Through his messy personal dealings, and the surfacing of allegations of sexual harassment against him, Joyce has forced the Australian public to consider his sex life more than we would like, which is to say: at all. All while foghorning his opinions on the reproductive choices of women as loudly as possible, during his bonkers intervention in the NSW abortion decriminalisation debate last year. Barnaby needs a podium, and the leadership of the Nats will do just as well as the wombs of the women of NSW.
Joyce has been nursing his ambition to return to the Nationals leadership ever since he lost it in 2018 following revelations he had been carrying on an extra-marital affair with a staffer and she was pregnant. Later he appeared to cast doubt on the baby’s paternity, and then, after he lost his marriage and his ministerial position, complained about struggling to live on his $200,000 salary.
That Joyce’s leadership opportunity came on a day when the usual business of Parliament was halted to mark condolences for the lives lost in the summer’s bushfires, was inconsequential. Neither was it important that those fires still encircled Canberra as the Nationals party room convened at 9am on Tuesday. In a post-shame world, you do what you want because you can, and wait to see if anyone will stop you.
It was over before 10am, like a sort of throat-clearing exercise to dislodge some phlegm before commencing a speech. But it’s not over. The Nationals party room ballots are secret, and the vote-count is not announced – part of the fiction that the Nationals “do things differently” because they supposedly have the gentler habits of country Australians. As such we don’t know exactly how narrowly McCormack retained his leadership, but some reports had the vote very close.
We don’t need to watch the end of this show because we know how it plays. The first strike fails, but the leader is fatally weakened, and in McCormack’s case, he was already accused of being too weak. He has no firm power base in his party room numbers, or in electoral popularity.
Leadership contests are often seen as being about personality over policy, and while this was the case with Rudd-Gillard-Rudd, with Turnbull-Abbott-Turnbull, it was both. In the Nationals case, it is most definitely about personality and its ugly cousin, ego. But it is also about policy – the vibe of it, if not the detail.
Joyce has been trailing his coat for over a year, but his open leadership campaign in recent days was based on agenda of more coal-fired power, lifting land-clearing restrictions, and a re-drawing of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan to give more water allocations to farmers and less to the environment. Joyce, and his prominent supporter Matt Canavan (who resigned his cabinet post to support Joyce), are climate sceptics who want more coal mines built.
Although Morrison has no power over the Nationals party room, the election of Joyce would have been disastrous for him as he tries to steer a more moderate course on climate policy, to convince the Australian public climate change is a threat his government takes seriously.
In a deranged video he posted on Twitter just before Christmas, Joyce was seen howling, Lear-like, on a cattle field/heath near his home, his pate sticky with sweat. “You probably wonder what politicians do on Christmas Eve,” he began – betraying an ignorance of the kinds of things normal people do on Christmas Eve.
In his case, he was feeding cattle, and railing against climate change, which he said would never “change back” with a “new tax” (a tax no one is proposing).
“I’m sick of the government being in my life,” he cried. “There’s a higher authority beyond our comprehension right up there in the sky … unless we understand … that’s got to be respected then we’re just fools, we’re going to get nailed.”
That a serious leadership contender for the junior Coalition partner can openly invoke “a higher power” over a belief in science is a baffling thing. Like the frog who is boiled slowly, this is where we have ended up, the gift of a political culture which sees how low Australians’ trust in politics is sinking, and takes it as licence to behave even worse.
Jacqueline Maley is a senior journalist, columnist and former Canberra press gallery sketch writer for The Sydney Morning Herald. In 2017 she won the Peter Ruehl Award for Outstanding Columnist at the Kennedy Awards