Victorian Nationals MP Darren Chester, controversially dropped from cabinet by Barnaby Joyce, has been restored to the ministry in a minimalist reshuffle by new party leader and Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack.
Chester takes McCormack’s old posts of veterans’ affairs and defence personnel. He also replaces McCormack as deputy leader of the house. He will be in the outer ministry rather than in cabinet, as he was previously, but is believed to be happy with the outcome.
The dropping of Chester in the December reshuffle – on the stated grounds that the election of Bridget McKenzie as deputy meant Victoria would be over-represented in the Nationals’ cabinet line-up – sparked much criticism. It added to the pressure on Joyce when the news of his affair with a former staffer broke.
In other changes, Queenslander Keith Pitt, also dropped by Joyce, becomes assistant minister to the deputy prime minister.
Mark Coulton, from New South Wales, is elevated to assistant minister for trade, tourism and investment.
Two assistant minister have been relegated to the backbench – Damian Drum from Victoria and Luke Hartsuyker from NSW.
McCormack has rewarded supporters but has been cautious in making changes. Rumours were flying among some in the jittery Nationals of much wider changes though these never seemed likely, given the new leader needs to settle the party down. McCormack said in a statement that “ultimately my focus was on maintaining stability so the government can get on with the job of delivering for the nation”.
On Monday, McCormack was sworn into the infrastructure and transport portfolio that Joyce took from Chester in December.
One man’s disaster is another man’s serendipity. If Barnaby Joyce hadn’t fallen spectacularly, Michael McCormack, 53, the new deputy prime minister, would likely never have become the Nationals’ leader.
In the normal course of events, by the time Joyce had moved on the party probably would have been ready for generational change – for example, to Queenslander David Littleproud, 41, who counted the numbers at the weekend but found he did not have enough for a tilt at the leadership on Monday.
Littleproud, a former agri-banker who was elevated by Joyce in December from the backbench to cabinet, potentially had as many as eight or nine out of the 21 Nationals, according to his supporters.
McCormack, the one-time editor of a regional newspaper who holds the New South Wales seat of Riverina and was a junior minister, comes to the top job with no blood on his hands, and with the Nationals knowing it is in their interests to get solidly behind him ahead of a difficult election next year. Those are significant advantages.
On the other hand, McCormack faces an uphill and possibly hazardous path, as he tries to establish himself within the government – where he’s unlikely to be a Joyce-type squeaky wheel and so could lose battles – and in regional Australia.
Joyce set the electoral gold standard for the Nationals at the 2016 election. When Turnbull was losing multiple seats the Nationals kept all theirs (and took one from the Liberals).
To replicate this or come close, McCormack must project the Nationals as having a distinct identity and relevance, and to cut through with their messages.
As one Nationals source puts it, when the Liberals are in the ascendant, as in 2013, the Nationals can ride on their coat-tails. But when the major partner is struggling, as in 2016 (and likely in 2019), it’s vital for the Nationals to distance themselves and establish their own pitch for support.
For all that Joyce’s position was untenable and his resignation a relief for the government, most of the Nationals – apart from Joyce’s known enemies – lament what they’ve lost. They recognise that even if McCormack proves a good leader he will never resonate in the bush the way Joyce has in the past (how he will in the future, after everything that’s happened, remains to be seen).
McCormack will need to work especially hard in Queensland, a state vital to the Nationals at the election (and where the Liberals and Nationals are formally joined in the Liberal National Party). Joyce was uniquely placed – a sort of dual citizen, the cheeky might say, who holds a NSW seat but previously was a Queensland senator.
Even after he moved to NSW, the Nationals from Queensland still saw Joyce as one of them. They had him there in the Queensland election, which was on when he was fighting his New England byelection. McCormack doesn’t enjoy such a convenient dual identity.
It will be important for McCormack to establish a good relationship with Littleproud, who’s well placed to help with the formidable task of Queensland campaigning. Those who know Littleproud say he is by nature loyal and would not seek to undermine McCormack.
Another Queensland challenge is maverick Queensland backbencher George Christensen – who made a token run in Monday’s leadership vote. He was difficult enough for Joyce to handle, though the two were personally quite close. Christensen won’t be any easier for McCormack, and could be harder.
How Joyce plays things in the next few months will be relevant to McCormack’s ability to run a united team.
As well as always being a centre of interest because he’s such a colourful character, in the minds of some in the party and the media Joyce is not dead forever. Immediately after he was elected as leader, McCormack was asked whether he was “keeping the seat warm for Barnaby until he can mount a comeback”.
Such questions (though I think far-fetched) must be annoying for the new leader. But whether Joyce’s presence becomes a serious irritant depends as much on McCormack’s performance as on Joyce’s behaviour.
Most immediately, Joyce’s travails aren’t over. It was revealed in Senate estimates on Monday that last week Malcolm Turnbull asked the head of his department, Martin Parkinson, to look into whether Joyce had broken the ministerial code of conduct. This investigation has now been abandoned with Joyce’s resignation.
But the Independent Parliamentary Expenses Authority is still probing whether there was any misuse of entitlements by Joyce and his former staffer – now partner – Vikki Campion.
More seriously, the Nationals’ organisation has on its plate the complaint from former Western Australian Rural Woman of the Year Catherine Marriott, accusing Joyce of sexual harassment.
Leaving aside the row over who leaked the woman’s name (the Nationals deny it was them), this matter is surely a nightmare for the party. How is it going to inquire into it? Is the matter going to be tied up in a protracted legal argument? Will Joyce and his accuser be summoned for questioning?
To state the obvious, the outcome of this inquiry is critical to Joyce’s personal reputation. He’s called for the allegation to be referred to the police. He has also claimed in private conversations that his rejection of the allegation would be backed by text messages.
The Tasmanian election will be held on Saturday. A ReachTEL poll, conducted for The Mercury on February 22 from a large sample of more than 3,100, gave the Liberals 46.4% of the vote, Labor 31.1%, the Greens 12.1%, the Jacqui Lambie Network (JLN) 5.2%, others 2.0%, and 3.3% were undecided.
When undecideds are excluded, the Liberals have 48.0%, Labor 32.2%, the Greens 12.5%, and JLN 5.4%.
Tasmania uses the Hare-Clark system, with five five-member electorates. A quota is one-sixth of the vote, or 16.7%. Sample sizes for each electorate in ReachTEL were 620-650. The Liberals had well over 50% in Bass and Braddon, and 49.6% in Lyons, implying they would win three of the five seats in each.
In Franklin, the Liberals had 42.6%, easily enough for two seats. In Denison, the Liberals had 33.8%, just enough for two seats.
On the stated figures, the most likely overall seat outcome is 13 or 14 Liberals out of 25, eight-to-ten Labor, and two or three Greens. So, the Liberals should win a majority.
Like other Tasmanian polls, ReachTEL has in the past skewed to the Greens and against Labor. At the last two federal elections, ReachTEL skewed to the Liberals in Tasmania, though it skewed against the Liberals at the 2014 state election.
Adjusting for ReachTEL’s skew, Tasmanian analyst Kevin Bonham thinks the most likely outcome is 13 Liberals, ten Labor, and two Greens. The next two most likely outcomes are 13 Liberals, 11 Labor, one Green; and 12 Liberals, 11 Labor, two Greens.
I do not think opposition to Labor’s anti-pokies policy caused the swing to the Liberals during the campaign. The most important factor was probably that many Tasmanians detest the Greens, and will vote for the major party most likely to win a majority. In 2006, Labor easily won an election that had appeared likely to result in a hung parliament.
The Greens’ vote of 12.5% in this poll is below the 13.7% they won at the 2014 election, and it could be lower given ReachTEL’s pro-Greens skew. It is likely the Greens are doing badly because Labor, under Rebecca White’s leadership, has become more left-wing, so the Greens are having trouble differentiating themselves from Labor.
Incumbent Will Hodgman led White by 51.8-48.2 on ReachTEL’s forced choice better premier question. Labor’s pokies policy was supported against the Liberals’ policy by a 57-43 margin.
ReachTEL 54-46 to federal Labor
A Sky News ReachTEL, conducted February 22 – the day before Barnaby Joyce resigned – had federal Labor leading by 54-46, a two-point gain for Labor since late January. Primary votes were 37% Labor (up one), 33% Coalition (down one), 11% Greens (up one), and 7% One Nation (down one). The remaining 12% probably included some undecided voters.
ReachTEL is using respondent-allocated preferences, which have been better for the Coalition than previous election preferences, as One Nation preferences are flowing to the Coalition at a greater rate than the 50-50 flow at the 2016 election. By last election preferences, Bonham calculates this poll was about 55.5-44.5 to Labor. This makes it one of the worst polls for the Coalition this term.
Despite the blowout in the Labor margin, Malcolm Turnbull continued to lead Bill Shorten by 53-47 in ReachTEL’s forced choice better prime minister question (54-46 in January). Although the Joyce affair appears to have damaged the Coalition, Turnbull is not being blamed.
Last week’s Newspoll, conducted February 15-18 from a sample of 1,630, gave Labor a 53-47 lead, a one-point gain for Labor. Primary votes were 37% Labor (steady), 36% Coalition (down two), 10% Greens (steady), and 8% One Nation (up three). This was Turnbull’s 27th successive Newspoll loss, three short of Tony Abbott.
The overall Labor/Green vote in this Newspoll was 47%; the left vote has been stuck at 47% in Newspoll since August. Despite the Joyce affair, the overall Coalition/One Nation vote was up one point to 44%.
Turnbull’s ratings were 34% satisfied, 54% dissatisfied (37-50 previously). Shorten’s ratings were the same as Turnbull’s, and Turnbull led Shorten 40-33 as better prime minister (45-31 previously).
A total of 65% thought Joyce should resign as deputy prime minister, while only 23% thought he should stay. By 64-25, voters supported a ban on politicians having sexual relations with their staff. By 57-32, voters supported Shorten’s policy to give Indigenous people a voice to federal parliament.
As long as Republicans hold Congress, no chance of real US gun control
After the recent Florida high school gun massacre, there has been a renewed push for US gun control. However, as I wrote following the Las Vegas massacre in October, meaningful gun control will not happen under Donald Trump and the current Republican-controlled Congress.
The Florida state legislature, which Republicans control 76-40, defeated a motion to debate a ban on assault weapons by 71-36, even as students from the affected school looked on. Instead, it passed a motion declaring pornography a public health risk.
Trump’s ratings are currently 39.1% approve, 55.6% disapprove, in the FiveThirtyEight poll aggregate. Before the gun massacre, Trump’s approval had risen to 41.5% owing to perceptions of an improving US economy; for several weeks, Trump’s approval was at least 40%.
Democrats lead by 47.0-38.8 in the race for Congress. Before the massacre, the Democrats’ lead had fallen to 6.4 points. All 435 US House of Representatives seats will be up for election in November, and also one-third of the 100 senators. Democrats probably need a mid-to-high single-digit popular vote margin to win control of the House of Representatives.
The Italian election will be held on March 4. 37% of both chambers of the Italian parliament will be elected by first past the post, and the remainder by proportional representation.
Italy imposes a blackout on polling during the final two weeks of election campaigns. The last polls were published on or before February 16.
In the final pre-blackout polls, the centre-right coalition was in the high 30s, with the centre-left coalition and the populist left Five Star Movement trailing with about 27% each. A left-wing breakaway from the centre-left had about 6%.
Even though the overall left vote is about 60%, the right could win a majority owing to the first-past-the-post seats.
The centre-right coalition includes former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s old party (Forza Italia). Although Berlusconi is banned from contesting elections, he could be the power behind the throne if his coalition wins a majority in both chambers.
The demise of Barnaby Joyce as leader of the National Party is an event of considerable importance in the long-term trajectory of Australian politics.
While his successor, New South Wales MP Michael McCormack, appears to have good conservative credentials, he is largely unknown to the Australian public, having held relatively minor ministerial portfolios such as Veterans’ Affairs.
Joyce was the last high-profile conservative leader left in mainstream Australian political life. With his banishment to the backbenches, it would appear that the triumph of left liberalism in Australian public life has been complete.
This needs to be explained a little further. There was a time when the Australian Labor Party espoused a mixture of what it called “socialism”, or social justice, and conservative social values. In part, this reflected the strength of the Catholic Right in the party. Those days are now gone, as can be seen in the way that the party so enthusiastically embraced marriage equality.
John Howard once famously described the Liberal Party in terms of liberalism and social conservatism. However, recent events would seem to indicate the continued ascendancy of the moderate, or social liberal, faction within the party. Like Barnaby Joyce, Tony Abbott sits on the backbench, hurling the occasional hand grenade at the moderate hegemony.
Two possible conclusions could be drawn from these developments. One is that the Australian population is increasingly adopting left liberal values; the postal survey on marriage equality could be cited as evidence, as even many National Party electorates voted in favour. A counter argument could be mounted that the political class has moved in a left liberal direction, even if the people they represent have not.
Even if left liberalism has become more dominant, this does not mean it has been universally embraced. Many Australians still adhere to more traditional values and do not want their voices to be silenced by what threatens to be a left liberal hegemony.
Of course, the primary role of the National Party is to represent the interests of rural Australia, which it has been doing for some 100 years. The only problem is that, during that time, rural Australia has become an ever-decreasing part of the Australian population. In 1922, when the then Country Party first entered into a coalition with the then Nationalist Party, it won 12.56% of the vote in the House of Representatives and held 14 seats in a 75-seat Parliament.
In 2016, the Nationals hold 16 seats in a 150-seat House of Representatives. The outlook is even gloomier, as the increased immigration of recent years has largely gone to the large cities. The number of National Party members can only decline over time. The rural voice will be heard less and less.
One option for the Nationals would be to merge with the Liberal Party. This has been tried in Queensland, where it seems to have benefited the Liberals while failing at last year’s state election to deliver government to the Liberal Nationals.
The trajectory of Australian social development means that rural Australia is forever doomed to minority status. One consequence of this development is that those holding conservative values are also condemned to being in a minority. One can only say that this is a very difficult situation.
One solution would be to embrace the dominant left liberal ideology. This, however, raises significant problems, as the Nationals represent a constituency that remains quite traditional in its values. The more liberal it becomes, the more open it also becomes to having its constituency stolen by parties espousing more traditional values, such as Pauline Hanson’s One Nation.
The reality of any democracy is that the majority should prevail, but minorities need to have protection from the “tyranny of the majority” and the tendency of majorities to impose their desires and values on everyone else. The reality in Australia is that the majority is based in urban areas and will increasingly come to hold left liberal values.
In such circumstances, the situation of those who are either conservative and/or rural becomes increasingly difficult. Their values and outlook will often be at odds with the majority, and their chances of prevailing on any major issue are not great.
The same is true for the National Party. It must recognise that it is a minority and that its constituency can only get smaller over time. This does not mean that it should embrace the left liberal hegemony. If it were to do so it would only risk being displaced by a competitor.
Rather, it needs to embrace its minority status, establish clearly what it stands for, and recognise that perhaps the best it can do is soften the harshness that the tyranny of the majority might seek to impose. It would be foolish to rush into the arms of the Liberal Party and suffer what conservatives within the Liberal Party have suffered at the hands of the moderates.
Independence has long been a primary virtue of rural Australians. It is a value they should continue to embrace. For all his faults, Barnaby Joyce was an embodiment of that spirit of rural independence. Judging by his background, McCormack is cut from similar cloth. It remains to be seen how he will portray himself to the Australian public.
Michael McCormack is the new Nationals leader and deputy prime minister, defeating Queensland maverick George Christensen, who was a late and unexpected starter in the leadership ballot.
McCormack, speaking after the party meeting, paid immediate tribute to Barnaby Joyce, saying he had been an “outstanding leader” whose “legacy will endure”.
The new Nationals leader went into immediate talks with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who’d returned from his US trip only hours before.
There will be a limited reshuffle, with the key decision being who occupies the key infrastructure and transport portfolio that Joyce had. There will also be interest in whether Victorian Darren Chester, dropped from cabinet last year by Joyce, is returned to the frontbench.
McCormack, 53, a former journalist, who is member for the New South Wales seat of Riverina, entered parliament in 2010. Most recently he has held the ministerial jobs of veterans affairs and minister for defence personnel. He is a former minister for small business.
His challenges will be to unite his party behind him, make himself widely known among rural and regional voters, forge a strong relationship with Turnbull, and establish his authority more generally within the government. He will also have to try minimise any disruption that having Joyce on the backbench may cause, as well as keep the perennially difficult Christensen under as much control as possible.
The challenge by Christensen, who at the weekend questioned the value of the Nationals being in coalition, was a token one. The numbers in the vote were not announced, and even the contenders said they didn’t know them.
A more serious potential contender, David Littleproud, from Queensland, pulled out late on Sunday night, under pressure for a consensus result.
Party whip Michelle Landry told reporters that in the partyroom Christensen had talked about the National Party’s values and what it had done for regional Australia.
In his comments after the meeting, McCormack emphasised he was a “team player”. He also said that while the National Party was a party of farmers, it was broader than that – with its MPs coming from many different backgrounds.
McCormack has taken Joyce’s portfolio of infrastructure and transport, and has been sworn into his new ministry and as deputy prime minister at Government House.
Demoralised Nationals meet on Monday morning to replace Barnaby Joyce, with their deputy leader Bridget McKenzie flagging a push for consensus on the leadership rather than a contest.
Late Sunday, only Veterans’ Affairs Minister Michael McCormack, from New South Wales, was a declared candidate after David Gillespie, assistant minister for children and families, pulled out of the race.
Agriculture Minister David Littleproud, from Queensland and close to Joyce, was “weighing his options”, according to his spokesman. Several people had urged him to run.
McKenzie told the ABC that in the Nationals “conventionally around leadership, there usually isn’t a vote.
“Deputy leadership positions are obviously hotly contested, but convention has been in previous times that we only ever have one candidate. But who knows? That’s up to the members and senators.”
Joyce will formally resign as leader at the meeting, after his announcement on Friday, in the wake of the scandal over his affair with his former staffer, now his pregnant partner, and a sexual harassment claim made to the Nationals by a Western Australian woman.
The claim has set off fresh trauma for the party after the name of the woman who made it, former Western Australian Rural Woman of the Year Catherine Marriott, was leaked. She had wanted her identity kept confidential.
The Nationals have been accused of the leak, with the president of the National Farmers Federation, Fiona Simson, tweeted:
McKenzie said she had “absolutely no evidence to suggest that the National Party has been the one to actually put Ms Marriott’s name forward”.
She said she had commitments from the Nationals’ federal president and federal director that the party did not breach Marriott’s request for confidentiality.
Pressed on where else the leak could have come from, McKenzie said: “My understanding is, through a range of networks, that it wasn’t unknown who the complainant was.”
As the Nationals, reeling from recent events, try to regroup, maverick George Christensen, from Queensland, questioned the value of the Coalition for his party. He said the party must choose a leader “who will deliver for regional Australia rather than serve at the table of the elitists’ metropolitan feast in the hope of nicking a few scraps for the bush”.
“I believe the formal Coalition is too restrictive. I would rather see a Liberal prime minister, Liberal deputy prime minister, and a full cabinet of Liberal ministers than have to compromise our values and the welfare of the good people we represent,” he wrote on Facebook.
McCormack, 53, entered parliament at the 2010 election representing the seat of Riverina. He is a former journalist and was editor of The Daily Advertiser in Wagga Wagga. While editor he published in 1993 a strident anti-homosexual editorial, for which he had to apologise repeatedly over the years.
McCormack is socially conservative but has not had a sharp profile on issues generally, beyond his commitment to regional areas and small business.
Littleproud, 41, has had a meteoric rise. He only entered parliament at the 2016 election but was elevated by Joyce from the backbench to cabinet in the December reshuffle.
Littleproud announced just after 11pm on Sunday night that he would not be contesting the leadership. He said in a statement: “Now is not the time for internal contests. Now is the time for all individuals to be team players. Now is the time to think about stability and the good of the party.”
He said it was time for The Nationals to get behind McCormack as leader.
In the end, the tough man crumpled. For a fortnight Barnaby Joyce had resembled someone out in the snow who’d broken through the pain threshold, as he defied massive pressure and political common sense to try to cling to his job.
But as the scandal engulfing him tore at the government, he finally gave way; on his own account, a sexual harassment allegation that was revealed publicly only on Thursday was the last straw.
Most observers thought the saga had to come to Friday’s conclusion. The media stories weren’t going to stop. They were of two kinds. There were those surrounding the employment arrangements made for his former staffer and now pregnant partner Vikki Campion. The others were the various claims of inappropriate behaviour that kept surfacing.
His Nationals colleagues, despite their admiration for Joyce’s campaigning and other abilities, looked on aghast during the last two weeks, increasingly pessimistic about the way things were going. Never mind his enemies – by Thursday, even his loyalists could not see a way through.
Within the government, clearly the relationship with Malcolm Turnbull was gone after the prime minister’s extraordinary personal attack last week and Joyce’s counterpunch. The staged weekend meeting to suggest a patch-up was farcical.
The fact that Joyce informed Acting Prime Minister Mathias Cormann, rather than Turnbull himself, of his impending resignation announcement says it all. Joyce’s opinion of Turnbull now likely matches what Tony Abbott thinks of Turnbull. Abbott had a thinly veiled jibe in his tribute to Joyce, saying “part of the problem has been poor management at the most senior levels of government”.
Joyce’s departure to the backbench obviously brings immediate relief for the government and the Nationals. What it will mean beyond that is more difficult to predict.
Michael McCormack, from New South Wales, seems virtually certain to become the new Nationals leader. He’s a junior minister with a relatively low profile, and has sometimes been shielded in parliament’s Question Time by more senior ministerial colleagues. The party is moving in behind McCormack, because there is no real alternative, and in an effort to show it is regrouping.
Another NSW National, David Gillespie, has also put up his hand – despite still waiting on a High Court decision about his constitutional eligibility to sit in parliament. But he is not a chance.
McCormack might grow into the job, as leaders sometimes do. Tim Fischer (unkindly) likes to remind me that I wrote him off when he became leader, and then had to acknowledge how well he turned out.
But taking over in these circumstances will be hard going for the new chief, who must sell himself in the electorate as well as establish enough authority within the government to enable the Nationals to punch above their numerical weight.
In the parliament, the Nationals are a top-down party. They number only 21, so they need their leadership to be strong – ideally not just the leader but their other senior ministers as well.
They are eons from the glory days of John McEwen, Doug Anthony, Ian Sinclair and Peter Nixon. But Joyce, under whom the party performed well at the 2016 election, enabled it to hold its own in the Coalition.
His successor will step into a Coalition climate in which many Liberals are furious that the Joyce scandal and the Nationals’ failure to resolve it quickly wiped out the government’s good start to the year. Also, even before all this happened, the rural Liberals, looking for more bounty and kudos, were flexing their muscle against their Nationals colleagues.
Joyce (like Abbott before him) says he won’t snipe from the backbench. They all say that, the cynic might observe (especially a cynic watching Abbott’s run-up to Turnbull’s expected 30 losing Newspolls).
On the other hand, Joyce’s fall is different from that of Abbott. He was not knifed in a coup by his own party. Indeed, even on Thursday, some Nationals sources believed Joyce probably still had the numbers (whether they would have held in a spill is something else).
Joyce was brought down by his own behaviour, relentless media disclosures, and the reality that the government could not stand the damage being done to it.
Whatever he might say about being busy on other fronts, with the baby and all, discipline and quietness are not in Joyce’s nature. When he first entered the parliament as a Queensland senator, he crossed the floor countless times and caused many headaches for the Nationals’ leadership.
It would be surprising if, as a backbencher in the lower house, he keeps his opinions to himself, even if he eschews floor-crossing, given the government’s tight numbers.
It’s premature to judge how damaged Joyce is as a campaigner in regional Australia. Initial opinion polls are a limited guide. If it turns out he still has cache as a retail politician, it will be interesting to see how extensively the Nationals, under their new leader, choose to use him in the next election campaign.
At a human level, Joyce is the story of an unlikely rise and a self-inflicted fall.
Joyce – who garnered international publicity when he threatened to euthanise Johnny Depp’s dogs – has always been a larger-than-life politician, a distinctive brand.
When he arrived in Canberra in 2005, no-one thought he’d ever lead the Nationals. He punched through, overcame setbacks, and remade himself while retaining the characteristics that led people to regard him as authentic.
But then his personal flaws and indulgences cost him all he’d worked and schemed for, as well as bringing grief to many close to him.
In other times and circumstances, Joyce might have skated through, little harmed by the scandal. But today the personal can quickly become the political – something Joyce failed to understand.
Barnaby Joyce has capitulated to intense pressure and announced he will stand down, declaring the government needs clear air and he could not continue on the frontbench with an allegation of sexual harassment hanging over him.
He told a news conference in Armidale he would quit as Nationals leader and deputy prime minister on Monday at an 8am party meeting, where a new leader will be chosen.
After hanging tough for more than a fortnight, Joyce said the final straw was the harassment allegation, by a Western Australian woman, that was made to the Nationals federal president Larry Anthony and revealed on Thursday.
He had asked that the allegation, which he denies, be referred to the police. “But it’s quite evident that you can’t go to the despatch box with issues like that surrounding you.”
Malcolm Turnbull, who last week said Joyce “has to consider his own position” and will be relieved at his departure from the frontbench, quickly affirmed in a statement that the Coalition “partnership is undiminished”.
The crisis over Joyce, sparked by revelations in the Daily Telegraph of his affair of his former staffer and now pregnant partner Vikki Campion, has consumed and distracted the government, wiping out what promised to be a good start to the year.
The favourite to replace Joyce as leader is Michael McCormack, a junior minister from New South Wales. He is minister for veterans’ affairs and minister for defence personnel.
Joyce informed Acting Prime Minister Mathias Cormann and his Nationals colleagues before his announcement. He did not speak with Turnbull, who is in Washington. A week ago, Joyce denounced Turnbull’s very personal attack on him.
Today he said it was “incredibly important that there be a circuit-breaker, not just for the parliament but more importantly a circuit breaker for Vikki, for my unborn child, my daughters and for (wife) Nat”.
He said that over the past half a month there had been a litany of allegations. “I don’t believe any of them have been sustained.”
He condemned “the leaking, the backgrounding … it will destroy not only our government. It will destroy any government.”
Joyce confirmed he would stay in the parliament, and said he wouldn’t snipe from the backbench. “I have a lot of things I need to do,” he said. He was writing a book, and he wanted to assist his colleagues where he could to keep their seats. And his baby would be born in April. So “I’ll have other things on my mind”.
Joyce’s exit to the backbench means another reshuffle, hard on the heels of the December changes. Meanwhile John McVeigh, a Queensland Liberal who is minister for regional development, will act in Joyce’s infrastructure portfolio.
Joyce has been leader of the Nationals and deputy prime minister since February 2016.
While Joyce’s stepping down will relieve pressure on the government, there will still be intense questioning next week in Senate estimates about the employment arrangements for Campion, who was transferred from Joyce’s office to that of Resources Minister Matt Canavan, and later to the office of then-Nationals whip Damian Drum.
You can’t help loving how the boy from Belgium is relishing his chance to walk in prime ministerial shoes, even if they’re borrowed ones and he can occupy them only briefly.
Mathias Cormann, whose glory moment has been picked up back in his home country, swarms over the media at any available opportunity, so it’s not surprising he’s taking full advantage of this rare moment as acting prime minister.
Luckily for Malcolm Turnbull – who’s having virtually no luck at the moment – Cormann is a man of detail, who treads carefully (even if he did have that brain-snap in the 2016 election, heaping praise on Bill Shorten, when he meant Turnbull – a slip that mortified him).
While many in the government were groaning at Barnaby Joyce’s self-serving media appearances while on “leave”, Cormann cast the deputy prime minister as moving to “put some order into some deeply personal matters that previously have spilled over into the professional domain”.
A Joyce loyalist noted the contrast between Cormann’s measured and quite sympathetic tone and Turnbull’s moral denunciation (and sex ban) that last week re-inflamed the crisis. If Turnbull had sounded more like Cormann the matter mightn’t have got such new life. But Turnbull was playing to his own political needs, as he saw them.
Cormann’s skills will be important next week, when the government faces Senate estimates, with probing about the arrangements for Joyce’s former staffer, now partner, Vikki Campion.
In the lower house Turnbull, fresh from his US trip, and Joyce, reeling from his faux leave, will face days of ferocious questioning.
That’s assuming Joyce is not removed by his party. Or doesn’t capitulate to the pressure, belatedly citing the good of the government.
His position appears to have been weakened rather than strengthened by his publicity tactic. On Thursday, Victorian Nationals MP Andrew Broad called for him to stand down, declaring he would raise the leadership in the partyroom on Monday (not all 21 Nationals will be there – a spill would require a separate meeting).
It’s unclear whether Joyce’s apparent command of the numbers up to this point would change if the Nationals had a spill motion before them.
If Joyce is still in his seat at the end of next week, the Nationals will have little choice but to bunker down behind him, in the vain hope that his claim his skin will repair is correct.
As of now, the Nationals are a party in shock, paralysed by an extraordinary, fluid and unpredictable situation.
On another front, the government this week was clumsy in its handling of Tony Abbott’s call for immigration to be slashed.
The former prime minister’s proposal might be judged bad policy – certainly that is my opinion – and seen as deliberate provocation, but it will resonate with many Coalition voters and potential supporters on the right.
It was a mistake to let Treasurer Scott Morrison lead the charge against Abbott – a better strategy would have been to leave it to Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, whose portfolio includes immigration.
Abbott remains bitter about Morrison, a residue of the events of 2015. That turned Morrison’s takedown on immigration into something personal for Abbott, who countered by accusing Morrison of being prisoner of his department and declaring: “Scott should have the gumption to think for himself”.
If Dutton (who did make some comments) had carried the counter-case, the issue might have been lower-key. After all, it was not the first time Abbott has waded into this debate and it didn’t have to become such a big noisy story.
With the volume at full blast from both the Joyce and Abbott issues, the government drowned out Labor, where Shorten is trying to manage the party’s Adani policy, buffeted by the Batman byelection and the demands of the Queensland constituency, including a possible future byelection in Longman.
Early this month, at the start of the Batman campaign, Shorten appeared to be moving toward opposing the Adani project. He highlighted a claim that Adani put in an altered laboratory report when appealing a fine for contamination of wetlands, and said if Adani was “relying on false information” the mine didn’t deserve to go ahead.
Shadow cabinet discussed the Adani issue without reaching a decision.
Labor now appears to have walked back to a “let things take their course” line, in the expectation that Adani will fall over of its own accord.
Labor’s infrastructure spokesman Anthony Albanese said this week that government should set the broad policy framework, rather than deal project by project, and also pointed out that Adani has previously received the necessary approvals.
“What you don’t do is single out particular projects and then retrospectively change existing laws which would have ramifications across the board,” he said. “Very clearly the economics of the [Adani] project haven’t stacked up” so it had not been able to get finance.
Shorten this week was in northern Queensland announcing initiatives on jobs, hoping to inoculate Labor against allegations that by not supporting Adani it would cost the region employment.
As Shorten returns to the seat of Batman, which Labor is desperate to hold against the Greens’ push, there will be keen interest in whether he sticks to his line that Adani’s future depends on whether it stacks up commercially and environmentally, or he declares that Adani is already dead because it hasn’t jumped the commercial hurdles.
In the meantime, Labor can only be relieved that at least nationally, the government’s woes have given it useful cover as it struggles with its awkward Adani juggle.