Barnaby Joyce – a political obituary

Barnaby Joyce

Serious calls for resignation – serious ones – always end with the resignation of the politician involved. Barnaby Joyce held out for three weeks – around the average time these things usually take. The pattern usually goes like this: the growing calls for resignation, coupled with further allegations and revelations. When the allegations reach a certain point, whether they’re justified or not, the figure resigns. S/he then either becomes disgraced and discarded, or are able to become some form of the ‘King across the water’. Usually, the public chooses the former, but the subject declares themselves, to varying degrees of credibility, the latter.


Barnaby Thomas Gerard Joyce was born in Tamworth, but not to a ‘weatherboard and iron family’, as he claimed. The Joyce household was comfortable, if not wealthy – Barnaby and his brothers were able to attend St Ignatius’s College at Riverview – an elite Catholic school on Sydney’s North Shore, whose fees currently reach almost $27,000 per year. He boarded there, which adds a substantial amount to these fees. The family sheepfarm was a successful one, Joyce’s grandfather was a veteran of Gallipoli and his father fought during World War II.

Joyce did well enough at school to attend the University of New England, where he graduated with a Bachelor of Financial Administration. He worked in a few odd jobs, including bouncer and farmhand, before falling out with his family and moving to St George in Queensland, where he set up his own accountancy business. In 2005, he entered the Senate, and successfully transitioned to the lower house, where he became the Deputy Leader of the National Party upon the election of the Coalition in September 2013. He became the Leader of the National Party, and therefore, the Deputy Prime Minister when the previous leader, Warren Truss, retired in early 2016. In 2018, he resigned from the leadership and the frontbench.

These are the basic, unadorned facts of Joyce’s political career. Of course, Joyce isn’t the first maverick, knockaround bloke or ‘character’ to make a mark in the Australian Parliament. He is not the first member of the Australian Parliament to resign their post. But his achievements are not as strong as his dwindling number of supporters will suggest they are.

Where did it all unravel? For close watchers of Australian politics, Joyce was never going to last long in a job which requires discipline, focus, judgement and dignity. He also had a remarkable string of luck. If he had been lucky enough to sit in an early Howard cabinet, or an early Hawke cabinet, Joyce would have been seen as the worst minister, if indeed, he had made the ministry at all. However, in a cabinet that included former Treasurer Joe Hockey and former Attorney–General George Brandis, Joyce’s inadequacies were overshadowed by men even further out of their depth.

While his forthrightness was seen as an asset by some (including some in the craven mainstream media), it was ultimately his undoing. Former Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, described him as “currently the best retail politician in Australia,” a piece of praise that struggles to find definition. It is assumed that Abbott meant Joyce could ‘sell’ a policy to the electorate. Given Joyce’s many faux pas (for example, once confusing ‘millions’ with ‘billions’), it is a claim which doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Nonetheless, the term ‘retail politician’ remains unclear in its meaning.

Naturally, Joyce, like most boosters, pushed unsustainable plans to rural Australia. These were usually uncosted, or poorly costed, and the benefits of these plans rarely went beyond ‘jobs’, ‘growth’, ‘local benefits’ and other poorly defined and dubious claims. An early indication of Joyce’s priorities was in the bizarre case of American actor Johnny Depp’s dogs in 2015, Pistol and Boo. While filming Pirates of the Caribbean on the Gold Coast, Depp illegally brought two dogs into the country, a standard breach of law which, had it been anyone else, would have seen a departmental officer dealing with it. Instead, Minister Joyce, who presumably had much better things to do, intervened, threatening, with the hint of glee, to “euthanase [sic] the dogs” if the law wasn’t complied with and told Johnny Depp to “bugger off”. He could not resist the urge to show off on the world stage – to show the world he was man enough to kill two dogs.

Like Tony Abbott, Joyce struggled to speak clearly off the cuff, and rarely gave a good performance with a written piece. His political judgement was poor – once writing a letter to the daughter of mining magnate Gina Rinehart during a family dispute, imploring that the family put aside its differences. He also claimed that ‘gay marriage’ would hurt exports to Muslim countries – a claim that held no water, given that most countries trade based on economic and material need, not on perceived religious and cultural differences.

Given Joyce’s poor record, there is an awful inevitability about his political demise. The catalyst to his woes can most likely date back to the citizenship constitutional crisis of 2017, in which Joyce was caught up – because, of course he was. Not having done due diligence on his citizenship, the High Court found him in breach of Section 44 of the Constitution. To the horror of the left and many decent right-wing voters, he stepped down and campaigned in a by-election to reclaim his seat of New England on the Northern Tablelands. The by-election was a lay down misère for Joyce – he was returned with 64.92 per cent of the primary vote. This was despite rumours swirling about inappropriate behavior as Minister, a marriage breakdown, an out of wedlock pregnancy and deeper whispers about misuse of Parliamentary privileges. An unnamed female – reports differ as to whether it was Joyce’s sister, daughter, or even his wife – took his campaign car and drove around Tamworth yelling “adulterer” and other such phrases through the public address system on the car.

The mainstream media ignored all this, somewhat cowardly claiming that they don’t like to interfere in politicians’ private lives. Leaving aside for the moment that former MPs in the spotlight, Julia Gillard, Peter Slipper, Cheryl Kernot, Gareth Evans and countless others have had their private lives exposed, Joyce’s affair was not a rare slip of judgement, that would be best left to him, his wife, and partner.

He had misused the ministerial staffing allocations to hide the pregnancy, moving his former media advisor to two separate National Party offices. She was not allocated an email or internet account. This may account for her stress leave – a media officer, it seems to me, needs both to be able to do her job – but the suggestion was the stress leave was to hide her growing belly. Whatever the reason, she was paid, in her words, a salary of ‘only’ around $130,000 for these non-roles. It was only after Joyce won the New England by-election in December 2017 that he decided to put the pregnancy and the relationship on the public record.

Yet, even this was not enough to have Joyce do the honourable thing and resign. He held the numbers in his party room. He tried to brazen it out. A mooted role as acting Prime Minister was taken from him – Senator Mathias Cormann from the Liberal Party filled the role while Joyce went on an enforced holiday. Rather than keeping quiet, Joyce did a round of media appearances, meant to entrench his position and show him as a victim of a system built on prurience. Again, this showed his lack of political nous. Rather than kill the story, he kept it alive, and prompted more investigation into his professional conduct.

He had enemies in the party room – he had already stymied Darren Chester in a National Party reshuffle last last year. He started losing support, with the Western Australian National Party rejecting him as leader. He replied with a sharp letter pointing out as they had no seats in the Federal Parliament, their opinion was worthless. Two of his fellow National Party members, Andrew Broad and Andrew Gee, finally decided enough was enough and withdrew their support for his leadership.

The week did not improve. Joyce continued to face calls to resign from his own party, but it was an allegation brought to the National Party claiming Joyce had sexually harassed a prominent Western Australian woman that sealed his fate. At the time of writing, six more women have come forward with allegations of misconduct. Note: most commentators outside the mainstream media have stated that it’s not about the affair – it’s about the blatant breaching of ministerial guidelines. It is becoming clearer that the surface has only been scratched in Joyce’s improper dealings.

The preceding is a thumb sketch – I have left out names of non-political figures, as they are available elsewhere, and I don’t wish to be accused of politicising the private. I should add the ‘prominent Western Australian woman’ asked for anonymity – I am respecting that request, even if her name was leaked – and this revelation damaged Joyce even further.

I’ve titled this article a political obituary – Joyce’s career is dead. He may not think it is; but it is. In an era of #metoo and with at least two other credible accusations, he has no chance. As former Liberal Prime Minister Robert Menzies understood so well, a politician needs to honour the women of his electorate, party and country. Once the harassment accusations started, Joyce lost rural women. This was not the hi-jinx of a tearaway in consensual relationships (behaviour frowned upon by conservative voters, but reluctantly accepted). This was the behaviour of a predatory offender. When this realisation became apparent to the electorate, Barnaby lost his career.


What did he achieve? Not much really. Apart from the achievements noted earlier, he bought unfarmable land in 2006 and 2008 and, on his first day as Minister for Infrastructure, he diverted a railway project to pass by it, greatly increasing the value of the land. He accepted, then apparently rejected, a $40,000 prize for ‘Farmer of the Year’ awarded by Gina Rinehart. It was quickly pointed out the $40,000 was about the amount that he was losing as a non-member of Parliament for the six-week period he contested the New England by-election. It later transpired that he was paid a salary by the National Party while campaigning – a unique circumstance in Australian political practice. It will be interesting to see the political donor registers when they are released in 12 months’ time.

Gwabegar gas fields

His approach to the water ministry was ‘keep it off the greenies’. He diverted millions of dollars of water away from South Australia to make sure upstream farmers – that is, National voters – received the water. The environmental damage is devastating. The economic damage is also devastating. Speaking of ‘greenies’, Joyce seems to not understand a vital part of any democratic system is vigourous discussion, and sometimes vehement disagreement. Each side listens to the other, and the voters are presented with arguments for one position and against another. In this way, consensus grows. As Independent Australia recently reported, he dismissed a man asking questions of him as a ‘greenie’. When the man explained he wasn’t actually a member of any political party, Joyce replied: “Well, you look like a fuckwit’. Joyce flicked the hat off the man – surely an assault and battery under the law.

Ultimately, Barnaby Joyce was a loudmouth buffoon who enriched himself and impoverished Australian life. The National Party has been led by Tim Fischer, John ‘Blackjack’ McEwen, Ian Sinclair and Earle Page. These are, no matter your opinion of their politics, men of substance and ability. Joyce has the substance of fairy floss and no ability. He has precedence in Australian literature: most memorably perhaps, Bill Heslop, the corrupt and immoral mayor of Porpoise Spit in Muriel’s Wedding. Joyce was essentially a small town mayor with a Federal reach and a Federal budget to match.

A sense of entitlement coupled with a grasping and insatiable greed, mixed with an ego and self-belief that paid no attention to possible consequence. This most disgraceful of Parliaments is better off without him on the frontbench. Historically, he will be lucky to leave with a passing mention in a future history of Australia. With further allegations and a suspended investigation, it is possible Joyce will have to leave Parliament altogether. Until then, he remains dissolute, desolate and disgraced on the backbench. And despite his efforts, it is likely he will remain there while he is an elected representative.

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About David Lewis 11 Articles
David Lewis is co-presenter of the New Politics Australia podcast, historian, musicologist, musician and political scientist based in Sydney. His lecturing and research interests include roots music, popular music, Australian, UK and US politics and crime fiction. He has published in Music Forum Australia, Eureka Street, Quadrant, Crikey and has edited several books.