Hating Barnaby Joyce: is it him, or is it us?

by | May 14, 2022 | Government, Latest Posts

In campaign debates, in radio stations, television studios, people to people encounters all over the nation, the name Barnaby Joyce comes up as the biggest brake on Australia making a greater commitment to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions. Does the leader of the National Party deserve the brickbats? Maybe we should look to our backyards, writes Mark Sawyer. 

Remember those movies where a character plays with one of those old transistor radios and receives fragments of what’s going on from the different stations? If this election campaign were an old transistor radio dial, that character would be hearing the words ”Barnaby” and ”Joyce” and ”hostage” and ”climate action” as she twiddled the dial.

He is whacked by his Labor adversaries. And he is whacked by people who don’t think even Labor is doing enough on curbing emissions.

On Friday morning, Anthony Albanese found time while speaking on Fitzroy Island, off Cairns, to chip local MP Warren Entsch for being part of Joyce’s team as holding the government hostage on climate action. At lunchtime, Penny Wong named Joyce (and Tony Abbott) as doing the same to Australia, during her debate with Foreign Minister Marise Payne at the National Press Club.

And Joyce is never far from the lips of the Climate 200 candidates. They have weaved him into a narrative that justifies their assault on the moderate Liberals in inner Sydney, Melbourne and Perth. Monique Ryan, who is challenging Treasurer Josh Frydenberg in Kooyong, mentioned Joyce frequently in their debate on Sky News. ‘‘This is a man who votes with Barnaby Joyce every time against what is essentially our national interest,’’ she said.

The Great Barrier Reef. Canberra, Hawthorn Town Hall. And all over that radio dial. So many people, and policies, are ”hostage” to Joyce that he must be running a giant storage locker on the outskirts of Tamworth.

Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister has been caricatured and traduced so much that it’s hard to imagine him as simply a real, flawed human being like the rest of us. Instead it’s tempting to think of him as an outback Captain Kurtz living up river from sanity, surrounded by members of the Institute of Public Affairs wielding spears, his longhouse guarded by canoes paddled by the team from Sky After Dark.

Take his appearance at the National Press Club on Wednesday, May 11. His fat gut alarmingly obvious, fighting a badly timed nosebleed, his was anything but a slick presentation. Joyce praised past Labor leaders. He made lame jokes. And he said this:

Eight of our 10 biggest exports come from regional Australia – things like iron ore, coal, gas, beef, cotton, horticulture and grain – all mineral and agricultural commodities.

The other two – tourism and education – are also represented strongly in regional Australia.

If you don’t understand regional Australia – and the Labor Party doesn’t – you don’t understand how our nation makes money.

The Labor Party and the Greens have noble ideas such as banning or restricting coal and gas exports, but there is nothing currently to replace the hundreds of billions of dollars they earn.

It is beyond folly, it is irresponsible.

Now you might hate every word of that. You might have at your fingertips a hundred arguments against Joyce’s arguments. Australia has to make that transition to green energy if it is to meet its target of net zero by 2050 and help save the planet from catastrophic heating.

All those coal jobs and iron ore jobs will be replaced by jobs in the renewable energy sector. We must embrace that future, there is no time to wait. But let’s hear another National Party voice. No, not Matt Canavan, the man standing outside the tent pissing in. It’s Senator Bridget McKenzie. Yes, the sports rorts villain. But more than that. Last year she detailed the reality of employment in the renewables sector, a somewhat less enticing one that so many of us believe lies just over the horizon.

McKenzie described how the Moree Solar Farm in NSW had indeed created a “couple of hundred” jobs during construction, but now employed just five people – “and they’re mostly mowing the lawns under the panels”. And she said:
Any mirage of these well-paid careers that our current industries provide our people, such as mining, where you can actually provide for your family and have a really high quality of living — you’re now going to be mowing lawns under solar farms.
Actually, McKenzie might have oversold the project’s job benefits. The project’s website lays it out:  “Moree Solar Farm created job opportunities during construction and operation. Around 100 workers were required to construct the plant. During operation around 5-10 direct and indirect jobs are created.”

The voice: try and understand it

The National Party was once the voice of rural and regional Australia in the same way Labor was the voice of organised labour. Formed out of an alliance of state farming organisations, the Country Party (as it was) won 14 of the 75 House seats at the first federal election it contested, 100 years ago.

When Parliament expanded to 121 seats in 1949, it won 19 seats. It sat around that figure until the 1990s. The party reflected an Australia that orientated itself much more to the bush than it does now. (Admittedly that was a white-settler vision of the bush, not the Indigenous one that is in flower today.) There was a Rural Bank. Beef barons were famous. Daily newspapers served communities of 20,000 people, generating enough sales and ad revenue to employ 60 people. There were locally based radio and TV stations, even local soft-drink bottlers.

An accurate picture of the Nationals’ support today is complicated by the fact that they contest elections as three entities. The combined support of the three: the National Party, the Queensland Liberal-National Party and the Northern Territory Country-Liberal Party, was 13.45% at the 2019 election. Take out Brisbane, the Gold Coast and the Sunshine Coast (although the Nats have at times made inroads in the latter two locations), and a rough guess would put pure National Party voters in Australia at somewhere between 8% and 9%.

The long-term decline is clear when looked at in terms of Australia’s population growth. But the Nationals (under Michael McCormack, not Joyce) still won the votes of nearly two-thirds of a million Australians (642,233) outside Queensland and the Northern Territory at the 2019 election. Yes, outside Queensland, the state that saved the Morrison government in 2019.

Of the 151 members of the outgoing House of Representatives, 16 sit as National Party MPs (the Queenslanders and Northern Territorians can sit with either the Liberals or the Nationals). You might say that a 16-strong party room is way out of proportion to the party’s support. You’re right.

Based on a figure of about 8% first preference vote, the Nationals should have only 12 MPs in the House of Representatives, not 16. But there is another party whose numbers are out of proportion. Based on the 2019 election first preference vote, there should be 50 Labor MPs, not 68.

The Greens have outpolled the Nationals since 2004 to become the third biggest party by vote. They get a rough deal (one seat for 10.4% of the vote). But this can be viewed another way. The Greens can be considered in relation to Labor in the same way the Nationals exist in relation to the Liberals: opposed at elections, harrying them on policy, but adamantly opposed to the other side ever taking government. If you combined the Labor and Greens primary vote from 2019, the two parties would be entitled to 66 seats instead of the 69 they actually won. It’s hard to argue that the Nats get a sweet deal when that figure is made clear.

Building a nation, or backing a boondoggle

At the Press Club, Joyce outlined a welter of what might called nation-building projects that rate little attention outside the capital cities.

We are building our third road east to west across Australia, a sealed road from Townsville to Perth that will assist in opening up the critical mineral precincts north of Alice Springs and the gold precincts in Laverton.

It will also grow tourism in Alice Springs and help to move cattle more efficiently and with less stress on the stock heading to abattoirs and to the coast.

At first, people ridiculed the Alice Springs to Darwin Rail Line as a boondoggle, but now it is too small and needs to be expanded. This is a clear example of how infrastructure grows into its business case.

To support increased capacity on this rail line, we will build logistics hubs at Alice Springs, Tennant Creek and Katherine, and, of course, we will build a new industrial facility at Middle Arm in Darwin.

We will build water infrastructure like Hells Gates Dam, as requested by Townsville Enterprise, to build up this citadel city of the north.

We are building more dams to ensure there is enough water for mining businesses, industry, agricultural producers and for domestic use.

There was more than that, and plenty of pie in the sky. But once upon a time our governments would have signed up for much of those, assuming the case for the wise use of public funds had been made. That was another time. Now such projects are destined to be seen through the buzzword of Campaign ’22: ”integrity”.

And the discourse around integrity lands hardest on any candidate or party that wants to build a dam or a sporting club in an out of the way town, a place that might be losing population and services two decades after it was left behind when a highway bypass killed its passing trade.

Extra millions for a conceptual good such as mental health have ”integrity”. The KPIs (key performance indicators) may or may not be met, doesn’t matter. It matters naught in the public discourse that a decade of shovelling extra money into school education under the Gonski reforms has barely moved the dial. Massive amounts can be committed to guns and butter: submarines, the NDIS. But out there in the flyover regions where Joyce plies his trade, we worry about ”wise use of public money”

There is another way of looking at it: contempt.

Despoilers of the natural world

Plenty of rural Australians are not Barnaby’s people. And not only those who incline to the extreme right. The party has bled votes to One Nation, Clive Palmer, Bob Katter and the Shooters and Fishers. And many rural people see in the Nationals a party for miners, not farmers. The Lock the Gate alliance, running campaigns against fracking and coal exploration, among other resources projects, sees a party that would destroy precious farmland for new coal mines. They are among the most trenchant critics of the modern-day National Party. The party’s support of the live-sheep trade to the Middle East enrages animal-rights activists.

But these issues seem to feature little in the relentless delegitimisation of Joyce and the Nationals during this campaign. Without fear of contradiction from their media interlocutors, independent candidates bat away questions about who they would support in the event of a hung parliament with a novel notion.

The Teal Deal

”We have a minority government right now in Australia,” their chief benefactor, Simon Holmes a Court, has stated, based on the fact that the Liberals do not govern alone. This claim has become a talking point for the independents, a remarkably consistent one for a bunch of putatively uncollated candidates. ”The Nationals have held the government back at every step,” Holmes a Court has said.

”And so we haven’t had good government for the past nine years on the issues that we keep hearing from the electorate: climate change, integrity or rooting out corruption, and treatment or safety of women, Australia has gone backwards.” It seems a lot to put on Joyce’s team, but it’s a line that never gets challenged.

This article was born from the observation of a moment of contempt. It was directed at Joyce, of course. It happened on the ABC’s Q+A. Independent MP Zali Steggall was fielding a question about which party she would support to form government in the event of a hung parliament. The upshot (after much back and forth) was that Steggall’s support for the Coalition might depend on it removing Scott Morrison as leader. Joyce then challenged Steggall to give a clear answer as to who she would support: Morrison or Albanese.

With a vague wave of an arm towards Joyce, Steggall responded: ”With respect part of the difficulty with the answer is sitting right here, Barnaby Joyce, (applause) …”

It was the gesture as much as the words (he didn’t even rate a point of the finger) that illustrated the contempt. It struck me as a moment when a wave broke out on a smooth ocean.

Australia: accelerating fragmentation

At the Press Club, Joyce also warned that a vote for the Teals would push the Liberal Party to the right. Sure, the warning is easily seen as akin to ”do it my way or I’ll just keep punching myself” but there is something to it if we take Joyce’s words in good faith. There is something to his warning beyond its seeming fatuity. It’s to do with the accelerating fragmentation of the nation that has been seen in sharp relief this campaign.

My parents came from different parts of rural Australia. On my father’s side, my grandfather worked a bush block on the NSW-Victoria border. But Mallee country is unforgiving for any farming enterprise that doesn’t involve a lot of water. So William Sawyer founded a bus line instead. He ran it until his death in 1972. His eldest son, my uncle, ran it for another 30.

At the time of my grandfather’s death, their local MP, Winton Turnbull, sat in the same (joint) party room as the man who represented Wentworth, Les Bury, predecessor of that other Turnbull, Malcolm.

Sure, nothing stays the same. Fifty years ago, candidates in the leafiest, wealthiest seats in Australia telling coal miners and resources workers that they must down tools lest they cook the planet would have drawn howls of outrage from the progressive side of politics. Nonetheless, 2022 may be the last time the member for Mallee sits in the joint Coalition party room with the member for Wentworth.

The shearing away of the Teal seats will mark a permanent realignment. From 2022, people from the Mallee, Maranoa, Mount Isa, Whyalla and Port Augusta won’t sit next to people from the Pacific playground of Wentworth or the giant business centre of North Sydney. The people who work the abattoirs and the cane-fields are no longer in fellowship with the people who move money around a screen. Under the cover of climate concern, the independents are telling the people who vote National: You are not our people.

A million or so Australians voting National are our new basket of “deplorables”. The view from the gracious homes of Kooyong and Goldstein is, that by making a living for themselves and their families, they are cooking the planet. They should stick to mowing lawns.

Reds Under Bed: Barnaby and Keith’s plot for Australia to subsidise China

Mark Sawyer is a journalist with Michael West Media. He has extensive experience in print and digital media in Sydney, Melbourne and rural Australia.

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