Leading article Australia

Re-Joyce and Regret

26 June 2021

9:00 AM

26 June 2021

9:00 AM

For those who prefer their politics to be pink and their environmentalism deep green, the re-election of Barnaby Joyce as federal leader of the Nationals is a disaster. For the overwhelming majority of grass-roots Nationals voters however, who want authentic, grounded politicians in touch with sentiments outside the political bubble, Joyce’s return is a welcome development.

All credit to Michael McCormack, who’s dignified exit on Monday showed a grace that is regrettably rare in departing leaders. In Joyce, the Nationals have a leader who is one of the best retail politicians in Australia. True, like most Nationals he is, at heart, a bit of an agrarian socialist and can sometimes play the maverick, but he will put some backbone into crucial policy issues going into the next election.

On climate, Joyce played an important role in helping Tony Abbott win the 2013 election and an even more important role, together with Senator Matt Canavan, in helping to secure a Coalition victory in 2016, despite an appalling performance by then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull. It was only because the Nationals won one seat that the Coalition retained government. Indeed, one of the best things about the return of Joyce to the leadership is that it will hopefully herald a return of Canavan to the leadership circle and a return to prominence of Senator Bridget Mackenzie.

In the next election, coal mining will be a critical battleground. Many livelihoods in regional NSW and Queensland depend on it and it is one of our biggest exports underpinning the prosperity of the nation as well as that of our neighbours in Asia. Demand for our thermal coal has soared over the past 20 years, thanks to the rapid industrialisation of China, India, Indonesia and Vietnam. Treacherous attempts by shareholder activists to intimidate companies, particularly in the financial sector, and an over-reaching judiciary seek to make it impossible to mine and export Australian coal. Yet this would only see it substituted by dirtier alternatives from our competitors, driving up emissions while driving down the national income.

With Labor making a half-hearted pretence that it has given up its carbon emission madness and is committed to the extraction of fossil fuels — at least long enough to try to get elected — the Nationals need someone like Joyce who genuinely supports mining in general and the coal industry in particular, and who will be prepared to speak up on behalf of all those who rely on this vital export industry.

The main challenge that Joyce, Canavan and Mackenzie face will be in ensuring that Prime Minister Scott Morrison stands firm against mounting pressure from Green rent-seekers — particularly investment bankers — to commit to a target of net-zero emissions by 2050, and of course to massive subsidies for their pet boondoggles. It is one thing to make pie-in-the-sky promises at international summits, it is another thing to be able to deliver on those promises without bankrupting the country.

G7 summiteers can pledge to achieve net zero carbon dioxide emissions by no later than 2050 and to cease government support for unabated coal power generation until they are blue, or rather green, in the face but so long as China has a green light to increase its emissions until at least 2030 nothing the Western world does will make a jot of difference.

Australia has always met and exceeded its international obligations but setting targets that benefit wealthy investors in unreliable renewables while destroying hundreds of thousands of jobs in agriculture, mining and manufacturing sectors is a recipe for economic and electoral disaster. It is the responsibility of Joyce, Canavan, Mackenzie, as well as Energy minister Angus Taylor, to ensure that it doesn’t happen.

Those who imagine that Joyce was weakened in authority by the painfully public exposure of his private affairs in 2018 do not understand Australian voters. They don’t expect politicians to be saints, they just want them to be honest, to admit their failings, to apologise and to move on. The fact is that Joyce should never have lost the leadership over his marital breakdown. Prime Minister Turnbull was aware of the affair and kept very quiet when Joyce had to re-contest his New England seat in a by-election because he might hold New Zealand citizenship by descent from his father. Yet once the seat was safely won, Turnbull displayed his trademark treachery. Instead of backing his deputy, he called on Joyce to consider his position and forced him to go on a week of personal leave rather than allow him to act as prime minister while Turnbull visited the United States. Turnbull also brought in the odious ‘bonk ban’, an absurd rewording of the parliamentary code of conduct to forbid sexual relations between ministers and staff. Joyce’s return to the leadership puts an end to this sorry saga.

It was very disappointing however that the return of Joyce to the leadership will not be accompanied by the return of former deputy prime minister John Anderson to the senate. There is no more honourable and talented man in the Nationals and it is a great loss to the nation that due to the petty politics of his party, he was denied the top spot on the NSW senate ticket. Offered the unwinnable second place, he declined and declared his political career has come to an end. A great thinker, speaker and writer, he still has much to offer in public life, including hopefully on these pages in the near future.

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