Barnaby Joyce’s reputation as a straight-talking maverick made his career – and the National Party’s image – but it could soon end his leadership as he enters a ballot on Monday a very slight underdog.
Supporters and opponents both say Mr Joyce’s polarising leadership style will play a larger role than climate policy in Monday’s contest.
On Sunday evening the party’s deputy, David Littleproud, appeared narrowly on track to secure the top job, with Darren Chester running dead third.
Campaign post-mortems have suggested campaigners unsuccessfully sought to have Mr Joyce play a non-speaking part in the election because of an image problem that harmed the Coalition’s vote.
Mr Joyce responded by pointing out that the Nationals retained all their seats (they gained one upper-house spot due to the quirks of a deal with the Liberals).
“Where was that standard when he went for Michael McCormack?” one MP asked; the party’s most recent leader also kept seats but was later challenged by Mr Joyce.
“We should get him just for that.
“We all know how it’s going to be with him; is that who we want at the (negotiating) table?”
The Nationals have not shared the larger parties’ culture of leadership instability; Mr Joyce’s two challenges against a then-sitting Deputy Prime Minister could colour assessments of his record and temperament.
Change on climate?
Whoever wins faces several challenges in opposition, including capitalising on the much-diminished position of the Liberal Party in a renegotiation of the Coalition agreement.
Mr Joyce last week did not reaffirm the net-zero pledge on carbon emissions the party made in the last Parliament, sparking speculation he might seek to lead the Nationals away from the consensus on climate change.
But he led the marathon negotiations on net zero last year only to vote against adopting their outcome.
After hours of talks, the Nationals voted to adopt the commitment on a one-vote margin against the opposition of Mr Joyce and MPs such as Bridget McKenzie.
Rolling back a promise is a different proposition though declared net-zero opposition accounts for a decent slice of a majority in the 21 MP party room.
Net-zero dissidents come mainly from Queensland.
Coal enthusiast Matt Canavan, a friend of Mr Joyce’s, his former staffer Llew O’Brien and new LNP MP for Flynn Colin Boyce openly favour dumping the plan.
But MPs from other states mostly say the party should keep its word or seek to trade support for more job guarantees and funding.
Some MPs think the approach of Mr Joyce (who led negotiations for the current deal on climate as part of his leadership pitch) is needed to carry the party faithful across the line.
“Only one of them knows anything about conviction,” one MP backing Mr Joyce said of the leader’s “pragmatic” approach to party politics.
Mr Joyce contends with a party room now absent many of his previously dependable supporters, including former Country Liberal Sam McMahon and controversial Queensland MP George Christensen.
The party’s newest Senator for New South Wales, Ross Cadell, was once a campaign manager for Mr Joyce, but the political operative and former Liberal only narrowly won preselection after cutting a deal that some sources said could determine his vote. He declined to comment.
Between the pro-Barnaby and anti-Barnaby camps lie the MPs who will swing the ballot, including NSW MP Andrew Gee who voted to topple Mr McCormack with seeming reluctance last year.
One MP now supporting Mr Littleproud said the vote had not thrown up “life or death issues” but was the only acceptable time for the party to put its most recent term in government, and Mr Joyce, behind it.
Speculation has previously named the promise of jobs as a key ingredient of past bids for the Nationals crown.
Mr Chester, who increased his vote at the election, says the party should do more to reach women and younger voters.
The Victorian MP was sacked by Mr Joyce after the last leadership spill, during what he said was an “incoherent” phone call.
Keith Pitt, who had a blazing row with Mr Joyce about the latter’s personal life in 2017, was also dumped following the last spill only to return to the front bench soon after.
Mr Pitt has attacked net zero repeatedly but said recently that he expects the party to retain the pledge despite its election showing.
Despite a complicated personal history, the former resources minister was one of the earliest MPs to declare his support for Mr Joyce after the election.