Nobody in federal parliament uses metaphors like Barnaby Joyce. He thinks and speaks in pictures and has a natural ability to deliver sound bites that cut through all the normal verbiage of political reporting.

This is why Tony Abbott has deployed him on the front line so prominently and why he is overall an asset to a Coalition so focused on a strategy of withering opposition. But of course, this comes at a cost. For the coalition, unleashing Joyce becomes a trade off between powerful images and the danger of losing credibility because Joyce can be great on imagery but lousy on detail as we’ve seen with the odd mishap over billions versus millions.

Last night on Lateline, we saw Joyce second-guessing himself, as if scared to commit to either a million or a billion in a couple of answers.

“They’ve delivered to us the biggest deficit in the history of Australia — 57.1, which by the way they said was actually gonna be a surplus a couple of years ago.”

… and again about 20 seconds later …

“And we have, and we’ve got 28.6 of recurring savings …”

… before he finally dared use the “b” word …

“… we got $22 billion worth of one-off savings, predominantly from the NBN.”

In another answer, he used the “m” word but went unchallenged as he upped the government’s supposed daily borrowing rate from $100 million. It was not explained how last week the average increased so dramatically.

BARNABY JOYCE: Well, it’s a return to Howard-era policies of balancing the books, Leigh. We can’t go on the way we’re going. We’re $153.2 billion in debt. It’s interesting that people should know that last week, each day, we borrowed an extra $250 million.

Joyce’s performance came straight after Julia Gillard’s masterful effort on Q&A, in which she charmed her way through a forum rich with both content and color. By comparison Joyce looked constrained and awkward, almost bumbling in places. His appearance seemed to prove the point that Barnaby is best wheeled out for sound grabs of no more than 20 seconds, because after that the rhetoric and the thinness of his answers becomes increasingly apparent.

Here he is trying to deliver a sound bite but it just doesn’t quite come off. He runs with Leigh Sales’ circus analogy when she offers it, but it quickly loses oomph and trails away, becoming less potent with every word.

“Well there certainly is a circus, Leigh, with the Labor Party. I went to The Ekka the other day, Leigh, and it cost me $75 to take my daughter on some of the rides, but I got it all for free when I got back near the gate and saw the former Labor leader Mark Latham with the current Labor leader Julia Gillard, and I’m sure somewhere in the crowd would’ve been Kevin, the sort of interim Labor leader.”

He quickly became so lost he started reverting to the ALP’s election slogan.

“But we will go forward now, Leigh, with some positive policies. We understand that you’ve gotta say to the Australian people positive issues and show them a vision of where you wanna go. And that’s why we talk about such things as the inland rail, such things as taking education forward …”

And his normally imaginative use of metaphors became rather clichéd.

“You can’t make promises if the only money you’ve got is borrowed money and our credit card, Leigh, is just going through the roof.”

And repetitive

“Look, we believe in broadband, but you’ve gotta — when you go to Christmas, you’ve gotta look at your credit card first and you’ve gotta look at what sorta debt you’ve got. Only a fool says, ‘I’m gonna buy up big at Christmas, but I’m gonna do it all with borrowed money’.”

But then, a hint of brilliance, taking the idea of debt and adding a bit of folksy charm that suddenly makes the idea of indebtedness real.

“Leigh, you know, we’ve gotta acknowledge the people we’re borrowing it from — from China, from the Middle East, from all round the world. And this money has to be repaid. These are real people who really want their money back.”
Last night Joyce came across as campaign-weary. His answers suffered from a tendency to tack on extra ideas, as if to expose the audience to a plethora of gripes with the Government.

Last night was not his best effort, and could be summed up by this answer. It was charming enough but also bumbling. The fact that the fluffy insulation is not the form that’s causing the problems is immaterial. It’s the image he wants us to retain, even if it doesn’t quite make sense.

“We have to be realists about this, and I think Mr Swan is thinking that if he says that flat screen TVs and fluffy stuff in the ceiling and school halls at three times the price that he didn’t want is the solution, then I don’t know what the problem was.”

Throughout the campaign, Andrew Dodd is analysing standout interviews to pick apart the pollie speak. Check out his dissection of Wayne Swan on The 7.30 Report here.