After weeks of colossal misjudgement over how to handle revelations of an affair with a staff member, and subsequent questions about her employment within the government, Barnaby Joyce has finally bowed to reality and resigned the deputy prime ministership and leadership of the Nationals. His departure, which will be formalised on Monday and which was announced this afternoon at a media conference in Armidale, will bring to an end the crisis that has gripped the federal Coalition since Malcolm Turnbull made clear his lack of confidence in Joyce more than a week ago.

Since then, Joyce has insisted he would be remaining as Deputy Prime Minister, with his parliamentary colleagues seemingly too intimidated to openly call for his departure. That changed yesterday when Victorian MP Andrew Broad called for Joyce’s resignation. Overnight, an allegation relating to sexual harassment against Joyce was reported in the media, although no details have been revealed and the allegation was strongly denied by Joyce.

This week, Joyce appeared to actually seek to keep the story of his affair alive, conducting an interview to attack his critics and the media. Last Friday, he had pumped the story up again by attacking his own Prime Minister, calling Malcolm Turnbull “inept” for his public dressing-down of Joyce the day before.

However, his departure creates a new problem for the Prime Minister, because Joyce is not leaving politics but only moving to the backbench, where he will be free to attack the government and freelance on policy issues in the same way that another former leader, Tony Abbott, has done, inflicting ongoing damage on Turnbull. Joyce also declined to rule out returning to the leadership in the future, in effect placing a question mark over whether any successor would be merely warming the chair for Joyce.

New South Wales MP Michael McCormack and Victorian MP Darren Chester are the two most likely candidates for the leadership on Monday, though NSW MP David Gillespie, currently embroiled in a High Court challenge to his election, has also expressed interest. McCormack is tipped to take the job despite a poor performance in the spotlight in recent days.

Joyce entered politics as a Queensland senator in 2004 and rapidly proved a headache for the Howard government, repeatedly crossing the floor and cultivating an image of a rural populist. His time came when Tony Abbott became leader of the Liberal Party in 2009. As an economically challenged climate denialist and a deeply conservative Catholic with fundamentalist views on abortion and the role of women, Joyce was a perfect match for Abbott, even though the latter was forced to sack Joyce from the finance portfolio in 2010 after repeated errors by Joyce, including the claim that Australia was on the verge of defaulting. Together, they took Australian politics into a new era of populist inanity, particularly on climate change, where each seemed to strive to produce the most absurd claims possible about the Gillard government’s carbon-pricing scheme. 

In the 2013 election, when Abbott became Prime Minister, Joyce moved to the House of Representatives to position himself as heir apparent to Nationals leader Warren Truss, who retired in early 2016 several months after Abbott’s ouster. Joyce, having fought Malcolm Turnbull on climate action during the latter’s leadership of the Liberal Party in 2009, never had a strong relationship with the Prime Minister, but the Liberals’ poor performance in the 2016 election compared to the Nationals’ effort strengthened the Nationals’ role in the Coalition.

That result, however, appeared to go to Joyce’s head. In 2017, the citizenship debacle and Joyce’s venomous demotion of Darren Chester in the end-of-year reshuffle illustrated that Joyce’s political judgement was now badly awry. His comprehensive mishandling of the revelation of the breakdown of his marriage and his affair with a former staffer confirmed that a man once touted as the best retail politician in the country was politically toxic to his party and the government of which he was deputy leader.

Now he can join Abbott on the backbench in undermining the government he has already done so much to damage.

Peter Fray

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