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Barnaby Joyce sinks to the top… again

After two years on the backbench, Barnaby Joyce is back as leader of the Nationals and as Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister. His return to power has put the spotlight on the tense relationship between the two Coalition parties.

After two years on the backbench, Barnaby Joyce is back as leader of the Nationals and as Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister.

His return to power caught Scott Morrison off guard, and has put the spotlight on the tense relationship between the two Coalition parties.

Today, columnist for The Saturday Paper Paul Bongiorno on what triggered Barnaby Joyce’s return and what it means for the future of Australian politics.


Guest: Columnist for The Saturday Paper Paul Bongiorno.

Show Transcript

RUBY:

Hey there, Ruby here, the host of 7am. We’ve launched a brand new podcast recently, it’s called The Culture and it’s hosted by my colleague and friend Osman Faruqi. For the past few weeks we’ve been sharing episodes on the 7am feed over the weekend. But now if you want to listen to the podcast you’ll have to follow it. Just search for The Culture in your podcast app. Give it a go - it’s a great show. 

[THEME MUSIC STARTS]

RUBY:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.

After two years on the backbench, Barnaby Joyce is back as leader of the Nationals and as Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister.

His return to power caught Scott Morrison off guard, and has put the spotlight on the tense relationship between the two Coalition parties.

Today, columnist for The Saturday Paper Paul Bongiorno on what triggered Barnaby Joyce’s return and what it means for the future of Australian politics.

[THEME MUSIC ENDS]

RUBY:

Paul this week, Barnaby Joyce reclaimed his old position as leader of the Nationals and as deputy prime minister. But before we get to how that actually unfolded, can you remind me of what led to his demise back in 2018?

PAUL:

Well, Ruby it was a series of controversies that tumbled into one another, eventually making Barnaby Joyce's position as the second most powerful figure in the government, untenable. 

First, he drew the ire of Prime Minister Turnbull for having an extramarital affair with one of his staffers. 

Archival tape -- Reporter:

“Barnaby Joyce is under growing pressure to resign this morning - he’ll face his party room for the first time since revelations about his relationship with a former staff member who’s expecting his baby in a couple of months…”

PAUL:

It was these revelations that led to Turnbull's famous ‘bonk ban’.

Archival tape -- Reporter:

“The Barnaby Joyce affair has triggered an immediate ban on sexual relations between ministers and their staff. In announcing the new rules, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull could barely contain his disgust at his deputy's conduct…” 

PAUL:

And interestingly, those close to Joyce say he's convinced that Scott Morrison, who was the treasurer at the time, actually played a significant role in encouraging Turnbull to condemn him. 

Archival tape -- Malcolm Turnbull:

“Barnaby made a shocking error of judgement in having an affair with a young woman working in his office. In doing so, he has set off a world of woe for those women and appalled all of us.”

PAUL:

But even though that was probably the most highly publicised controversy at the time involving Joyce, it wasn't the catalyst for his departure. More problematic for him was the story that a senior woman in agricultural politics, Catherine Marriott, had accused him of sexually harassing her at a function that year in Canberra. 

Archival tape -- Reporter:

“The woman who's accused, Barnaby Joyce, of sexual harassment has broken her silence. Catherine Marriott says she complained about Mr Joyce because she wanted to speak out against inappropriate behaviour by people in powerful positions.”

PAUL:

It's an accusation he denied then and continues to deny. Well, Marriott had made the complaint privately. That was to the federal executive of the National Party. But after it was leaked with her name attached without her consent, she went on the ABC's 730 programme to tell Leigh Sales what she said had happened.

Archival tape -- Catherine Marriott:

“My name was leaked. And that is one of the most frightening things you will ever have to live through…”

PAUL:

It was at a function in Canberra. She said it was an incident that so upset her. She fled to her hotel room and spent the night in tears.

Archival tape -- Catherine Marriott:

“The control that I had of my own identity was taken away. And that's something that I will live now with for the rest of my life. And I think was you know, I think it was really unfair and it was really horrific.”

PAUL:

And she said that at first she was advised by a couple of close girlfriends to keep it quiet. But she rethought that and actually made the complaint to the National Party privately. The federal party handballed it to the New South Wales branch of the Nationals, and they ended up conducting a secret internal enquiry and couldn't sustain the allegation for lack of evidence. So they didn't come to any conclusion either way. But still, it did lead to Joyce's resignation.

Archival tape -- Barnaby Joyce:

“I’d like to say that it’s absolutely important - it’s incredibly important - that there be a circuit breaker, not just for the Parliament, but more importantly, that there be a circuit breaker for Vicky, that there be a circuit breaker for my unborn child…”
 

RUBY:

And so that was two years ago, Paul - what has Barnaby Joyce been doing in that time?

PAUL:

Well, Ruby he's been brooding on the backbench and biding his time. He was very clear on the way out that he wanted to come back one day. His ambition and his entitlement have remained unchecked for the past two years. And he's been quite outspoken on a number of issues. 

This week, he saw his chance to down his replacement, the mild mannered and bland Michael McCormack. According to insiders, the main sin of McCormack was that he made the functioning of the coalition...well, too comfortable for the liberal prime minister. 

RUBY:

Mm and what examples are they pointing to of this, Paul?

PAUL:

Well, those close to Joyce say the Nationals needed a leader who could stand up to Scott Morrison and look after miners and farmers better and better promote the Nationals brand. In particular, they were worried about what they called ‘woke’ climate change action, including a commitment to get to net zero emissions by 2050. Well, Scott Morrison, as we know, is edging closer to a position of net zero emissions by 2050. And McCormack had been reluctant to criticise it publicly, even though many in his party were demanding he do so. 

Archival tape -- Michael McCormack:

“As Nationals, as Liberals, we will do it with technology, not taxes. That's how we're going to reduce emissions.

Archival tape -- Speaker:

“The acting prime minister will resume his seat.”

Archival tape -- Michael McCormack:

“I've concluded my answer.”

Archival tape -- Speaker:

“The Acting Prime Minister's indicating he's concluded his answer.”

PAUL:

This narrative, at least at face value, is what motivated a majority of the 21 nationals. To recycle their previously shamed leader, Barnaby Joyce, and there's no doubt it is precisely here on climate policy that the Joyce resurrection will prove Morrison's biggest test. 

And Ruby, if Joyce and the coal champions from Queensland in the Nationals see their success or survival is being staked on having a separate agenda to the Liberals, then they're going to have to deliver highly visible showdowns with the prime minister and not only on climate, on a number of other policy areas as well to convince their rural and mining supporters. 

RUBY:

We'll be back in a moment.

[ADVERTISEMENT]

RUBY:

Paul, what direction has Barnaby Joyce taken the Nationals in since he returned as the party's leader? He replaced McCormack, who Nationals believed wasn't confrontational enough towards Scott Morrison. So has he been more aggressive?

PAUL:

He certainly has. Midweek, while Morrison and Joyce were locked in negotiations not only over who would be in the ministry, but what jobs they would be given. The Nationals in the Senate blindsided the liberals when they went rogue.

Archival tape -- Bridget Mckenzie:

“Today I rise very proudly in this place, not just as the National Party's Senate leader and I do foreshadow second reading amendments. And I'll step the chamber through those…” 

PAUL:

Bridget McKenzie, the Senate leader and a Joyce co-conspirator moved amendments to a government bill on the Murray-Darling Basin to the anger of South Australians across the board

Archival tape -- Bridget Mckenzie

“The people who will suffer, most of the people who elected me to come here, and that is the people of South Australia. They are the ones who will suffer most and we always have because of the interests of the upstream states…”

PAUL:

The effect of her intervention would see 450 gigalitres of water taken from the system.

Archival tape -- Bridget Mckenzie

“We are in government. And that is why we are moving amendments today as the second party of government. And I look forward to your support. Senator, I look forward to the Labor Party supporting these amendments…”

PAUL:

Now, the fact is McKenzies amendments had no chance of success, and indeed, the Greens, the Liberals and Labor defeated them on Wednesday night. But no doubt she and Joyce would be hoping their upstream irrigator mates would be noticing. The ploy, I've got no doubt, would have sent shivers up Morrison's spine. It was a brazen defiance of agreed coalition government policy.

Joyce, who is sitting at the dispatch box sitting in for Scott Morrison, the prime minister who is over in the Lodge, well, in parliament, he praised his Senate colleagues for showing they understood jobs in regional towns along the river system are just as important as those in Adelaide or Sydney. Never mind, and this is where it gets quite bizarre, if not farcical, the minister responsible for the water buybacks they were opposing was none other than Keith Pitt, a Queensland Nationals cabinet member.

RUBY:

So how is Scott Morrison taking all of this Paul? Is he worried?

PAUL:

Well, Ruby, Morrison on Tuesday before the revolt happened - he addressed the government party room. He was beamed in on a big screen looking like Big Brother, but he had some pretty straight messages for his members and senators. He urged a quick return to unity and discipline. He was effusive in his praise of the deposed Michael McCormack as a beacon of teen virtue and he said will win the election. When we show a stable and united front, focus on Australians and not ourselves, get stuff done and have a clear plan for the future. You know, it sounds to me a bit like a wish list. Well, those with long memories, like one government backbencher who greeted the return of Joyce with the observation “oh, no, here we Joh again” well, they're holding their breath. 

RUBY:

What do they mean by that Paul?

PAUL:

Well, 34 years ago, Queensland National Party Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen hijacked the federal Nationals, forcing them to take to the election a separate tax policy to John Howard's liberals. To that point, the coalition looked well placed to defeat a vulnerable Hawke Labour government. They didn't. And to this day, Howard blames Bjelke-Petersen for thwarting him. You know, Ruby, voters then weren't prepared to risk a government that couldn't agree on such a key area of policy. The parallels to climate change are hard to ignore.

RUBY:

And Paul, one issue that still seems unresolved and also fairly significant is those allegations of sexual harassment against Barnaby Joyce. They led to his demise in 2018, but they haven't stopped his comeback this week. So why not?

PAUL:

Well, Ruby, this Monday, Joyce again completely denied the claims as spurious and defamatory, and he said it should have been taken to the police

Archival tape -- Barnaby Joyce

“For the sake of my party. I did not want to be litigating that one at the dispatch box. With other issues I can't and I won't start telling people how they should think about other people. I will try always to be the better person…”

PAUL:

But there is some concern still across Australia in the National Party. The leader of the Nationals in the Western Australian State Parliament, Mia Davies, is unconvinced Joyce is a suitable person to lead the Federal party. Davies is a friend and supporter of Catherine Marriott, but her views are also shared by the Nationals deputy leader in Victoria, Steph Ryan. She believes Joyce's past actions should have precluded his return. And in Barnaby Joyce’s own federal party room, Michelle Landry and Anne Webster have expressed concerns Joyce could be a problem for women voters. 

And I have to say Scott Morrison is attuned to the women problem for both the coalition parties. Behind the scenes, I'm told he's urging state divisions to seek out and endorse as many women candidates as they can. What's clearly worrying for him is how women on his own side of politics were so quick to speak out negatively about Joyce. You'd have to say failing to engage with the #metoo moment in politics could prove electorally fatal. 

RUBY:

Paul, thank you so much for your time. 

PAUL:

Thank you. Ruby, bye.

RUBY:

Next Monday I’ll be talking to author and former China correspondent Linda Jaivin on the conspiracies driving the theory that Covid-19 leaked out of a lab in Wuhan. Make sure to follow 7am so you don’t miss out.

[ADVERTISEMENT]

RUBY:

Also in the news today:

NSW recorded 11 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday - bringing the total number of locally acquired Covid-19 infections to 49. State Agriculture Minister Adam Marshall was one of those cases, with Health Minister Brad Hazzard identified as a close contact of another case.


NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian described the situation as the scariest period the state has gone through since the start of the pandemic.

 

Meanwhile another case of COVID-19 has been detected in Melbourne after a man in his 60s flew into the city from Sydney yesterday. Victoria has announced that all of greater Sydney is now a “red zone”.

 

Queensland also recorded three new cases of Covid-19.

 

7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It’s produced by Elle Marsh, Michelle Macklem, and Cinnamon Nippard. 

Our senior producer is Ruby Schwartz and our technical producer is Atticus Bastow.

Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief. 

Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio. 

 

I’m Ruby Jones, see ya next week. 

 

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