It was the affair that almost stopped the nation, as well as almost stopping the government. Will Barnaby Joyce still be the Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the National Party after he returns from his personal leave next week? Will Malcolm Turnbull still be the Prime Minister when he returns from America next week? Will there still be a functioning government?
During the 2016 election campaign, Turnbull pushed the ‘Stable Government’ slogan at every opportunity, hoping that by saying it enough times, people would start believing it. It seems that it worked somewhat during the campaign – after all, he did win the election by one seat – and enough people were seduced by the relationship between ‘stability’ and the Liberal–National coalition. But the concept has been so thoroughly destroyed that it’s hard to imagine how it could have been contemplated in the first place.
A week from hell? Most definitely. Having seen from close up, the Rudd–Gillard leadership woes that brought Labor to its knees at the 2013 election, as well almost an entire term of instability during 2010–2013, it’s reasonable to expect the Coalition would have received a firm lesson in how to avoid and manage internal tensions, and ensuring that whatever goes on behind the scenes, there’s always a veneer of stability and cohesion in the public sphere.
But any lessons learned during that time have been discarded. To say the Coalition is a rabble is an understatement – and I’m not saying anything new – but the way the palpable anger between Turnbull and Joyce played out towards the end of week brought the rabble to a new low, with both leaders deciding to press the button and go for the nuclear option.
The key factor to remember here is the bruising battle between Turnbull and Joyce isn’t about policy; it’s not about trying to obtain extra millions for public health, or for education. It’s not about Closing the Gap or an argument about how the Indigenous Voice to Parliament to be introduced. It wasn’t even about corruption.
It was about sex and a ministerial affair.
Think about that for a moment. A government was brought to the brink, and a constitutional crisis almost came to fruition, all because Turnbull called the Joyce’s act of a sexual liaison and affair “a shocking error of judgement”, while the other responded by calling him “inept”, not respecting the Prime Minister’s authority, and telling him to “keep out” of National Party business.
Forgive me for being reminded of high school, but it’s like Turnbull and Joyce reliving their henchmen experiences at their respective alma maters, Sydney Grammar School and St Ignatius College, staking their turf. But this isn’t meant to be like a brawl at the playgrounds of Sydney’s most elite schools, it’s supposedly national government.
And continuing on the theme of bully-boy private school behaviour, Turnbull, Treasurer Scott Morrison, and Minister for Communications, Mitch Fifield, all harassed and lobbied the ABC to remove an expert analysis of the Coalition’s $65 billion company tax cut policy, because it didn’t fit into their political narrative. And, typically of the ABC under Managing Director Michelle Guthrie, the article was removed, severely edited, and put back online. This sets a bad precedent and follows on from when Malcolm Turnbull lobbied SBS to remove Scott McIntyre after his comments about Anzac Day in 2015, and gagged technical editor Nick Ross from the ABC for reporting unfavourable articles about the Coalition’s broadband policy.
Next week, Turnbull is going off to visit the US President – let’s see how he compares the character of Donald Trump with Barnaby Joyce – and Joyce is off for the week to stew in his own juices and hatch a plan for him to remain in his position.
But the stench of corruption is still strong. There’s the relationship with Tamworth businessman, Greg Maguire; the rent-free apartment provided by Maguire to Joyce and his new partner, Vicky Campion; the two jobs created by National Party MPs Matt Canavan and Damian Drum specifically for Campion to hide a political problem for Joyce; his relationship with mining magnate Gina Rinehart; questions about Joyce’s properties near the Narrabri gas fields; the re-routing of the Melbourne–Brisbane Inland Rail project to benefit the value of Joyce’s properties; water theft from South Australia by New South Wales; the relocation of the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority to Armidale. And on it goes.
Whether or not Joyce remains as leader of the National Party, this smell of corruption will still linger. Even if Joyce resigns from parliament entirely, it will be a reminder for how the National Party does business in regional Australia – through conflicts of interest, corruption, intimidation, bribery, and all through an exclusive class of business people.
Barnaby Joyce is a dangerous and incompetent politician and Parliament would be better off without him. He’s a blight on the political landscape and is a legacy of the old-style regional corruption that should have been removed years ago.
In the latest Newspoll figures, Labor is leading on a two-party vote of 53 per cent, to the Coalition to 47 per cent. It’s the 27th consecutive Newspoll loss for Malcolm Turnbull. And in all polls taken since the election in July 2016 – 88 in total – the Coalition has not been ahead in any of them. It will be interesting to see what type of mischief the Coalition makes while Malcolm Turnbull is overseas, but expect to see some fireworks when he returns.