Counting the days till Barnaby’s next come-to-Jesus moment

When Barnaby Joyce first entered the Senate as a Nationals MP a decade-and-a-half ago, one of his Queensland colleagues was cynically succinct about his ambition and self-worth.

Feb 11, 2020, updated Feb 12, 2020
Barnaby Joyce will jump at the slightest opportunity to challenge Michael McCormack for the Nationals leadership again, and if no opportunity presents itself, he and his backers will construct one. (Photo: AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

Barnaby Joyce will jump at the slightest opportunity to challenge Michael McCormack for the Nationals leadership again, and if no opportunity presents itself, he and his backers will construct one. (Photo: AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

“If there was a ballot for God, Barnaby would nominate himself,” said this Nationals insider.

Barnaby – one of those few politicians known instantly by his given name alone – has done plenty of nominating since and won more ballots than he’s lost. He doesn’t like losing and, with the worst poker face in Parliament, it shows.

Joyce lost a ballot on day one of the 2020 Parliamentary year, indulgently shrugging off the fact it was scheduled as a time of remembrance and thanks for people who lost life and property in the summer fires and those who spent weeks fighting them.

The usual post-ballot declarations that was the end of it faded when exposed to the faintest light of day and were truly worthless when Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack divided up the spoils of victory by awarding all well-paid frontbench jobs on a sole criteria: did you vote for me.

Despite having displayed a similar winner-takes-all attitude in the past, Joyce and his supporters – numbering between five and 10 MPs out of a 21-strong Nationals party room – stomped around the sales-yard kicking up dust and dried cattle shit.

By last weekend, former Queensland traffic patrolman and Member for Wide Bay Llew O’Brien was as mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. In a conversation with McCormack, tempers flared and he quit the National Party.

In the Byzantine ways of Queensland politics, this left him with the option of remaining in the state-based LNP, an attendee of joint party meetings and loyal to Scott Morrison’s Coalition.

Who says we’re not different north of the Tweed.

When Parliament resumed this week, Labor saw an opportunity for mischief too good to ignore. They nominated O’Brien for the position of Deputy Speaker (which comes with a $42,000 pay rise, extra staff and travel) and five Nationals voted with the ALP and the crossbench.

Now it was McCormack’s time to lose and he didn’t like it. His candidate, Victorian Damien Drum, came a distant second and Morrison had to share the embarrassment of having unruly country cousins for the second time in a week.

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McCormack’s leadership was exposed as weak and his command of his party is tenuous. Someone among the dozen or so who voted for him should have seen this coming – it was common chatter in political circles by the time Aussies opened for coffee on Monday – and sought to head it off.

It was also a huge embarrassment for Morrison’s leader of government business Christian Porter, who also should have been across the possibility. To be blindsided by the 2020 version of “Cockies’ Corner” is a bad look on the CV of any Leader of the House.

The real takeaway from day one, week two of Parliament Year 2020 is that McCormack’s days are numbered – and that’s in weeks not months. He will almost certainly be gone as Nationals leader by Budget Day on May 12.

Joyce and his coal-loving, Murray Basin Plan-hating, dam-building boosters will not stop white-anting McCormack.

A political black swan event such as an LNP loss in the Queensland Currumbin by-election at the end of March might spark a new push or Joyce could just pick an opportunity out of the air.

The only way to success for the Nationals who want to stop Joyce from realising his comeback is to get McCormack to move gracefully aside and pave the way for a third candidate – most likely that other Queenslander David Littleproud. This is a set of plays fraught with difficulty and danger.

This source of political pain for the Morrison Government has not been staunched yet – not by a long shot.

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