Barnaby Joyce is still popular


Barnaby Joyce has had a reasonably long career in Parliament, now heading towards 15 years. His career is one which has had a number of very public setbacks, and he is generally dismissed by what he would call the ‘inner city elites’. He remains popular, however, and always newsworthy. he appears to have the ability to ‘bounce back’.

Many outstanding politicians are remembered for doing something special for their country, or perhaps for a lifetime of sustained effort for the country’s benefit. Barnaby Joyce was named “Australia’s best retail politician” by Tony Abbott. Now that endorsement does muddy the waters somewhat, but a reference from a former Prime Minister is still a reference.

He has also ‘served’ as Deputy Prime Minister of the country, which in itself is an achievement. It also illustrates the point that our system elevates the leaders of political parties to positions that are sometimes beyond their capabilities. It is arguable as to whether Tony Abbott and Barnaby Joyce are two such examples, but it also points to the problem of having a junior coalition partner. The leader of the National Party automatically becomes Deputy PM if the coalition is in power. This is problematic if the person in the role is, for any number of reasons, not a good fit.

These reasons might range from ongoing scandals to a lack of suitable ‘gravitas’ The expectation of a Deputy PM would be that he is an acceptable stand-in for the Prime Minister, should the Prime Minister be overseas, or ill, or even deceased.

Resignation and return to the back bench

In February 2018 Malcolm Turnbull was scheduled to go to the U.S. and he flagged that Mr Joyce would be acting Prime Minister in his absence. Unfortunately Mr Joyce was at that time embroiled in a personal crisis, which included the very public end of his marriage. Mr Turnbull, in what amounted to an expression of no-confidence in his deputy, appointed someone else to stand in for him. Barnaby Joyce was sent on a week’s leave. 

Obviously that was an uncomfortable set of circumstances, and within a week Mr Joyce resigned from the leadership of the National Party, and consequently lost his position as Deputy Prime Minister.

A look at his ‘annus horribilis’

It would not be unreasonable to expect that Mr Joyce might have called time on his career at that time, as his personal and political reputations were at an all-time low. But no, he had several more struggles to contend with.

There was that television interview, for which he was paid $150,000. There was talk that it was against the rules for Parliamentarians to take remuneration for appearing in the media, but that appeared to be incorrect. It is a convention, which is not binding, and so moot.

Joyce and Ms Campion arranged that lawyers were to establish a trust fund for their son, Sebastian, to set aside the $150,000 to pay for future expenses like school fees. Apparently the payment was to be made into a family trust, which is also a way to avoid a significant tax bill.

His next mis-step was when he made the extraordinary claim that he might not be the expected baby’s father. He framed it as a ‘grey area’ which surely failed on every measure of chivalry, if such a thing still exists.

The next bombshell in the ‘annus horribilis’ for Mr Joyce was that he was found to be a dual New Zealand and Australian citizen. Under S44 of the Constitution, he was obliged to resign from Parliament, and to re-contest his seat. He won the by-election, against low profile candidates, but nevertheless he improved his margin.

As if that was not enough he was next found to be living, at no expense, in a friend’s apartment in Armidale. He declared the ‘gift’ of free rental, but again he was pilloried by many in the Press. He even made the comment that he needed the assistance, because he was living on a reduced wage, of over $211,000 per annum. But he was supporting six children, and two households.

Why is he so popular, when his every act seems to be career damaging at the least, career-ending at worst? When looking at his career, and notwithstanding his rise to near the top, one struggles to find the signature ‘big’ achievement. He does have a singular talent for making outlandish statements, which immediately gathers media attention, and he has made something of a reputation for speaking the ‘unvarnished truth’.

This has been gradually whittled away, mainly due to his own efforts, where onlookers or listeners are often left questioning whether he is affected by drink, or perhaps having a psychotic break of sorts. Perhaps it is just bad luck.

Some of his disasters

Mr Joyce continues to have many faithful followers, despite some stumbles along the way. Some of them are shown below:

The radio interview with Patricia Karvelas springs to mind, listen here https://www.theguardian.com/global/video/2019/apr/23/labor-labor-labor-labor-barnaby-joyces-bizarre-interview-on-rn-drive-video

You could also watch his Facebook post late last year, here: https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2019/dec/25/barnaby-joyce-sick-government-being-in-my-life-taxes-climate-change

It could be argued that he has been forever oafish, but not particularly harmful. Jenna Price, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, thinks otherwise https://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/barnaby-joyces-other-betrayal-20180209-h0vurf.html 

Weighing it all up

He has been called the world’s worst ever Agricultural Minister. He has overseen the Watergate purchase, of seemingly illusory floodwaters, for close to double the asking price. He did say that his department made the decisions; he was presumably absent, because it shows a level of mismanagement not commensurate with a Minister, or on a humbler level, an accountant.

He has been condemned for moving the pesticides regulator from Canberra to his own electorate, at huge expense, and with no discernable upside. He has apparently saved Australia from an environmental hazard, by threatening to euthanase Johnny Depp’s small dogs. Partly for this reason, he was presented with the 2015 Froggatt Award. I cannot tell if the award was ironic, or not.

More recently he completed his term as Special Drought Envoy, where he managed to spend $675,000 and ‘produced’ a report, sent by text messages, which the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, was too busy to read.

These are just some examples of how genuinely he has been found wanting in his role as a Parliamentarian, and Cabinet Minister. Think of an issue, and he will have likely taken the renegade position, and as likely as not, reversed his stance at some point. It is plain that he sees himself as a born leader, and his recent tilt at the leadership of the National Party, after the ignominy of the past year, has not dampened his ardour for a life at the top.

He continues to be reasonably popular, which is totally unbelievable, but true. He is a phenomenon.

That Was Awkward – For Labor


So Labor lost. It was not a landslide, but it certainly ruined the party. Of course there were many reasons for the result, but they are only interesting after the central fact is acknowledged: The Conservative Party won, and Labor lost. So we need to celebrate the win for democracy, and respect the decision of our fellow citizens.

It is worth speculating on the reasons for the loss. There was an excellent article in The Conversation during the week, which explained that most people, if given a choice between a small ‘win’ in the near future, and a larger ‘win’ at a time in the distant future, will mainly choose the smaller benefit because it is nearer, and surer. This is short-sighted, but if our fellow citizens are prone to short-sightedness, then perhaps the Labor Party should consider behavioural economics next time it produces a range of policies.

Another reason was that people care about survival this winter more than they care about existential threats to our future twenty years out. This is why climate change is not yet ready to outweigh jobs and electricity prices, until climate change is so advanced that it is ‘in our faces and inescapable’. It actually replicates the theory of the economic behaviourists, cited above.

The third reason as to why Labour lost is that Scott Morrison, sneered at as a ‘marketing man’, did exactly that. He marketed his message, and he cut through. People heard him. It was simple, sloganised, often misleading, but when is marketing not? The old time lawyers called it “mere puffery”, but it works.

Please consider the final reason: Bill Shorten. I kept searching for the spark which had taken him so far in political life. He was leader of the opposition for six years, he was trained in the law, worked as a barrister, led unions and unionists, so he must have it, that ability to lead, to inspire, that indefinable aura known as charisma, or why would anyone follow him?

As I said, I searched for it. Every time he spoke I strained to hear a natural sentence, spoken with commitment, convincing me of why Labor should form the next government. I was driven to form strange theories, the most bizarre being that he had studied Josh Frydenburg’s almost hypnotic ability to stay on message, without inflection or reflection. But Josh manages to at least utter sentences where there is sometimes emphasis, or a change of tone.

Bill Shorten is the worst public speaker I have ever heard, or seen. My family has voted Labor since Federation, so I willed him to be interesting, every day. I cannot hold it against him, because you have it, or you don’t. Every time he spoke I imagined him, sitting in a back room, making deals, laughing and confident, the consummate networker. But this secret gift, if he possesses it, never won anyone an election.

He also has a habit of looking away when people approach him closely. He might be shy, or reserved, but he does not publicly engage with others. The recent death of Bob Hawke reminded us all of why human warmth is so valued. I have never met Bill Shorten, and he may be the most engaging of companions in private, but for the life of me I do not understand why Labor entrusted him with leadership, when he was so ill-equipped to connect with the Australian people.

Anthony Albanese has it. Perhaps he can re-invigorate us all, and stop that feeling of Nooooo, not again.