Barnaby Joyce

National junior minister and MP for the south-western NSW seat of Riverina, Michael McCormack, is Australia’s new deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Infrastructure after being elected to lead the Nationals this morning. An attempt to manage the unchallenged election of McCormack fell apart when Queensland LNP member George Christensen also stood for the leadership.

In the subsequent Nationals group photo, former leader Barnaby Joyce stood at the back, red-faced and scowling, as his little-known successor fielded questions about whether he was merely keeping the seat warm for Joyce.

The answer is almost certainly yes, unless Joyce suffers politically terminal damage from the scandals currently surrounding him, including a sexual harassment allegation that he denies. If not, the main question will be whether Joyce returns before the next election, or after it.

The particular problem is Queensland, where the LNP is under pressure both from Labor and One Nation — and possibly Cory Bernardi’s Australian Conservatives, should they finally get their act together and register as a party. The LNP’s federal stocks have improved in Queensland lately with One Nation losing momentum, thereby lifting the LNP’s primary vote, but even on the better polling of recent weeks, it still looks set to lose at least four seats in Queensland.

With Malcolm Turnbull generally regarded as unpopular up north, McCormack — who has only been in parliament since 2010 — will have to work hard to lift his profile in another state and produce the kind of cut-through that Joyce, with his babbling but authentic-sounding populism, routinely managed. Worsening prospects in Queensland will prompt some Nats-aligned LNP members to wonder why they’ve benched the man they regard as their best campaigning asset, however incompetent he proved to be as deputy prime minister.

On the positive side for McCormack, as a relative unknown he has the opportunity to shape his profile with the electorate and, as a cleanskin, win back Nats voters disgruntled by the antics of the last few months.

Still unresolved at this point is a spot in cabinet for Darren Chester, who along with Keith Pitt was dispatched to the backbench by a vindictive Joyce late last year. Chester was by far the Nationals’ best ministerial performer and superior to McCormack in every way as a possible leader, but faced such geographical and factional challenges that he locked in behind McCormack shortly after Joyce announced his departure. To be in any way credible — and to give an undertalented government some greater ministerial firepower — McCormack needs to ensure Chester is brought back, although he has taken Chester’s former portfolio.

Meanwhile, Joyce sits on the backbench and waits. The Riverview-educated accountant is becoming a dad again in April and says he has a book to write. Don’t expect Joyce in his public comments to feel too constrained by any affection for the Prime Minister, or from the man who has taken what he regards as his rightful place.

Peter Fray

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