The events in Canberra in the past few days have been extraordinary even by the febrile standards of Australian politics. The sight of the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister at public loggerheads bodes ill for both men, and is likely the end of the current Coalition and an early election – unless both leaders go. Maybe that prospect is what is driving Barnaby Joyce on as he excoriated Malcolm Turnbull for his “overreaction” to Barnaby’s own issues, leaving his wife for a pregnant mistress, while finding a comfortable job for the latter with another Minister, Matt Canavan.
Barnaby needs the salary of Deputy Prime Minister to feed his two families but even he surely knows his press conference on Friday pushed matters past the point of no return. Maybe his strategy is to take Malcolm Turnbull down with him. If so, the Twitter memes showing Labor leaders Bill Shorten and Tanya Plibersek trying to keep the smiles off their faces might rebound as a reborn Coalition under Julie Bishop and Darren Chester manage to look electable again.
But who knows, Barnaby always had the reputation of the maverick, however oversold. Since his election to the Senate in 2004 he crossed the floor 28 times but only three times for legislation and all three times his crossing made no difference – the bill passed each time. But what it did for Barnaby was to add to his growing reputation as an independent voice, and a voice that was heard regularly in the media. They laughed at this Queensland bumpkin who occasionally mangled his sentences Joh-style. But like Joh, Barnaby was a good “retail politician”, the journalists said sagely.
He was always Barnaby. A moniker out of Dickens barely needed a surname but “joy” was hardly it. He was a grumpy bugger. I knew him when he was a senator based in St George, already then an ex-maverick who was more disciplined as he settled in the heir apparent role to then invisible leader Warren Truss. Barnaby had a national focus so wasn’t often available for local interviews but he was a fearsome presence. And when he wasn’t around he was ably represented by his chief of staff Matt Canavan. Canavan was young but a whipsmart operator with an ability to speak matching his boss – and without the mangling.
I had a mostly hands-off relationship when I was editor of the Western Star in Roma. Roma was the territory of Barnaby’s “frenemy”, Bruce Scott, the fellow-LNP federal member for Maranoa. Scott was in his late 60s and in parliament since 1990. A decent and popular man and a former Veterans Affairs minister under John Howard, most people felt Scott’s best days were behind him.
In an editorial in 2011 I advised Scott to retire so Mr Joyce, or rather Barnaby, could run in the lower house. In this I was following the call from the local mayor and others who saw the longer-term ramifications. Barnaby was the favourite to replace Truss as party leader but convention demanded he be in the lower house and Maranoa, with its huge LNP majority, was the obvious seat. With an election due in 2013 that the LNP was likely to win as the Labor government imploded, it was important the matter was sorted quickly.
I spent the first four lines of the editorial outlining my concerns of Barnaby’s shoot from the hip personality but had to conclude it was time for Scott to stand aside we could have a future potential deputy PM representing our seat. I never heard from Barnaby whether he saw the article or not, but Scott did. When I finally got to speak with him afterwards and asked him what he thought of my editorial, he said “well, I liked the first four lines.”
It didn’t matter. Scott ignored my editorial and did not retire before the 2013 election. Barnaby was forced to move to New England in NSW, where he originally came from. There he comfortably beat Tony Windsor who paid the price of his support for Labor, among his largely National following (Windsor was an ex-National before going independent.) Joyce was subsequently elected deputy leader of the party and Minister for Agriculture in the incoming Abbott government.
His offsider Matt Canavan soon joined him in parliament. Canavan did not inherit Barnaby’s senate seat – that was Barry O’Sullivan, but he was comfortably elected as the third LNP name on the 2013 Senate ticket so on 1 July 2014 he took his seat on the red benches. Like Barnaby, Canavan kept himself in the public eye by commenting on most issues of the day. He was rewarded when Malcolm Turnbull unseated Abbott and Canavan was named minister for Northern Australia, after barely a year in parliament.
Truss resigned before the 2016 election and Barnaby was elected party leader and Deputy Prime Minister of Australia. Canavan took continued his upward trajectory taking a seat in cabinet. It was ironic that both were caught up in the citizenship saga with Canavan winning in court and Barnaby later at a by-election.
I have met Canavan in Mount Isa a few times since election to the ministry. I disagree with him on coal and on most of his social issues, but I respect him as an intelligent and honest performer. Barnaby I was never so sure of. I did meet him once again when he accompanied Canavan on one of his visits to Mount Isa. It was the 2016 federal election in 2016 and they were here to support the LNP candidate Jonathan Pavetto (who ultimately lost comfortably to Bob Katter). The trio doorstopped an announcement of $5 million worth of road improvements to Mount Isa from the NAIF. The choice of the side of the Barkly highway was appropriate but noisy and several times the conference had to be halted when a b-double trundled by. I was keen to talk to the deputy PM and captured the entire 25 minute interview on Facebook Live for the North West Star. Looking back on it now, I see Barnaby said some things that are poignant on reflection.
The interview began in straightforward fashion as Barnaby justified the $5 million as looking after people in “regional areas”. The low production quality of the video was shown with my finger appearing over the edge of the camera in the early stages but it didn’t matter. Barnaby was keen to fill the frame as the big picture man and Canavan filled in on the details.
They made the announcement and the ABC asked questions about it. At about 7mins I asked my first question about what the government was doing to address youth unemployment, with one in three young people out of a job in the outback. “I’m glad you asked that,” said Barnaby quickly, an answer I realised he would always use for a hard question. He was quick to point to the money they were spending and rambled into fair trade, tourism, and back to their spending. Then he spoke about how the Labor-Greens were preventing dredging at Karumba Port.
I interjected. “Isn’t the real problem Karumba Century Mine has closed and its owners used to pay for that dredging?” I said.
Barnaby quickly turned it round to agriculture and asked that if he had “a government with vision in Brisbane” they would finance it to encourage the live export trade. When I asked him what he was doing to support Mount Isa’s industry, he passed it to Canavan who batted it away effortlessly. I swung back to Barnaby and asked what he said to local income earners doing it tough when he was giving out big tax cuts to high earners. Almost angrily Barnaby said if you don’t have small business “in the tax brackets where they can employ people, you don’t have jobs going”. He quickly went back to the laundry list, live trade, tax breaks, the works.
But he was more flippant when I asked him why we were suffering a nine week election campaign in 2016 “two months you are campaigning when you should be governing.”
“Alignment of the stars,” he said jokingly, at first. There was an uncomfortable silence and you could almost see the alarm in Canavan’s eyes. Barnaby quickly realised this was a bad answer and starting to squirm his way out on technical grounds over the need to have the election post July 1.
I interrupted him. “But surely you can understand -”
“…the anger of the people” is what I wanted to say next, but he interrupted me in return.
“- It had be approved after the first of July to get that three year term. I understand, believe you me I understand.” It was all about “getting on with the job”.
Getting no satisfaction there I brought up the fact the Nationals and Liberals were one party in Queensland but were in three-cornered contests with Libs and Labor in other states. He dismissed the question, “They are separate parties,” he said. I asked what did that mean and he started talking about “an open seat” when I interrupted him again.
“Have they got separate agendas?” I asked. I waved me off about the need for both parties to campaign and said he was happy to talk about Damien Drum and his other candidates in those contests because “they were doing a great job”. Still unhappy I said “what’s the difference between the Liberal and the National candidate, have they got different agendas?”
“You’ll have to talk to the other candidates,” Barnaby replied.
“I’m glad you asked me about Damien Drum” he pressed on (he had mentioned Drum, not me) and proceeded to tell me how good a candidate he was.
Still unhappy I interrupted again. (This is the best part of the video – exactly 16 minutes in.)
“Barnaby what are you, a Liberal or a National?”
“A National,” he replied.
“But you are called Liberal National Party in Queensland.”
“No, no, I’m a National, called a National.”
“I’m Barnaby, called Barnaby, I’m Joyce called Joyce, I’m a national called a national.”
Barnaby, called Barnaby, ploughed on saying the party was called the CLP in the Northern Territory and in New South Wales where he was it was the Nationals and then there was “poor Tasmania” which didn’t have a National Party at all.
It was at this point my colleagues from the ABC lost patience with the way the interview was going and wanted Barnaby to talk about the announcement again. Which he was more than happy to do.
He ranted for another five to eight minutes batting off an ABC question about the dairy industry recovery loan system, “we’re looking after Australians first”.
He lost his train of thought talking about citizenship and he smiled as he remembered his Dad was a Kiwi, “I was always a bit suspect of him,” he laughed. (This was a good 12 months before his dad’s birthplace would come back to haunt him).
Then ABC mentioned Johnny Depp’s “inbred tomato” comment and sheepishly asked him did he have any tomatoes in his family.
“He would know, very wise man,” Barnaby retorted.
“I’m very happy with the family I’ve got.”
No one had any idea how those words would sound in 2018 but prim and proper “serious journalist” me interrupted again.
“On a more serious note”, I said sniffily, “the Internet is appalling in our region. The NBN is a ‘poor man’s NBN’, how was the government going to rectify this?”
Barnaby retorted in vague specifics. There was “1000 megabits” there were people “happy with the 25 megabit package, at Fibre to the Node we are getting 100 Megabits down I think and 40 megabits up, with cable we are getting 100 Megabits down and 40 megabits up, with wireless we are getting 50 down and 25 to 20 up and with satellite that’s 25 down and 5 up.”
He said Netflix used 5 down “which goes to show you how powerful what you deliver back up”. He said their concern was cutting the cost and Labor were never going to implement a full FTTP, not out in the bush anyway, and it would have taken and extra six to eight years to implement and they were winding it back. Again he reiterated most people wanted 25 down and FTTN can provide that.
He finished with a flourish they (the government) were “not a suggestion box, not a complaints box” but were out there “fighting and delivering”. Thank you, he said, and walked away from the cameras, taking no further questions.
Senator Matt Canavan rushed in to have the last word saying the Turnbull government had opened more slots on the sattelite by buying more bandwidth.
The interview petered out and looking back on the comments on the video, I saw I copped some criticism from my live audience for interrupting. “Calm down, Derek” said one viewer.
But I couldn’t calm down. Here was the deputy prime minister in town and talking twaddle. I was angry and determined not let him get away with that. That’s what journalists do.
The sad thing was I neglected most of the content in that interview. In the rush to get stories out I missed out reporting on most of the issues and Barnaby escaped to his next assignment. I never replayed the video in full again until this week.
In the last few days I’ve been editorialising again about Barnaby and my opinion gone full swing from 2011. “Barnaby Joyce must resign“, I said, for once giving him his full name. The master bullshitter has been caught out once too often and unlike what he told me in 2016 it turns out he wasn’t happy with his family after all. It is the probity side of the scandal that bothers me not the sex, and to that end Canavan is not smelling of roses either. But he survive, though his former boss is toast.
It’s time for Barnaby to go. But I will say this much for him. At least he has had the balls to come to Mount Isa and answer my questions. The gutless wonder Malcolm Turnbull has steered well clear. It’s a shame he will likely be out of a job before he gets here. I would have liked the opportunity to ask him questions too.