When challengers say it’s over, be very afraid

“I had only one shot in the locker, I fired it and the result is there for all to see,” said Paul Keating following his unsuccessful tilt at Bob Hawke in June, 1991. By Christmas that year Keating found another shot and took out Hawke.

Feb 18, 2020, updated Feb 18, 2020
Paul Keating, pictured with ex-PM Bob Hawke during the 1991 Premiers conference was always ready to give the nation a  lesson on Banana Republics and recession we had to have. (Photo: Peter Morris)

Paul Keating, pictured with ex-PM Bob Hawke during the 1991 Premiers conference was always ready to give the nation a lesson on Banana Republics and recession we had to have. (Photo: Peter Morris)

That would be “like Lazarus with a triple bypass,” declared John Howard on May 9, 1989, when he was dumped as Liberal leader and quizzed about a comeback. It took Howard more than six years to put that triple bypass together but he did come back, taking down the lacklustre Alexander Downer.

Politics – particularly here in the Italy of the southern hemisphere – is replete with promises of never challenging and sheathing leadership swords but they are all worthless when the time is right.

Right now, the National Party is kicking off its centenary year celebrations with the biggest bout of leadership instability at any time during those 100 years.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this because, as the very gentlemanly Victorian National Darren Chester said the day before Parliament met a fortnight ago, that’s not the way the party of the bush does things.

Chester’s wishful observation is of a time that’s best described as “pre-Barnaby”.

Barnaby Joyce does things very differently to anyone the Nationals have ever seen. He locks horns with prime ministers, damning the consequences, gets himself ensnared in an office romance which busted his marriage and made himself tabloid fodder and seemingly cratered his political career.

Joyce never really parked his ambition or his contempt for the man who took over from him, the mild-mannered former newspaper editor from the southern New South Wales city of Wagga Wagga, Michael McCormack.

Since last May’s election Joyce has been an advantage looking for an opportunity to go to work on and the late January sports rorts scandal filled the bill.

While Joyce voiced staunch backing for now former Nationals deputy Bridget McKenzie, he used her perilous plight to elbow his way into a leadership contest – something that was constructed over little more than a weekend.

With such a short time it’s truly remarkable Joyce came within one vote of winning – this otherwise supposedly secret margin is common knowledge in the corridors of Canberra and in Nationals offices north and south.

He was helped by his old chief of staff Matt Canavan strapping on a political suicide vest and quitting the Cabinet. From that moment McCormack had to play every card he could get into his hand – trading frontbench positions for votes in a truly shameless way – to hang on and even then it was by the narrowest of margins.

Now it’s Joyce’s turn to pledge that he’s had his chance and we won’t see him challenging again.

There will be a McCormack-Morrison government going to the next election, Joyce said at the beginning of this week.

“In a democracy, you have the opportunity to test the numbers, that was tested, it was close,” he said. “I stood, I lost, that’s it and now we move on.”

This is textbook Keating-speak. Also, just like Keating’s hand-on-heart declaration two decades ago, it’s a lie. Joyce will jump at the slightest opportunity to challenge again and, if there’s no opportunity that presents itself, he and his backers will construct one.

It could be something minor or it could be more significant, such as the LNP failing to beat what should be a pushover Palaszczuk Labor Government in Queensland in October.

However, Joyce will not rest until he rattles the cage one more time and he will rattle it loud enough to make his return to the leadership the only path to peace. He won’t stand quietly to one side and let Agriculture Minister David Littleproud become a “third man” so the Member for Maranoa should ignore the fashion advice he’s being given in a bid to smarten himself up.

The biggest pointer to the determination of the Joyce forces to keep their ammunition primed for another shot was seen when they headed off a move to build a leadership firewall for McCormack.

After his near-death experience, McCormack’s people floated the idea of bringing the Nationals into line with Labor and the Liberals by setting a two-thirds threshold for the launch of any future challenge.

Victorian MP Anne Webster ran it up the flagpole but Joyce and the insurgents ripped it down. If they weren’t keeping the option for a second challenge open, they would have let it run.

While Joyce was out offering what’s known as the obligatory lie about further challenges, Canavan was confirming last week’s story that he’d been considering a move to state politics.

Laughing it off as one change too many, he killed it off with a final declaration. “The wife’s vetoed it,” he said.

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