Barnaby knock knock knockin’ on Kevin’s door
Dylan fans will be familiar with the stream of consciousness liner notes on the back sleeve of Highway 61 Revisited where the Zimmer-man writes of Savage Rose and Fixable and the Cream Judge and the Clown, of Lifelessness saving the world, of the Phony Philosophers and the Beautiful Strangers.
I was compelled to re-read this unusual piece of writing this week after subbing an opinion piece written by Barnaby Joyce and have decided that if Dylan has a literary heir in this country it is the newly-installed shadow minister for finance.
Joyce has now written seven opinion pieces for our website The Punch and the marvellous thing about all of them is that you could buy a pack of Gitanes, slip into your skivvy and beret, and recite random passages aloud in a Soho coffee shop with Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue playing in the background, and the critics would hail you as the greatest beat poet since Ginsberg.
A few stanzas from the Joyce canon:
“I am watching a television with some people dressed up as dogs on it/and as there will be a tax on electricity, the price of that will go up/the lady working in the coffee shop is washing the dishes in a dishwasher so the price of that has just gone up/she is wearing a pressed new apron, lately washed, and the cost of washing that has just gone up/on the menu is lambs fry, and ovine ruminant potentially has a huge tax on it/ I could go for the vegetable stack and that requires fertiliser to grow.”
“Is philosophy now no more than a bib handed out to be worn before the political chamber game, a contrived or acquired vocal tribalism?”
“Some television commentators think that I’m the insane one/Maybe that explains the place where I work/Obviously, if I’m not me, who am I?”
Apologies to any Baby Boomer readers for any acid flashbacks they have just experienced.
The elevation of this agrarian existentialist to such a senior position on the frontbench has been greeted largely with sniggers on the Left of politics. Coupled with the return of Philip Ruddock, Bronwyn Bishop and Kevin Andrews, Tony Abbott has been accused of giving life to the excellent maxim that when you’ve got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose.
The benefits of reinstating Howard-era ministers are worth debating. But the promotion of Joyce is undoubtedly the smartest thing Abbott has done in assembling his first shadow ministry. For his occasional incomprehensibility, Joyce is one of the most effective politicians in Australia right now. Like a couple of other notable Queenslanders before him in Sir Joh and Porr-lean, he thinks, talks and acts like an anti-politician, a straight-shooter who conveys his message in a cavalier and unpretentious style. But he has none of Bjelke-Petersen’s crookedness and none of Hanson’s ignorance. He is decent and smart. And he has done the best job of any regional politician, probably any politician, in harnessing public disquiet over the ETS.
It’s here where Labor could have a serious problem on its hands with Joyce. In a very prescient piece for our website this week, published under the pithy headline Left Should Beware Abbott’s War on Wankers, left-wing political strategist and EMC director Peter Lewis warned his comrades that the Abbott Liberals could very easily revisit the republic-wrecking strategies from the 1999 referendum to smash Rudd over the ETS.
You can write the arguments on the back of a beer coaster in handy front-bar language so that every undecided punter in the land will have them burned on their brain – it’s going to cost a lot of money, no-one has explained how it will work, it’s hard to see why we need to do it anyway, and I’m buggered if I’m going to be lectured by a bunch of uni types about it.
“My growing concern is that a similar dynamic is at play with the climate change debate, now crystalised into a meaningless acronym, the ETS. Take this exchange with a Labor-voting cabbie last week:
“Bloody Rudd and his ETS – all he’s going to do is increase power prices; the poor pensioners won’t be able to afford it. And who says we need to pay more? Bloody scientists, that’s who. What would they know – all they’ve ever done is gone to uni.”
“These sentiments show the fertile ground an Abbott scare campaign on the ETS has to work with: not just the personal cost embodied in the mantra ‘a new tax’; but the backlash against people from uni telling us what to do.”
“While Kevin Rudd and Penny Wong refer to the expert advice; Abbott will not engage on the science – he will go after the scientific community as ideologically driven tossers working in league with the phoneys from Canberra.”
Some will regard these tactics Lewis identifies as ugly and uninformed, pandering to the worst in our national makeup. Others would counter that it’s the job of opposition to reflect and respond to sizeable public concern over such a major policy issue. Either way, this don’t-lecture-me-smart-guy tactic has been proven to be politically devastating in the past. And there is no reason why it cannot work again, especially when, in Joyce, Abbott has picked the right man to help direct the debate in that direction.
Joyce has had three different press secretaries working for him in the past 12 months but his opinion pieces and press releases have maintained the same tone throughout. Either he employs good mimics or he writes them all himself; I suspect it is the latter.
When you have Kevin Rudd talking in riddles about programmic specifity, or other Labor frontbenchers wheeling out drumroll-please lines in Question Time that have clearly been penned for them by the comically challenged, Barnaby’s beat poetry will find a receptive audience both in the media and in the public.
He was off to a flier this week. Within minutes of his promotion Joyce issued a press release under the strangely menacing all-caps headline HELLO WAYNE. It had a nice stalkerish tone to it, like he’s going to channel De Niro as Max Cady in Cape Fear and lash himself to the bottom of the Treasurer’s Comcar.
“I must admit that after the appointment to Shadow Finance Minister my comic relief came from Treasurer Swan’s media release stating that I must follow Labor’s strict rules on fiscal discipline. It’s like Captain Calamity’s instructions on yoga. There’s one thing that is absolutely certain, I will not be taking any lead, whatsoever, from a crowd who have taken us from having tens of billions of dollars in the bank, to debt up to our eyeballs, with more dogs tied up around town than Bernie Madoff. Labor has gone on a spending bender and is now waiting for the fairy godmother to come and rub the red ink from the books.”
I have no idea who Captain Calamity is or what his instructions are for yoga but in this age of saccharine political stage management, in a country blessed with a beautiful vernacular, Joyce may achieve what the strategists call cut-through, even when you’ve got no literal sense of what the guy is actually saying.
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