Driven by Black Jack’s determination, Joyce’s leadership ambitions not dead yet


It is that type of approach that Joyce taps for inspiration and which leads many of his colleagues to believe this week’s attempt to snatch back the Nationals leadership will not be his last.

Depending on which camp is to be believed, Joyce fell just “one or two” votes short of deposing incumbent Michael McCormack on Tuesday morning, or finished about nine short.

Long-standing National Party convention means only whip Damian Drum knows the result and he is forbidden to release it publicly. In a party that has endured very few leadership challenges over 100 years, the oddity has never really been a problem. But this week the lack of a transparent outcome has allowed both camps to brief two very different tales.

The junior Coalition partner is enduring a somewhat calamitous period in its history. In the citizenship saga that plagued the last parliament, Joyce – then deputy prime minister – and his deputy Fiona Nash were forced out by the High Court.

When Joyce returned in a byelection, he launched a reshuffle that was viewed internally as “vindictive”, dumping Victorian Darren Chester from cabinet and stripping Queenslander Keith Pitt of his ministerial position.

It injected a rarely seen level of animosity and anger into the party room and left many MPs questioning whether Joyce was at that point mentally up to the task given the strain he was under.

Nationals MP Barnaby Joyce in Parliament on Tuesday.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

At the time there had been intense speculation over Joyce’s private life, a breakdown in his marriage and sexual harrassment allegations. He eventually stood down as party leader in February 2018 after it was revealed his former media adviser, Vikki Campion, was pregnant with his son.

McCormack took on the leadership but the bitter internal fallout continued up until the Coalition’s shock election win last May.

About four MPs remained as Joyce’s rusted-on support base and McCormack had a similar number.

“And everyone else in the party room either can’t stand Barnaby or just thinks they should be doing the job themselves,” one Nationals MP remarked. “I think perhaps half of the room would concede Michael hasn’t done a great job, but there’s also a similar amount who would never want Barnaby back.”

Senator Bridget McKenzie in the Senate on Wednesday.

Senator Bridget McKenzie in the Senate on Wednesday.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

The resignation of Deputy Nationals Leader Bridget McKenzie from the federal cabinet amid the sports rorts saga last weekend unearthed all the frustrations that had been boiling away for almost two years.

McKenzie nearly faced a challenge late last year over her handling of agricultural issues, but even then the attacks on her were viewed as a proxy war between Joyce and McCormack.

McCormack’s anguish and frustration following Tuesday’s spill centred mainly around the fact the Nationals had retained their 16 lower house seats last May despite the fact that they were written off (as they are routinely are) by commentators and political pundits.

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Predicted wipeouts at the hands of One Nation and independents in regional Queensland and NSW did not occur, and candidates emerged victorious in a three-cornered contest in Mallee and in Cowper, where former independent Rob Oakeshott had attempted a comeback.

“We have to draw a line in this, not for our sakes but for the people we represent,” McCormack told The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald. “It’s not good enough that clear air has not been available for any longer than a matter of days, and it seems hours at times. It’s not good enough that we talk about ourselves and the media has this obsession with National Party ructions and leadership speculation.

“The people of Australia, particularly those who live in the regions, need to know that we are there for them, not ourselves.”

But growing anger from regional Australia with the government’s response to the drought, handling of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and energy policy has radicalised a group within the ranks.

As part of his pitch for a second go at the leadership, Joyce had promised colleagues he would renegotiate a stronger Coalition agreement that would include more coal-fired power and a “better basin plan”.

“I’ll be looking at the issues of resources and power and energy prices, especially to the north,” he said prior to the ballot. “I’ve been in politics longer than Scott Morrison, and I’ve been in leadership longer than Scott Morrison … I know how to deal at the highest level.”

Despite declaring “the issue is finalised”, Joyce and his block of supporters, Queensland MPs Llew O’Brien and George Christensen, are now threatening to use their balance of power to vote down government legislation, a retaliation against McCormack’s refusal to promote any of his opponents to the frontbench.

The block could cause trouble for the Morrison government, which has a two-seat majority and a crossbench of five to contend with where the only vote it can rely on is Queensland independent MP Bob Katter.

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Much of the frustration of Joyce supporters centres on the fact that Canavan, who resigned on Monday night to support Joyce in his leadership bid, was not returned to cabinet.

“Abbott found room for Turnbull, and Albanese for Shorten … it’s pretty spiteful that Michael can’t produce an olive branch for party unity,” one Joyce supporter said.

Joyce sums up the week simply: “I stood and I lost.

“I respect and support the vote of the room and will strive for the re-election of a Morrison-McCormack government.”

But Joyce, who will always stress you “never say never”, telegraphed there may just be another push for the top job down the line.

“We arrive now at the period two years prior to the next election,” he said. “This period is vital in setting the agenda that the Australian people will make their judgment on as to whether we remain with the reins of the nation in two years’ time after the next election.

“There is difficulty in standing behind a promise; it is so much easier to stand beside delivery if you want to get re-elected.”

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