22 November 2015
Very few politicians of late have matched Barnaby Joyce for making an impact of sorts. A National from Queensland, he entered the Senate in 2005, and he declared that he’d be his own man and he wouldn’t always toe the line with his colleagues. His form has been as he intended, at least until lately.
The Liberals and Nationals let MPs “cross the floor” in parliamentary votes. They can vote against their colleagues, in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, if they disagree with them over some issue or policy. Over time, many of them have crossed the floor, and Joyce has done so a few times.
This freedom doesn’t exist in the Labor Party. Instead, it gets its MPs to vote internally on issues, and then takes the position voted upon by a majority of MPs, even if the majority is tiny. Labor expels MPs from its ranks if they cross the floor. The only way for Labor MPs to express opposition to what most of their colleagues support is to abstain, or decline, from voting on the parliamentary floor.
But the reputation of Joyce isn’t confined to crossing the floor. He’s also got quite a turn of phrase, probably the best in Australian politics since Paul Keating departed two decades ago. Although Keating was hardly popular when he was Treasurer in the Hawke Labor Government and subsequently Prime Minister, he could definitely cut through with his words, sometimes well and other times badly. He compared one political rival to a souffle rising twice, described a surprise election win as one for “true believers”, and had lots of memorable quotes. Joyce has a knack for saying similar things. I’ve seen him talking to live television audiences a few times, and he’s regularly made them laugh and even burst into applause, no matter whether they agree with him or not. Few people can say that they haven’t heard of him.
Joyce had been in the Senate for eight years when he switched to the House of Reps in 2013, and he switched states as well. Representing Queensland when elected to the Senate, he made the decision to run for the seat of New England in northern New South Wales, and had to both leave the Senate and leave Queensland in order to do this. With the Liberal-National Coalition winning office in 2013, Joyce became Agriculture Minister, as well as deputy leader of the Nationals, and will likely success Warren Truss as leader when Truss departs.
However, this is where trouble has started for Joyce of late. Coalition MPs may be free to cross the floor, but not if they’re ministers, who have to abide by the decision taken by a majority of them – just like Labor MPs must abide by a majority vote among their ranks. Joyce is a National in a Coalition ministry full of Liberals, some of whom know nothing about rural Australia. He might disagree with the majority of ministers, but he can’t vote against them. And people can tell if he’s unhappy with a decision, no matter how much he tries to hide his annoyance. In a sense, while he can still cut through with his turn of phrase, it almost changes from a strength to a weakness, and he can sound more like a “spin doctor”.
Now Joyce faces difficulties of mining on prime farmland. The prospect of a major mine opening up on farmland in the Liverpool Plains, around Joyce’s neck of the woods, has people up in arms. They’re worried about how mining would affect the area’s water resources, with any mishap potentially making the water unsuitable for agriculture, thus wrecking the area’s economy. Joyce might be unhappy about the mine, but if the Liberals want it, be they Federal Liberals or State Liberals governing in NSW at the moment, he’ll struggle to change their minds.
The issue of this mine has bred speculation of former Independent MP Tony Windsor coming out of retirement to run against Joyce at the next Federal election. Windsor retired in 2013 after over ten years of holding New England. His last three years were hard, as a balance-of-power MP whose support put Labor in office after it nearly lost an election to the Coalition. This brought him much criticism and vitriol, particularly from conservative commentators who accused him of betraying his voters, who’d have otherwise supported the Coalition over Labor. His health wasn’t the best when he retired, but critics called him cowardly for walking away.
I’m not convinced that Windsor will return. He’d been in politics for two decades when he retired, and I’m not sure that a few years away would’ve recharged his batteries sufficiently. He can oppose the mine more credibly than Joyce can, but bad memories might scare voters away from him, or any other Independent candidate who runs instead of him, no matter how strong the opposition to the mine.
Mining on prime farmland has exposed some cracks within the Coalition. This issue makes the maverick Joyce now look like just another politician, and a compromised one at that. Unless enough Liberals agree with him, he can’t oppose mining on farmland without jeopardising his political career. The maverick streak hitherto making him popular now looks less credible.