Barnaby. Our next deputy prime minister?
The possibility that Barnaby Joyce could become deputy prime minister in a coalition government suddenly has Liberals - quite a few of them, anyway - frothing at the mouth.
They see the controversial senator’s defiance of front-bench solidarity over the sale of Cubbie Station to a Chinese-led consortium as part of a carefully worked out political strategy.
The aim? To help him win a Lower House seat and take over leadership of the National Party from Warren Truss.
“Barnaby’s not worried about the coalition,” a prominent Liberal MP complained yesterday. “He’s being selfish. And Tony Abbott has failed to deal with it.”
Like Labor ministers, Joyce’s Liberal critics accuse him of exploiting xenophobia with his opposition to the takeover of the giant Queensland cotton farm - easily the largest irrigation property in Australia - by a textile firm owned by the Chinese Government.
Joyce resents the accusation. His problem, he tells colleagues, is with China’s communist government, not with the Chinese people.
Joyce struck a populist chord when he thumbed his nose at the policy enunciated quite clearly by Abbott, shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey, and others —that, having been properly scrutinised by the Foreign Investment Review Board, the Cubbie sale should be welcomed.
A senior Liberal admitted yesterday: “From the public’s perspective, Barnaby is on the side of the angels on this.” Resentful Liberals see two likely motivations for Joyce’s refusal to toe the coalition’s foreign investment policy line. The first has to do with his ambitions for his party.
At the next federal election, there could be several three-cornered contests—battles in seats where the Nationals and Liberals run against each other as well as against Labor.
The assumption is that, by latching on to an emotive issue like foreign buy-outs of Australian agricultural land, Joyce believes he can give the Nats an edge over their coalition partners. And then there is his personal ambition.
“Barnaby has exposed himself this week,” says one of the Liberals most critical of Abbott for not doing more to rein in the maverick National. “He is using this issue to build his profile further so that the Liberal National Party in Queensland will have no choice but to pre-select him for the seat of Maranoa.
“It’s about getting into the Lower House so he can have a go at the leadership.”
To win Maranoa, Joyce either has to force incumbent National party MP Bruce Scott into retirement or defeat him in a pre-selection ballot.
Scott’s response to approval of the Cubbie Station sale was instructive.Initially, Scott said it was up to the FIRB, not politicians, to decide if the sale was in the national interest.
A day later, however, it was a different story.
“I have been contacted by numerous constituents of the Maranoa electorate, as well as from all over the nation, concerned about Cubbie Station’s future,” Scott said. “I won’t allow these issues to be buried.”
Joyce had read the mood. Scott felt the heat.
The situation might not be so clear-cut when it comes to the leadership, however. Supporters say Joyce is under no illusions about this.
According to one source close to Joyce, he understands that “sometimes being vociferous makes you a knight of the round table but not King Arthur”.
In other words, while agreeing with what he says and respecting him for saying it, people might also wonder whether someone who rocks the boat so much is suited to leadership.
The truth is that Joyce might not be as ambitious as is generally believed.
After all, before eventually joining the front bench, he three times rejected offers of a shadow ministry because he wanted to avoid being compromised.
Hockey has gained in stature in the Liberal Party for being the one to strongly and publicly rebuke Joyce for his defiance. Abbott is copping criticism for being weak by comparison.
And he is accused of adopting a double standard where Joyce is concerned.
When South Australian Liberal backbencher Jamie Briggs suggested that last year’s tax summit should discuss broadening the GST, Abbott slapped him down within the hour.
But it’s not hard to see why Abbott is being careful. He does not want Joyce outside the tent where he would be subject to no restraint at all.
Joyce was outside when he waged a fierce attack on Malcolm Turnbull’s support for an emissions trading system, helping to change the Liberal leadership in the process.
He was also outside when he gave then prime minister John Howard all sorts of grief over the privatisation of Telstra.
The interesting thing is that, by week’s end - while sounding as aggressively defiant as ever - Joyce was no longer demanding abandonment of the Cubbie sale and a government break-up of the property into smaller lots.
Instead, having made his point and scored his headlines, he was focusing merely on the need for greater transparency in the FIRB process.
Laurie Oakes is political editor for the Nine Network.
Comments on this piece close at 8pm AEST Sunday.
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