Barnaby Joyce has secured his colleagues’ backing to hang onto his leadership and Malcolm Turnbull has flagged he will be acting prime minister next week, despite the potential for this to cause further distraction for the government.
Although he is safe for now, Joyce is essentially on notice as leader.
In the short term, he is hostage to any new serious revelations in the media, and in the medium term, to his party’s assessment about whether he has become a political negative, as a result of his affair with his former staffer Vikki Campion, who is expecting his child.
Over the last few days Nationals MPs have been divided between a minority who wanted to force him to quit, his supporters who regard him as the party’s strongest asset, and those uncertain about what should be done.
Joyce is said to be very aware of the hurt in the party and the fact that he has to work to mend the political damage he has caused.
After a week of mounting crisis since the story broke, and intense internal discussions among Nationals MPs and by Joyce with his colleagues, senior Nationals went out in the media on Wednesday to strongly support the status quo.
Joyce’s recently elected deputy, Bridget McKenzie, who had been previously silent, told Sky she’d give “my absolute rolled gold guarantee … that come tomorrow, come Friday, Barnaby Joyce will be leading the National Party”.
Asked what she had to say to the women in the party, she said: “Look, there is an unease I think for all of us, looking at this as a woman.
“But I think we also have to recognise that we are realists. These things happen, in every family, in every town, in every workplace, across the country. It’s whether it impacts on his ability to deliver …
“So yes, there may be a bit of uncomfortableness around his personal life at the moment, but in terms of delivering, what does a woman want out of her parliamentarians and politicians? She wants us to come up here and work our backsides off delivering for them and for her family. That’s what he does.”
Nationals whip Michelle Landry said: “Barnaby will remain our leader. He has done a lot for us, particularly in regional Australia and I think we should give him a fair go with it.”
David Littleproud, promoted by Joyce to cabinet in December, said Joyce would continue to have the support of the Nationals’ partyroom.
In parliament, Bill Shorten asked Turnbull whether he still retained confidence in Joyce and “when the prime minister is overseas next week, will the deputy prime minister be the acting prime minister of Australia?”
Turnbull was as brief as he was previously, when he answered both questions with a yes. “You asked me earlier in the week, and the answer is the same as it was earlier in the week,” he said.
Some Liberals have been unhappy at the prospect of Joyce being acting prime minister when Turnbull visits the US, believing he will be pursued by the media, creating more bad publicity.
But not to have him acting prime minister would amount to a vote of no confidence in him.
The opposition pursued Joyce’s accommodation arrangements in his New England electorate where businessman Greg Maguire, his friend, provided him with six months’ free accommodation, worth some A$12,000, in an Armidale townhouse.
Labor plans to delve into the staffing arrangements made for Campion when Senate estimates are held the week after next.
After 24 hours in Canberra calming the troops, the Nationals’ federal president Larry Anthony said: “I think the vast majority of the parliamentary team are supportive of Barnaby.”
He said it was now important that the Nationals MPs “get back into their constituencies over the next week – people want to see them working and supporting their communities”.
The Nationals have elected Victorian senator Bridget McKenzie as deputy leader to replace Fiona Nash, who was disqualified from parliament by the High Court.
The win will propel McKenzie, 47, from the backbench into the cabinet when Malcolm Turnbull announces a ministerial reshuffle after the December 16 Bennelong byelection.
Promoted by cabinet minister Darren Chester, also from Victoria, McKenzie beat several other candidates, including Resources Minister Matt Canavan, a cabinet member.
This is the second consecutive time the party has chosen a female senator as deputy leader.
The Nationals have had five spots in cabinet and there has been some talk about whether the loss of Nash from the party’s parliamentary numbers will affect their entitlement, which is based on an arithmetic formula.
But Nationals sources say the arithmetic can be cut more than one way, depending on what date is used for comparison, and also that Malcolm Turnbull and Barnaby Joyce will not want to disturb the Coalition relationship.
Joyce’s strong win in the New England byelection on Saturday provided Turnbull with a fillip going into the final week of parliament. Joyce was sworn back into parliament on Wednesday and his vote ensured Labor failed to be able to refer a “job lot” of MPs, including four Liberals, to the High Court.
The euphoria surrounding the byelection win has soothed some Coalition tensions, including over the rebel Nationals forcing the government’s hand last week to set up a royal commission into the banks.
Much interest in the coming reshuffle will centre on George Brandis. After months of speculation that Brandis would leave parliament, the attorney-general, who has recently performed well after earlier political missteps, said this week he intended to stay.
It earlier had been an open secret that Turnbull saw the likely departure of Brandis as an opportunity to elevate Mathias Cormann, now deputy Senate leader and a conservative ally of Turnbull, to Brandis’ position of Senate leader.
Brandis has recently been active in asserting the positions of the Liberal moderates; he has been a vocal backer of the same-sex marriage legislation, which is set to pass on Thursday.
The meeting occurs in the 50th anniversary year of the launch of Australia’s first satellite, WRESAT. This project occurred as the culmination of a decade in which Australia was seen as a significant player in the space arena.
But now, Australia is perceived to be underperforming in the space sector. It remains one of only two OECD countries not to have a space agency (the other nation is Iceland).
So what happened in the past half century to slow us down? My doctoral thesis is attempting to find the answer.
The International Geophysical Year
Australian involvement in space activities commenced with participation in the International Geophysical Year (IGY), a global scientific research program focused on understanding the Earth’s relationship to its surrounding space environment. Longer than a calendar year, the IGY ran from July 1, 1957 to December 31, 1958, and was a significant catalyst for space-related activities in many nations.
In mid-1955, the USA and the USSR had both announced their intention to launch a satellite during the IGY.
In that same year, Britain and Australia’s Weapons Research Establishment (WRE) announced their IGY plans to launch sounding rockets for upper atmosphere research from the WRE-managed Woomera Rocket Range. Located in outback South Australia, the range had been established in 1947 under the Anglo-Australian Joint Project as a guided weapons development and test facility.
The decision to launch “sounding” (sub-orbital measurement-taking) rockets there for the IGY, coupled with US plans to launch the world’s first satellite, would lead to Woomera becoming the hub of early space activities in Australia.
The “space age” truly dawned in October 1957, with the surprise launch of the USSR’s Sputnik 1 satellite beating the US into orbit. A space race between the two Cold War superpowers commenced, with Australia poised to participate in the openly scientific and covertly military adventure of space exploration.
Rockets, satellites, citizen scientists
Britain’s Skylark sounding rocket program (1957-1979) would become the longest-operating space project at Woomera, launching British, Australian, European and American scientific instrument packages. Australian and British researchers made substantial contributions to X-ray, infra-red and ultra-violet astronomy using Skylark rockets.
Although the WRE’s first sounding rocket program was unsuccessful, the development of the Long Tom rocket in 1958 paved the way for a succession of Australian sounding rockets operating until 1975. This program, conducted in conjunction with the University of Adelaide, carried out upper atmosphere research that made important contributions to understanding the factors governing Australia’s meteorology.
Australia was also ideally located, geographically and politically, to host facilities for the two networks planned to track America’s proposed satellite, Vanguard. These were: Minitrack (a radio-interferometry system), and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory’s Baker-Nunn optical tracking telescope cameras.
Project Moonwatch volunteers, mostly amateur astronomers, supported the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory’s work by spotting faint satellites and establishing their orbital co-ordinates so that the observatory’s high precision camera could be then be focused on the satellite. Australia boasted five initial Moonwatch groups (Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Woomera and Perth) – the first citizen scientists of the Space Age.
NASA takes over
When NASA was formed in July 1958, it assumed control of these original tracking stations. By 1970, Australia was home to the largest number of NASA stations outside the USA, hosting facilities for its orbital satellite, “manned” space flight and deep space tracking networks.
These facilities, managed and staffed by Australians, made significant contributions to the early exploration and utilisation of space, particularly the Apollo lunar program. Television coverage of Armstrong’s first steps on the Moon came to the world through the NASA Honeysuckle Creek tracking station in the ACT (with the rest of the television during the Apollo 11 mission relayed via the CSIRO’s Parkes Radio Telescope).
Although advances in technology eventually rendered most of the Australian tracking stations obsolete, the NASA Deep Space Communications Complex at Tidbinbilla, near Canberra, continues to play a major role in the exploration of the Solar System. It was the station responsible for monitoring the final hours of the Cassini mission to Saturn, which concluded with the spacecraft’s death-dive into the planet’s atmosphere on September 15.
Defence focus, and WRESAT
Defence-related space research commenced at Woomera in 1958 with the Black Knight and Jabiru programs.
Investigating nuclear missile warhead design, materials and re-entry phenomena, defence research programs continued until just before the termination of the Joint Project in 1980.
Particularly important to the Australian space story was the US-led SPARTA Project (1966-67): the generous donation of a spare launch vehicle from this program enabled the launch of WRESAT (Weapons Research Establishment Satellite), Australia’s first satellite.
With a launch vehicle available, WRESAT was designed, constructed and launched in only eleven months: a significant achievement in itself. A collaboration between the WRE and the University of Adelaide, WRESAT’s scientific instrument package was derived from the Australian upper atmosphere sounding rocket programs and helped to corroborate their findings.
Launched on November 27, 1967, WRESAT gave Australia entry into the exclusive “space club” of countries that had orbited a national satellite.
At the end of its first decade of space activity, Australia had launched its own satellite, while a Melbourne University student-built amateur radio satellite awaited launch in the USA.
The WRE had an active scientific sounding rocket program, participated in defence space projects and was supporting the European Launcher Development Organisation’s (ELDO) satellite launcher test program at Woomera.
To build on these achievements, in 1968 the WRE proposed a modest national civil and defence space program, which could have harnessed WRE and civil space capabilities towards the development of an Australian space industry. The proposal was rejected by the Gorton government on the basis of cost.
This marked the beginning of a cyclical process that has, at least in the civil sector, hindered Australia’s ability to maintain its original level of space capability, or redevelop it over recent decades.
Political parties of both persuasions have shown shortlived, underfunded, bursts of support for developing an Australian space industry, only to withdraw that support just as these programs were achieving results.
Potentially beneficial membership of the European Space Agency (the European Launcher Development Organisation’s successor), to which Australia has been repeatedly invited, has been constantly rejected, also (ostensibly) on the basis of cost.
Timeline of key events in Australia’s space activities: click on arrows at right and left to go back and forth.
The reluctance of successive Australian governments to support national space activities and a national space industry has been something of a puzzle, especially given the country’s reliance on space-based services.
My PhD research has sought to find the answer to this question within the first two “boom and bust” decades of Australian space activity. So far, no clear answer has emerged, apart from claims that “it’s too expensive”.
While an economic case could perhaps be made for rejecting a 1959 Australian National Committee on Space Research proposal for a national science program – given that Australia was then in recession – the 1968 WRE and 1970 Australian Space Research Agency space program proposals were both put forward during periods of economic prosperity. Their proposed costs represented very small fractions of GDP, and could have been affordable.
These early space program proposals had modest proposed costs, and reflected modest goals of developing a national capability in an important emerging technology.
However, there seems to have been a perception in government that committing to a space program, and/or a space agency, meant committing to high-cost ventures such as human spaceflight (which were admittedly beyond Australia’s economic means at the time).
This unnecessary assumption, which was overtly expressed in the activities that were specifically ruled out of the 2013 Australia’s Satellite Utilisation Policy, has continued to bedevil proposals for the development of national space capability.
Pragmatism, or something else?
I find it hard to accept that, as one previous article in The Conversation has suggested, the “intense pragmatism” of Australian governments has left them content to allow other nations to control Australia’s access to space.
As early as 1960, the government clearly recognised the value of space applications to the management and economic development of the vast continent of Australia, and to its national security.
Will the outcome of these two reviews be the revival of Australian space activities, at a level to equal or surpass our space engagement of half a century ago. Or will the nation continue to remain “lost in space”?
Former Greens leader Bob Brown accused Lee Rhiannon of “perfidious behaviour”, as the defiant Greens senator fought back against united condemnation from her parliamentary colleagues.
The other nine parliamentary Greens, including eight senators and lower house member Adam Bandt, have written to the party’s national council complaining about Rhiannon who, when the Greens were negotiating with the government on the schools bill, authorised a leaflet urging people to lobby senators to block the legislation.
Brown, a long-time critic of Rhiannon, repeated his previous description of her as “the Greens’ version of Tony Abbott”, and his call for the NSW Greens to replace her at the election with someone more popular and constructive.
He said that while he did not disagree with the Greens ultimately voting against the legislation – because Education Minister Simon Birmingham had done a special deal with the Catholics – the Greens in their negotiations had obtained $A5 billion in extra money.
Education was not Rhiannon’s portfolio – and for her to advocate against the Greens leader Richard Di Natale and its education spokesperson, Sarah Hanson-Young, was “untenable”, Brown said.
The Greens letter said: “We were astounded that senator Rhiannon was engaged with [the leaflet] production and distribution without informing party room at a time when we were under enormous pressure from all sides as we considered our position on the bill”.
It said the leaflet had the potential to damage the negotiations that Di Natale and Hanson-Young were having with the government about billions in extra funding for underfunded public schools.
The Greens’ parliamentary partyroom will consider Rhiannon’s action.
Despite prolonged negotiations with the Greens, the government finally concluded a deal with ten of the other crossbench senators to pass the bill. But the Greens had done much of the heavy lifting to obtain a series of amendments. This included the additional money, which takes the planned total extra federal government spending on Australian schools to $23.5 billion over a decade.
In a statement on Sunday Rhiannon said she rejected allegations she had derailed negotiations and breached “faith of the party and partyroom”.
“I am proud the Greens partyroom decided to vote against the Turnbull government’s school funding legislation. It’s clear that public schools would have been better off under the existing Commonweath-state agreements than they will be under the Turnbull package.”
She said that at all times her actions on education had been faithful to the party’s policy and process, and her work had not impacted on the negotiations.
She defended the leaflets she authorised, saying they were “a good initiative of Greens local groups.
“They highlighted the negative impact the Turnbull funding plan would have on their local public schools.
“Producing such materials are a regular feature of Greens campaigns. These leaflets urged people to lobby all senators to oppose the bill.
“I was proud to stand with branches of the Australian Education Union, particularly as the Turnbull school funding plan favoured private schools,” she said.