Que sera, sera
Barnaby Joyce’s return is a painful reminder that there are no permanent consequences for men accused of harassment
Barnaby Joyce – who stood down as leader of the Nationals in February 2018 over a sexual harassment allegation, which followed revelations of a consensual affair with a former staffer – has returned to the Nationals leadership and deputy prime ministership, after defeating Michael McCormack in a morning spill. Rumours of inappropriate behaviour have long followed Joyce – from the 2016 incident that left high-profile rural businesswoman Catherine Marriott unable to sleep, to claims often alluded to by New England rival Tony Windsor – and yet, here we are, with not one but two men accused of serious misconduct in Cabinet. In his afternoon press conference, a “humbled” Joyce acknowledged some of the issues, saying he had “resigned as I should” and “spent three years on the backbench”, repeatedly referring to being a “better person”. He again denied the “spurious and defamatory” harassment allegation (an internal investigation by the party was unable to reach a conclusion). The move comes just months after Australian politics went through its major sexism reckoning, and despite warnings from Nationals MP Michelle Landry that Joyce’s return to the leadership would not go down well with female voters. It is a painful reminder to women that men accused of inappropriate behaviour can still ascend to the highest offices in the land – after three years on the backbench, of course.
A “positive” McCormack – who remained deputy PM for an excruciating Question Time because the Nationals had cut themselves short on time to get Joyce officially into the seat – inadvertently summed things up on his way to the expected spill, telling a journalist, “que sera, sera” (before going on to quote the song at length). With the second ascension of coal-loving, government-hating, abortion-opposing Barnaby Joyce, the same might be said of the Australian government’s attitude towards climate change and women. Men may go on acting with impunity, and the fossil-fuel industry may go on destroying the nation’s future. This government doesn’t care.
In his post-spill press conference, a relatively dignified McCormack appeared to take a few stabs at Joyce’s record with women, saying how pleased he was to be leaving the role with the love and respect of his wife and children (Joyce vacated the role very much without the respect of his). But he would not be drawn on comments from the women in his party, repeatedly telling reporters that they “would have to ask a woman in regional Australia” about sexism concerns, because he is a man. Whatever shreds of dignity McCormack maintained were obliterated by the end of Question Time, with Labor – already having a field day on Twitter – firing question after question at or about the deputy prime minister. “Who is the deputy prime minister of Australia?” was the opener, with Morrison asked to explain – via video from quarantine at The Lodge – who was, and soon would be, deputy PM. Meanwhile, McCormack himself was forced to answer the question: “If the Morrison–McCormack government was going so well, why have you been replaced?” The “current” deputy PM was then asked why the government had rolled the deputy instead of rolling out the vaccine, and why the government was “fighting itself” rather than fighting “for a safe national quarantine system”. Speaker Tony Smith eventually asked Labor leader Anthony Albanese to stop saying “current”, but allowed him to argue these questions were fair to aim at the outgoing deputy.
After squeezing every last bit of mockery out of McCormack’s political downfall, Labor finally got to the real issue behind the spill, with the Nationals having been fired up last week by growing international pressure and local moves towards a commitment to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. McCormack, who has tried his best to push back against the target but was seen as not strong enough on the issue by his party, was asked whether the creation of the “Morrison–Joyce government” meant no hope of the government joining the National Farmers’ Federation and the Business Council of Australia in committing to net zero by 2050, and whether the non-transparent Coalition deal prevented it from doing so. McCormack continued to claim the government’s actions would always be in the “best interest” of the nation, talking up “technology not taxes”, and attacking the Greens. The incoming deputy prime minister will likely be less subtle in his opposition to the target when he next takes the floor. Question Time ended in disarray, with another Labor attempt at suspending standing orders to move motions about the “Abbott–Truss, Turnbull–Truss, Turnbull–Joyce, Turnbull–McCormack, Morrison–McCormack, Morrison–Joyce government”, and McCormack getting out one last “que sera, sera”.
Today’s spill is unwelcome news for Scott Morrison and the Liberal Party, who preferred the more conciliatory McCormack as leader and are reportedly horrified at the switch. It’s certainly a welcome distraction from another scandal facing Morrison, however, as outrage builds over a Nine report that the holiday-loving PM spent some of his time in the UK on a secret side trip exploring his family history, while ordinary Australians are barred from leaving the country. Morrison attempted to wave away criticism over double standards regarding quarantine this morning, telling a friendly 2GB that the “pretty innocent” stop-offs were on the way, and that the town of St Keverne just “happens to be” where his fifth great-grandfather was from (the trip was planned well in advance by his team, and kept from the accompanying Australian media). When asked if Australians would be able to travel internationally by Christmas 2022, Morrison – who used the dangers of the UK as justification for not having a reopening date on radio before he left – said it was “too far” in the future to know. But desperate Australians still separated from loved ones overseas, their long-awaited reunions further delayed with every vaccine rollout “challenge”, are infuriated by both the trip and its casual dismissal.
Morrison is not about to change his political management style by taking responsibility for this one, and will be no doubt hoping this latest tone-deaf gaffe will soon be forgotten, along with all the rest of them. Que sera, sera.
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“Barnaby Joyce is not happy sitting on the back bench. In case there was any doubt, half a dozen framed letters of ministerial appointment are prominently displayed on the wall of his office in Parliament House. ‘I think I’ve been more ministers than most people in this building,’ Joyce says. Signed off by prime ministers Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull, the letters are a constant reminder of the good old days, before his career exploded. Considered by Abbott to be the best retail politician in the country, Joyce is itching to get back in the fray.”
“Here is a saga that has engulfed politics in New South Wales: a caustic internet personality with a messiah complex and half-a-million followers, at war with the Berejiklian government and the media, cosy with the former state Labor leader Jodi McKay and her team, being sued for defamation by Deputy Premier John Barilaro, and now the target of a police investigation.”
Barnaby Joyce – who stood down as leader of the Nationals in February 2018 over a sexual harassment allegation, which followed revelations of a consensual affair with a former staffer – has returned to the Nationals leadership and deputy prime ministership, after defeating Michael McCormack in a morning spill. Rumours of inappropriate behaviour have long followed Joyce – from the 2016 incident that left high-profile rural businesswoman Catherine Marriott unable to sleep, to claims often alluded to by New England rival Tony Windsor – and...
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