In deciding the fate of Barnaby Joyce’s leadership, a consideration that Nationals MPs will supposedly have to factor in is the electoral advantage conferred by Joyce’s mastery of something called “retail politics”.

Part of the proof is said to lie in the party’s performance under Joyce’s leadership at the 2016 election, which Joyce says was won only because his party “didn’t go backwards — we actually went forwards”.

This refrain has been widely echoed through Joyce’s recent travails, including by News Corp columnist Tim Blair, who noted the Nationals had “marginally increased their vote and picked up an extra representative in the lower house”, even as the government was brought to the brink of defeat by the loss of thirteen Liberal-held seats.

However, a deeper look at the numbers casts doubt over Joyce’s self-image as the saviour of the government’s bacon.

While there would not have been much in it either way, the Nationals’ vote would not have increased if the party had not contested seats in Victoria that it forfeited in 2013.

Chief among these was Murray, the seat that the gave the party its extra representative: Damian Drum, who has been a bit player in the events of the past fortnight.

Since this seat was gained from the Liberals, the result contributed nothing to the survival of the government, and more likely reflected Drum’s personal vote after a long career in state politics than any electoral magic on Joyce’s part.

While it’s true that the Coalition casualty list at the 2016 election was an all-Liberal affair, it must be remembered that losing seats is much harder work for the Nationals than it is for the Liberals, whose job it is to defend the electorally volatile mortgage belts.

In New South Wales, six of the nine seats that the Nationals have been free to contest under coalition agreements over the past decade are more-or-less safe for the party, while another two have been consistently held by Labor.

This means the difference between a good election and a bad election essentially comes down to the marginal seat of Page on the state’s North Coast — and it is indeed to the Nationals’ credit that this seat was retained in 2016.

However, the average result across the nine seats was a swing to Labor of around 3%, which was hardly different from a 4% average recorded in the remaining thirty-eight.

The situation in Queensland is complicated by the parties’ shared branding as the Liberal National Party, but the average 4.3% swing to Labor in seats contested by Nationals-aligned candidates was actually higher than the 2.5% average in seats reserved to the Liberals.

None of this is to deny that Joyce has, or had, considerable personal appeal in the Nationals heartland, as demonstrated by his extraordinary performance at the New England byelection in December — despite his constituents being, by all accounts, fully appraised of his marital strife through the bush telegraph.

But beyond the confines of his own seat, the 2016 result illustrates the point that country voters, no less than city ones, are primarily guided by the party they would prefer to form government, and hence little concerned with the identity of the Nationals leader.

That means the Nationals party room, if it knows what’s good for it, will be focused on the government’s need for unity and clarity of purpose — things it has little chance of attaining while the Barnaby Joyce soap opera plays out in daily episodes on tabloid front pages and breakfast television.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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