Friday, 12 February 2010
Tim Lester: Barnaby Joyce, Australians love your unfiltered honesty, so why on earth have you agreed to toe a party line instead of just giving us Barnaby’s view?
I’ll go if Tony wants it: Joyce – An interview with Barnaby Joyce
That’s a good question. To answer why someone whose franchise is being ‘outspoken’ should end up in one of the most sensitive portfolios on the front bench, let’s start with another: if economic credibility is such a big deal in Australian politics, why did the Liberals appoint Hockey and Joyce to the key economic portfolios? This is not just a new Abbott direction. Hockey was a Turnbull appointment and signalled that even then, gravitas was not necessary for what is supposed to be the second most important job on the front bench. Hockey has trouble holding on to his dignity, but he can be otherwise fairly good on the telly, with a reasonable turn of mockery. When Turnbull was leading an attack on the government’s stimulus plan, without any serious plans to spend less, a quick spot by Hockey on the evening news was probably enough.
But things have changed from the Liberals merely trying to sustain a hollow debate, and now the spotlight has turned from Hockey to Joyce. Joyce’s act is to portray himself as a rube who, through some stroke of luck, has popped up in the sophisticated Finance portfolio, but being the honest and simple guy he is, still can’t help saying what he really thinks.
In fact he is the opposite: a National politician who has taken advantage of the crisis in the Liberals to manoeuvre himself into a portfolio that the Nationals would normally never dream of getting. He has done so through using a calculated appeal to anti-political sentiment in the electorate that he knows the Liberals need at the moment.
Since the 2007 defeat, the Liberal party’s crisis over its role has come out in the open, and the Nationals have played a key role in it. From Nelson’s leadership on, the Nationals have been the surrogate for the Liberals split between wanting to be electorally relevant and to stand for something. Discussing this in terms of whether to form a closer arrangement with the Nationals allowed the debate to be turned from an ideological one over the very survival of the Liberal party into a less fraught organisational issue.
This distraction helped a little to manage things until those tensions finally exploded to the surface under Turnbull at the end of last year. As Turnbull’s leadership started to decline, the use of the relationship with the Nationals by Nelson to calm down the Liberals’ tensions started to go the opposite way. Senior Nationals like Joyce began moving into the centre of the Liberals’ debate and becoming a focus of the Liberals opposing Turnbull.
The reluctant accession to the leadership by Abbott, after the failure of Hockey as a compromise, has made the new Liberal leadership even more reliant on the Nationals. But it has also brought them closer to the risky, but desperate, strategy the Nationals are now pursuing. The loss of two heartland seats, New England and Lyne, to two ex-Nationals and strong supporters of climate change action, highlights how far the Nationals have moved from being an establishment party representing Australian rural interests on the national and international arena, to a party that is now using climate change scepticism to tap into an audience who are disenfranchised from the whole process.
Everyone feels sorry for Warren Truss being overshadowed by Joyce, but Truss’s giving of Joyce his head at the moment comes from the contradictory position the Nationals are in, of trying to tap into a marginalised section of the electorates without becoming marginalised themselves. It is a similar balancing act that Abbott must make, and what makes Joyce so valuable for him at the moment.
Of course, Joyce would not have this value if he didn’t fulfil the purpose to some degree. So he needs to mouth off and draw attention to himself on, by the way, precisely the type of themes, like debt, that the Coalition wants to highlight. At the same time, he is pushing for the Nationals to counter its marginalisation by taking a more central role in the Coalition. So we have this swinging back and forwards between mouthing off, and then apologising for it, as though he is out of control when he is merely reflecting the contradictory game he is playing.
Fortunately for him, however, the government’s tactics are helping. When Tanner and others call him a bearded lady and a freak show they are emphasising that he is out of place in the political mainstream and shouldn’t be where he is. That isn’t a great problem with those who don’t regard the political mainstream very highly. Even calling him ‘irresponsible’ isn’t as important to many people as whether he is telling the truth. The government’s line that Joyce is dangerous may cause trouble with those Liberals worried about their economic credibility, but to some in the electorate, being seen as bravely warning about what needs to be said only adds to the appeal he is trying to create. It makes him into an exception to the political class rather than the very ordinary, opportunistic, National politician he actually is.
Posted by The Piping Shrike on Friday, 12 February 2010.Filed under Political figures, Tactics