It was Tony Abbott who bestowed the appellation “best retail politician in the country” on Barnaby Joyce. Even now, some continue to preface their comments about him by claiming he is possessed of some form of political genius. It is true that Joyce has been successful at the time-honoured Nationals tactic of demanding handouts for farmers despite a complete lack of policy rationale (beyond Joyce’s personal and, given recent events, now ironic vision of Australian agriculture as a rural idyll of white heterosexual families). Hundreds of millions of dollars have been wasted on irrigation infrastructure and concessional loans to farmers at Joyce’s behest. But a quick check of Joyce’s other career highlights suggests he has serially been a problem for his own side of politics. 

There was his painfully short, but for his colleagues far too long, stint as Coalition finance spokesman, when he claimed Australia was about to default. Abbott had to kick the “best retail politician in the country” out of that portfolio. There’s his embarrassing railing against foreign investment in agribusiness. There’s his inability to properly manage his close friendship with Gina Rinehart. There was his long-running feud with Liberal senator Bill Heffernan, who knows more about rural water issues than Joyce ever could and who was prepared to call out Joyce on his advocacy for his irrigator mates. There was Joyce breaching Cabinet solidarity to bag his own government’s decision and another minister over the Shenhua mine. And there are his repeated, cack-handed contributions on foreign policy, usually at odds with the government’s actual policy, forcing Julie Bishop (who under any sensible arrangement would be Deputy Prime Minister, not him) to clean up his mess.

Those were all mere warm-ups for the last six months. Joyce’s sloppiness over his citizenship — having been among the first to mock Greens senators who were forced out — made him the highest profile casualty of the High Court — after his Prime Minister in parliament insisted the Court would decide the opposite way. Joyce then compounded things by admitting he thought he should have quit all along. After return via a by-election, Joyce used Turnbull’s end-of-year reshuffle to sack his party’s best-performing minister, Darren Chester. While Turnbull used the reshuffle to offload a buffoon like George Brandis, Joyce was, for reasons of pure personal vindictiveness, forcing out a quality performer in a government decidedly underweight in ministerial talent.

For a government that has serially struggled to get the spotlight off its own problems and onto the opposition, Joyce has been a magnet for attention of the worst sort. And now all this. We’re into the second and third-order stories about Joyce and his staffer-turned-partner. All talk of the government’s good start to the year — which has been considerably hyped by some in the media — has vanished. Malcolm Turnbull and his office have distanced themselves from the whole business of the employment of Vikki Campion, saying it was a matter for the Nationals.

And, with exquisite timing, Joyce is set to take over as acting Prime Minister while Turnbull is displaying his doe-eyed fascination with Donald Trump in the US next week. 

Don’t expect too many shouted “and the High Court will so hold”-style statements from the Prime Minister this time around, who has probably lost count of the number of times Joyce’s ineptitude has inflicted serious damage on a government that wants desperately to talk about massive jobs growth, an improving budget situation and its plans for the defence industry.

The long-running pattern here is that Joyce lacks judgment and any interest in detail or consequences. The sort of man who would seriously claim that Australia was about to default, or bill taxpayers for joining a junket with Gina, or make off-the-cuff remarks about China’s threat to Australia, is the sort of man who wouldn’t bother to do the basics of checking his own citizenship status or try to ensure a burgeoning relationship didn’t interfere with the operation of his office. An office that after all, is only that of the Deputy Prime Minister of Australia and one, you would hope, the smooth functioning of which would be both a political and policy priority.

The talk now is of how long Joyce will last. The real point is that, both in policy and political terms, Joyce has always been a flake, and should never have even been a frontbencher, let alone the ostensibly second-most powerful man in Australia.

Peter Fray

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