Monday, February 15, 2016

Today by Mungo MacCallum

Vision quest
The eccentric Barnaby Joyce revives a tradition of maddie Nationals leaders


Our new deputy prime minister, Barnaby Joyce, has a simple credo channeled from Paul Keating: “You’ve got to have vision. People who have vision are maddies.”

And indeed all visionaries have a touch of madness, but this does not all mean that all maddies are visionaries. Some just suffer from hallucinations. It is not yet clear which category Joyce fits into; but he is, undeniably, a maddie.

In this he is not unusual among the ranks of rural leaders. It is often forgotten in these bland times, but many of the 13 men who have led Australia’s third party – a majority of them in fact – have been somewhat eccentric. Joyce is only restoring a long and proud tradition.

The founding leader of the Country Party in 1920, William McWilliams, a short-lived and quickly deposed figure, is largely forgotten, but he was followed by giants: Earle Page, Arthur Fadden and John McEwen, all of whom temporarily assumed the ultimate job – prime minister. In the middle was the irascible Archie Cameron, who eventually defected to the Liberals to become speaker—a precursor, perhaps, to Peter Slipper.  

Page, Fadden and McEwen were not always loved, but they were formidable figures, towering personalities who were never ignored, often to the chagrin of the Liberals, who just wanted them to supply the numbers for the Coalition and not to make too many waves.

McEwen’s protégés, Doug Anthony and Ian Sinclair, became loyal allies to Malcolm Fraser and his government – a kind of republican guard, in fact – but maintained a sturdy independence. They were probably not quite as mad as their predecessors, but they were certainly not to be trifled with.

But then came the interregnum of the bland: Charles Blunt, John Anderson, Mark Vaile and Warren Truss. The only glimmer of interest was Tim Fischer, and even he has been more renowned in political retirement than in office. The rest was largely silence – until the eruption of Barnaby.

But it might be said that a touch of madness is inherent in the party. Its very formation was oddball: an organization formed of, by and for agriculturalists, a minority even in those early years. From the outset, its demise was widely predicted: simple demographics, the urban migration, would destroy it.

But, largely due to its fanatical leadership, it not only survived but prospered. McEwen renamed it the National Party.  By then it had become unstoppable; Sir Robert Menzies boasted that his greatest political achievement was the preservation of the Coalition. And even when the Liberals had the numbers to do without the Nats, they never really contemplated doing so.

In recent times the junior partner has often seemed little more than a cushion for the Libs, something comfortable to sit on. But with the ascension of Barnaby Joyce, this may be about to change.  Joyce has described the Coalition not as a marriage – although even marriages can end in divorce – but as a business partnership, an alliance of convenience which can be renegotiated, a constant jockeying for advantage.

And that was the real reason for the party’s formation – not to be a subservient hanger-on, but a potential holder of the balance of power, a political game-breaker. The maddies are back in town.


Today’s links

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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