resignation, Barnaby was never elected deputy prime minister – he wrangled the title out of his little band of parliamentary colleagues.

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You could argue he wasn’t properly elected to Parliament at all: no less than the High Court ruled he hadn’t been eligible to stand for his seat of New England in the first place, courtesy of his dual citizenship. And so he stood again at a byelection, admitting later that he knew he’d be resigning as Nationals leader soon after returning to Parliament.

Full marks for gall.

Barnaby is from another time. The sort of period that created Black Jack McEwen, a fellow who got a soldier settlement farm though he never went to war, and who wangled himself the first formal title of deputy prime minister from a grateful PM, John Gorton, after McEwen used his guile to wrestle Billy McMahon out of the contest for the job.

Perhaps Barnaby should re-establish the Country Party and vote himself the leader.

He’d have about as much chance of becoming deputy prime minister after the coming election as Whatsisname has of retaining the job, however.

No one in opposition, you understand, gets to be deputy PM.

Tony Wright is the associate editor and special writer for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

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