While political circles are abuzz with talk of Ruddslides and any number of scandalgates, as usual in election years, the vital election for the Senate is receiving little attention from pundits. Though the government has been viewed as favourite to hold on to an absolute or blocking majority, this outcome is by no means certain. Particularly if, as in Queensland this week, a potentially strong conservative candidate emerges to fragment the government’s core vote.
Queensland Nationals policy director and Army officer James Baker has resigned from his party position and will contest the Senate poll as an independent. Baker, an ally and friend of Barnaby Joyce, contested pre-selection against Nationals Senate Leader Ron Boswell last year and lost, in a contentious vote where Boswell pulled out all stops, including arranging an appearance before delegates of Lady Flo Bjelke-Petersen.
I interviewed Baker on behalf of Crikey. He pinpoints the motivation for his decision as being a disaffection with the closeness of the “Canberra Nationals” to the Liberals, and their strategic ineptitude. Baker describes Vaile’s leadership as an attempt to “manage the party into a gradual demise” and dismisses his differentiation strategy, adopted after the defection of Julian McGauran, as a “Jedi mind trick”. He points to the loss of 50% of the Nationals’ Queensland Senate vote since Howard was elected as his trump card to demonstrate the failings of Boswell and other federal Nationals.
Baker’s appeal to the electorate is premised on a belief that Joyce’s record in the Senate shows that Queenslanders will support a candidate who will put the interests of the state above that of his party. He describes the major parties at federal level as “political cartels” and believes that his candidacy will have appeal across the state to disillusioned conservative voters. He argues that the failure of the federal National leadership to represent its constituency bleeds votes away to the Liberals as supporters ask, “why vote for the puppet when you can have the puppetmaster?”
Baker doesn’t minimise the obstacles to running a successful campaign, but believes that his independent effort can be financed. He points to the success of Brian Harradine as a precedent, and Fielding’s election as an example of a non-major party candidate leveraging a quota through preferences. Baker has not yet considered preference deals.
There’s no doubt that Baker’s candidacy will shake up the dynamics of the Senate race. He offers a much more mainstream and serious alternative than Pauline Hanson’s vanity campaign to disaffected conservative voters. Whichever way the House of Representatives vote goes, the Senate election just got a lot more interesting.
Like Joyce, Baker has a colourful way with words, and doesn’t mince them. He has a political track record federally, having worked for Tim Fischer and John Anderson. He was also Joyce’s running mate in 2004.
What does Barnaby Joyce think?
“Frankly, Barnaby thinks I’m nuts. But people have said the same about him,” says Baker.