Barnaby’s game

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

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7 responses to “Barnaby’s game”

  1. Ricc on 12th February 2010 8:41 am

    The media (thinking Australia is more important than it is) worry that Barnaby’s title “Finance” means the actual Treasurer position and therefore foreigners think Australia is set to be actually managed by crazies – rather than the Finance role as it actually is – keeping a few big spending govt depts in line.

    That said, in my recent travels I have discovered most foreigners have little idea about Australia, assume we are caught up in the GFC like US and UK, and give very little margin to our government or any to have any influence over matters.

    Hanson was more effective because she directly tapped into racism, rather than other proxy One Nation agendas like rednecking on the imminent collapse of the US/Zionist/Conspiracy blah blah or whatever else.

    I’ve made the same mistake with Japan in the past – assumed some crank with a cabinet post who says something stupid has any authority to do so – then check out with the locals and they say he is just a crank.

  2. James on 12th February 2010 9:03 am

    Would be interesting to know if Joyce’s conduct is having a positive impact on the Coaltion’s polling in rural and provincial marginals in Queensland and NSW.

  3. Cavitation on 12th February 2010 9:49 am

    It is interesting that the conservative parties have moved over so far towards populism. It is surprising because this seems to be damaging the core of the conservative parties’ appeal, namely that they represent careful and conventional governance. We now have the strange situation where the Labor government is applying traditional and conventional remedies in dangerous economic times, while the Liberal and National parties are wanting radical policies implemented. I see that Abbott has said more than once that we should be following New Zealand’s example, which has had a major recession and higher unemployment and government debt than Australia, for the sole reason, apparently, that this is more ideologically correct.

    Who are the other big fans of populism at present? The mainstream media, of course. These media corporations are having a major crisis caused by technological changes that threaten their business model and even their future existence. The media corporations are panicking and dumbing down their product and upping the shrillness of it, just as the opposition parties are now doing. Coincidently, this has the most impact on late and lesser adopters of the new technology; the less well-off and the elderly. While the majority of people are streaming for the exits, the poor and the old are still firmly ensconced in their seats, watching the rabid performers shouting and screaming on the stage trying to keep their attention.

    While this strategy may work, for a while, with the media companies, it looks to be less successful in politics. The majority of the population pay little attention to politics normally, only focussing on it when they can change things, at election time. When they do start paying attention, they will see the conservative parties pandering to groups on the periphery of political discourse. Who would want to be linked to the bunch of losers of whom Barnaby Joyce is the champion? Hollowing out the Liberal and National parties to appeal to desperate main-stream media commentators and owners, and the old and disaffected, seems a very poor strategy for them to adopt, and short sighted as well.

  4. Ricc on 12th February 2010 12:40 pm

    Joyce might ‘firewall’ National Party seats that could have fallen to the ALP (or worse; to the Libs!)

    re the media. The Australian, now that it’s kingmaking seen through for what it is post 2007, now just looks like the Uni Liberal Club newsletter that it is.

    You can wake up any day, say a day when a bomb has gone off in Pakistan killing 200 people, to discover the most IMPORTANT thing that happened that day, according to the Oz, is that some professor came out and said that Phonics education was better than the other leading household brand, or whatever.

    At least in the ‘good old days’ the bomb in Pakistan would have been raked over for its ‘war on terror’ implications, or in deades before that, its “Soviet Menace” implications.

    You’ll still get the Sheridan column, but he now looks obsessive against the ‘generalists’ who’ll beat up anything from Rudd’s temper to Julia’s hair colour and tell you that Abbott now has the march because of it.

  5. Daisey May on 12th February 2010 3:34 pm

    Not sure If I agree with your view of Joyce PS. The whole anti-polly thing has been done to death and the journo knives come out sooner or later on all of them. I think Barnaby and Tony have pretty ordinary intellects and even less political acumen. They will lose the next election but Rudd will lose some skin as well.What irks me is the way politics are reported in this country. The pollies are childish, venal and petty at the best of times but the journo’s are extremely vindictive and carry on like rejected lovers. They lose readers hand over fist and still have no idea why. Come the campaign proper it will become apparent that the death warmed up team sitting on Abbott’s front bench will warrant all the scorn and derision that it so richly deserves.

  6. Ricc on 12th February 2010 6:13 pm

    Carrying on like dejected lovers: Read the pathetic conversation reported in Harcher’s The Bitter End between “Poison Dwarf” Milne and Peter Costello.

    “I didn’t think we’d still be friends after what I wrote about you…”

    Are people not troubled that Milne could so publicly state his friendship with Costello but then expect his reporting on him to be like Fox News ‘Fair and Balanced”

  7. The Piping Shrike on 12th February 2010 10:23 pm

    Not sure if we are disagreeing that much DM. The Abbott leadership is highly vulnerable and contradictiory. This is the least popular leader with the least popular policies that Rudd has had to face. Yet there is a sense that the government has struggled to get a grip on it in the way Abbott’s weaknesses would suggest.

    Cavitation, I actually don’t think the media do like populism. They are uncomfortable with by-passing the normal channels, which is one reason why they don’t like Rudd. It is also why they find Joyce’s staying in the Finance job incomprehensible. What they are more excited about at the moment is that Abbott seems to offer the possibility that the old game is back on. Yet if you look at what Abbott and Joyce are really about, it’s clearly not.

    By the way, on Barnaby, I liked Hockey’s line on Lateline that his mistakes were what ‘real’ people did. I’d like to see Barnaby go back to his ‘real’ accountancy job and get his trillions and billions mixed up (or in any finance job for that matter). Only in politics can you be in ‘finance’ and get away with stuffing that up.

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