Barnaby “look a carbon tax is not going to invent the light bulb” Joyce “what we want are dams, dams and dams and dams and dams” National Party “the fiction of the so-called free market” candidate “the country gave us wool, gave us iron, gave us Bauxite” for New England ”has some circular breathing thing going, must do; that bulbous nose flies through the air like a hummingbird’s dipper, scarfing up oxygen, allowing him to move onto the next brace of unnecessary repetition”. Seriously, he’s off on the lists again: “The country gave us uranium, the country gave us sugar, the country gave us bauxite [a dozen or so primary produce industries omitted here], we wouldn’t be anything without the country …”

There’s an olde worlde feel to the act, a touch of the 1910s before the radiogram or other infernal inventions came along and ruined it all. An olde worlde setting, too: the Maitland Room of Maitland Town Hall, all heavy burgundy drapes and olive Victorian wall finishings, and wood panels naming long dead mayors at the back. Out the windows, the old city is looking at itself, grand Victorian buildings staring back at each other across empty streets. Maitland was Australia’s second city once, but that was long ago, more than a century, and it has been slowly dying away ever since.

Inside, 50 or so grey riders and a few younger blow-ins have turned out to watch the spiritual head of the National Party do his party turn, the ayatollah to Warren Truss’s Ahmadinejad. Ostensibly he’s launching the doomed candidacy — it may as well say that on the posters — of Michael Johnsen, the hapless stooge going up against Joel Fitzgibbon in a seat that has been Labor for a century, and the near-total preserve of two families — the Jameses and the Fitzgibbons — since 1928. Focused on coal country, Hunter was once so radical that the Communist Party ran whole councils in the area.

Those days are gone, but the Nationals have zip chance of taking the seat. Johnsen seems a nice guy, but he makes me wish I hadn’t used all my faceless man metaphors on John Murphy in Reid, for Johnsen is one of those guys the Nats specialise in, instantly unmemorable. Standing behind buzzing Barnaby, Johnsen looks like someone pixilated out of a reality show because he never signed the release. Which is, let’s face it, his fate, facing certain defeat at the hands of Fitzgibbon — that is either sacrifice above and beyond the call, or evidence of mild mental disorder. His Billy-the-singing-fish grin betrays nothing. The only real question the poor bastard gets is about replacing part of the rail system with a rural tram.

“Look that’s a state issue, but I’m not going to duck the hard questions …”

So it’s a suicide mission, but the division is close to Barnaby’s would-be kingdom of New England, and so he’s giving it his all. “National interest is about more than markets.” But the audience ain’t buying, not in the way they would up in Queensland. Compared to his old stomping grounds, this is practically Glebe, and there’s a little more scepticism in the air, about the idea that the National Party will return to its one-time role as a genuine guardian of rural interests. Scepticism is not unwise — the thing about Barnaby Joyce is he will say anything, absolutely anything.

Getting onto coal seam gas, he assures people that “your land is your land, we wont give it away as Labor did. Why should you lose your right to stop mining when it’s your land?” Five minutes later: “Why does Gina Rinehart get such bad press? I don’t get it. BHP is 60% foreign owned, Rio Tinto is 80% foreign owned. Gina’s doing it all here, she’s paying her taxes. We need 20 Gina Rineharts.” So lock the gate against whatever you don’t want — and Gina will then lop off the whole mountain-top. There’s just the tiniest little contradictionette there, as there is when Barnaby is asked the four things he would do were he to be prime minister, which aside from the obvious — “more dams! I bloody love dams!” — also included various mantras.

We need to “unleash the private sector”. That gets an appreciable murmur from the audience. But so too does a promise to come down hard on people “buying up Australia”: “It’s crazy that we should be selling our ports, Cubbie Station, the works.” The murmur rises. Soon there will be an appeal against red tape. And on and on it goes.

“He wanders in and out of various metaphors, starts them, abandons some, hunts others down to their burrow and clubs them to death.”

He wanders in and out of various metaphors, starts them, abandons some, hunts others down to their burrow and clubs them to death. The need to guarantee power generation becomes attention to “what we do in the night-time”, which sounds like the start of a Hal David lyric. He has that Vegas-in-the-afternoon, easy listening quality, taking a tune for a walk. You could listen to him forever, and of course it wouldn’t make a blind bit of difference. The long and short and wide of it, as Barnaby would say, is that the National Party will cheerfully and wackily say whatever it likes, it doesn’t make a blind bit of difference to what they can do. They were once the tail that wagged the dog; now they’re barely a docked stub on the arse of a dachsie. Anyone who thought the Nationals as a party would stand up to the truckosaurus of Big Mining and neoliberalism that is the modern Liberal Party hasn’t been paying attention.

The Country/National Country/National Party has famously always worked on a cheerfully hypocritical split between what is owed to rural Australia — protection, community, collectivism, autonomy — and the capitalism red-in-tooth-and-claw that urban Australia is to be exposed to. That did it well for decades, and has, more recently, hurried it on to extinction, a product of the fact that the party never really imagined how fluid, mobile and globalised the economy could get and what would happen when it did.

Nothing could illustrate this better than the way in which mining and farming have suddenly, traumatically found themselves at odds with each other. Suddenly mining went from being something that snakes tunnels underneath settled ground, or open-cuts remote areas, to being a vast maw that wants to crack the rocks open beneath your feet, and swallow whole towns in pursuit of material far more valuable than the dinky little crops above.

The harsh truth for rural Australia is that, in purely economic terms, there are whole swathes of it we don’t need any more, and whole regions could move to a “fly-in-fly-out” model if they so chose. That is bitter damper — local reference high-five — if your whole sense of community and self has been founded on the myth that work has some sort of intrinsic value which the market expresses but does not create. The whole of rural Australia is in a bit of a crisis over that, and has been for some time. That means the Nats, in rounding up their vote, are hunting down not merely hypocrisy but nostalgia. National leaders have known that for a whole generation, and have seen their role as tribal shamans — knowing deep down that it’s all smoke, mirrors and superphosphate bounties, getting what concessions they can for a constituency that is, in several areas, a basket case.

Watching Barnaby do his slug-it-out-with-himself act for the audience, you wonder what he really thinks about it. Sometimes it’s if all he needs is a straw boater and 76 trombones to be the Music Man, selling one town after another a parade it can’t afford. Other times, he appears to believe every word, and it’s only by virtue of doing so that he can keep this show on the road. We know of course that his views on economics are essentially and literally mediaeval, a Catholic conservative who has supped more than a little of the League of Rights mid-century blather about debt, usury, international banking, etc — though he seems utterly immune from the LOR’s murkier traditions. It’s hilarious that someone whose profession is accountancy thinks of debt not as some conceptualisation of finance in motion, but as something amounting to original sin. I sometimes wonder what a tax session with Barnaby Joyce CPA was like, and it always comes out in the mind’s eye like a Wizard of Id comic strip, some sketchily drawn trail-by-ordeal process.The answer comes soon enough, during question time, when we all have to introduce ourselves before firing off a query (“I’m Wal from up the valley, not that Wal, the other one”) and I ask him something about a bit of contradiction between the private sector unleashed, and running Oz like in the pre-Paul Keating days, when you had to tape a roll of 20s to your stomach to get any cash out of the damn place. It’s phrased a bit more politely than that, and Frost/Nixon it’s not, but it gets a frack of a reaction. The obvious answer would be that it’s difficult, there are competing demands, but blah di blah. Instead that big head swivels round, and those wild thyroidy eyes are trained on me:

“Well Guy, let me just ask you, Guy, can you tell me, Guy, how many decisions the FIRB [Foreign Investment Review Board] knocked back in the last six years, can you tell me that, Guy, can you?”

“Mr Joyce, I’m not the candidate, you are. Please answer the question.” (I did not say this at all, except in my head two hours later back on the train. What I said was: “Uh well, but, you, listen, look, sheesh, can you, huh …” And then he sailed on regardless.)

“None, that’s how many, none, Guy. Now Guy, maybe you don’t know the details, but let me tell you the details …” And then he goes into a stream of detail whose veracity is assessable only by experts, before he starts to go ’round the room again. He’s saved by a question from an earnest young woman — about a seven on the Abbott scale (that’s not sexist, is it? Not saying she isn’t otherwise totally competent at whatever she does …) — from the Citizens Electoral Council, the LaRouchites, and how often can you be thankful for a question from them. “Barnaby, when are you going to talk about the global financial meltdown that is about to be unleashed on us all and change our way of life as we know it?”

Now, now, please, now. Barnaby Joyce versus the LaRouchites. This is Australian political manga, Godzilla versus Megalon. Barnaby must know about the LaRouchites, and he has here a representative of a movement who believes the Duke of Edinburgh runs the global drugs trade on behalf of the Venetian banking conspiracy. This is perhaps the only person in the room who can make Joyce sound moderate and quietly rational. But perhaps that’s not what he wants. Instead, he goes to a bloke named Shane, a thin young guy in chain-store clothes who has a couple of questions about the carbon tax and then something about the National Broadband Network.

“Barnaby, why aren’t you supporting the NBN? Why are you toeing the Coalition line on costs? The country could do with the upgrade, and look, well, we’ve earnt it. It was wool that paid for the Harbour Bridge, about time it came the other way …” There it is, plaintively and plainly, and not unmovingly stated. Country Australia deserves a fair shake, deserves more than managed decline, because we’re all in this together. They were rich, now not so much. It’s about sharing it out a little bit. But this is the exposed copper wire of Australian rural politics. It absolutely cannot be stated that they are the victims simply of epochal global change, and a fair degree of bad strategy by their own reps. Instead, it must be the carbon tax, the greenies, the inner city, the elites, the Chinese, the Anglo-Venetians. It attracts another coal seam gas eruption from Barnaby, fizzing and spitting out of the rocks.

“Warren Truss, having to give the official line, the only man who will have to be identified by his dental records whilst still alive.”

“Well look, as far as fibre to the door goes it’s pedal to the metal, but I mean I reckon let’s not talk about NBN, lets talk a phone, getting any phone at Ybor would be good, but you know its phone towers, phone towers …” Phone towers! Black helicopters! Onwards! It’s hard to follow this stuff when Malcolm Turnbull talks about it, and he and Al Gore invented the internet. Here, fuggedabout it. Barnaby Joyce’s dad’s name was James. You wonder if the stream-of-consiousness act was not got early.

Afterwards, over a buffet of sushi and lentil dip on rice-crackers — and thank god, Arnott’s classic selection, to reassure the News Corporation crowd that the liberal elites are not taking over the heartland through slow infiltration of the catering — a few questions establish that, on matters of economic nationalism, the audience make Joyce, in global economic terms, sound like Tokyo Rose. “What do you think are the main issues of the campaign?” I ask one matching windcheatered couple. “Oh, foreign investment. We should challenge every foreign investment decision,” says the gentleman, in that dying accent, rural patrician, British notes at the back of it. “But no party will offer that.” “Well, the party that’s closest to your position are the Greens.” “Well yes,” he says, kindly instructing me, “but the Greens are all Communists.” “All of them?” “Oh, to a man and woman.”

“And you ma’am, what are the issues?” “Oh I don’t … I think …. I, oh look don’t ask me …” “Cost of living,” her husband hints, “cost of living.” “I … no, I couldn’t.” Tough to report, but every woman vox-popped in the audience — to be fair, I avoided the LaRouchite — had the same reaction, a sort of going-to-pieces when a question of public policy was posed. Pile on all the sushi you like, we are still living in different worlds. I homed in on one, an intense, black-haired central-parted riotgrrl type, who looked as if she might have followed the Cosmic Psychos up here in the ’90s, run out of cash and opened a dog grooming salon — with a deadset rural standby: “What brought you here?” “Ha, I have to be here.” Turned out to be Mrs Joyce. Barnaby you dark, dark horse, you.

So what is rural Australia? Nothing that can be summed up from one flying visit to Maitland, but hell. By now, much of what passed for surface cultural difference between rural and urban Australia has blurred away. The bullshit Bernard Salt nonsense about trendies and lattes, etc, has long gone. High Street Maitland has what everywhere has: funky cafes, 3×5 ads for crystal healing and psychics in the window, three-for-two offer on The Killing box sets in the Blockbuster. What it wants is to be independent, of itself, still self-respecting and self-sustaining. But the pursuit of that would take you far beyond any politics the Nats could offer — would take you into post-capitalism, where we thought about what we produced, who for and why. The fantasy that there is no total contradiction between markets, hard work, physical toil, national prosperity, etc, dies hard, and while it does, people like Barnaby Joyce will always have an audience for their material.

It wasn’t the best audience he’s played, but I still liked the show, and it’s going to run and run. And somewhere out on the wombat trail, poor old Warren Truss, having to give the official line, the only man who will have to be identified by his dental records while still alive.