Saturday Feb 04, 2023

The moment Barnaby Joyce started losing his grip on leadership

Parties are being urged to move leftward and rightward or start searching for their souls after a bruising election, but the end of Barnaby Joyce’s leadership shows conviction only counts for so much.

David Littleproud on Monday realised a long-cherished dream of becoming Nationals leader, but said he would not take the party on an ideological turn.

“This is not about the National Party lurching left or lurching right, it’s using common sense and being in the sensible centre,” he said.

“That’s where you win elections, not chasing extremities.”

Mr Littleproud, a former agribusiness banker, was described as a more progressive alternative while the staunchest conservatives swung in for Barnaby.

He replaced a self-described “agrarian socialist” in the old Nationals tradition, who made his name fighting to keep compulsory unionism, sink privatisations and for more regulation of corporations.

The two did split on climate change, the issue which caused Mr Joyce’s leadership, and many before, to begin its descent long before Monday.

In October, when the Nationals grappled with the question of whether to adopt a net-zero commitment on carbon emissions, a particularly confusing moment exposed a fatal weakness in Mr Joyce’s leadership.

MPs were caught between their instinct to act as a minor party, standing up for constituents they believed wore too much risk from cutting emissions, and a party of government concerned about their credibility and Australia’s place in the world.

Barnaby Joyce tried to have it both ways on climate. Photo: AAP

Mr Joyce came to the leadership months earlier promising strong leadership on the issue, which some worried would see policy dictated by the Liberals.

But after negotiating a deal he did not support it and voted against the majority of his party room and to adopt the zero emissions pledge.

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A clear sign

After winning a secret vote of MPs, Mr Littleproud took a clear side.

“The global community asked us to sign up to net zero by 2050,” Mr Littleproud said.

“Obviously you’ve got to appreciate the National Party can’t win an election by itself and this Liberal Party can’t win an election by themselves.

“They need us. We need to work together. A sensible centre is where you win elections, not chasing extremities down rabbit holes.”

Mr Joyce’s stance helped cement a view already suggested by the unflattering texts he sent about Scott Morrison and the personal scandals that ended his first time in the top job.

The same personal qualities that appealed to the party’s base seemed to be incompatible with steady leadership.

This raised concerns about what role he might play in an uncertain political environment, like the future renegotiation of a Coalition agreement with a diminished Liberal Party.

Mr Joyce flirted with not reaffirming the net-zero pledge. But as one MP noted, policy would have been set by the party room under either leader.

Any vote would have resolved to keep the commitment rather than reopen the divide between a Queensland branch concerned about mining and a Victorian organisation cheering on the rise of clean energy.

Other MPs more openly concede that this was about Mr Joyce’s personal style and declining public image.

Barnaby Joyce UK energy crisis
Barnaby Joyce’s leadership faced a challenge long before election day. Photo: AAP

Election pretext

Stories suggesting he might face a challenge started appearing long before election day, but even as the party kept its seats it provided a pretext for his challenge.

This was about the next election.

“This was the last acceptable chance,” said one MP who moved behind Mr Littleproud, referring to an automatic leadership spill that followed elections.

Research suggesting he dragged on the Coalition’s national vote was concerning to senior Nationals but more so were thoughts about what his image might be like after exposure to another three years’ political gravity.

Earlier in his career Mr Joyce’s political style was a great advertisement for a party that traded on a reputation of standing up for its constituency.

But it made his leadership untenable once it threatened what Nationals have promised their base for a century: A seat at the table of government and a share of its spoils.

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