Barnaby Joyce Nationals Michael McCormack
(Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

It’s not quite up there with smearing blood on Parliament House doors but the current outbreak of in-fighting within the Nationals is, by major party standards, another low point in the records of political conduct in Australia.

Barnaby Joyce declares that he is entitled to the deputy prime ministership of the country because the Lady of the Electoral Lake had handed him the sword (or perhaps more accurately a beer stubby). In response, the actual occupant of the position, Michael McCormack — a man who is, shall we say, not known for his cutting witticisms or soaring rhetoric — invokes the failure of Joyce’s marriage, in a particularly pointed rebuke.

Joyce’s return to the leadership of the Nationals — whether before or after the coming election — would be the final insult by the Coalition toward Australian women. He remains the subject of unresolved allegations of sexual harassment, with his party insisting it is unable to do anything about the claims made by the accuser . The unresolved nature of this complaint should rule Joyce out of public life, let alone high office.

But of more immediate vexation for the government, Joyce is prepared to use climate and energy policy to tear down his opponent. He insists that coal must be king, the federal government should be engaging in the unprecedented exercise of spending billions on new coal-fired power stations, and that any Nationals leader not working for that should be dumped.

There are plenty of Liberals snorting in derision and anger about this latest outbreak of Nationals idiocy, but since it’s barely six months since the Liberals were engaged in using climate and energy policy to tear down their leader, their resentment is a tad hypocritical. And quite a few Liberals who don’t think the federal government should be investing in new coal-fired power plants also think the government should be supporting nuclear power — probably the only form of power generation even more expensive, and requiring even longer to build, than so-called “clean coal” power plants.

But the Liberals at least have since learnt that being ostentatiously on the side of the greatest contributor to climate change is electorally poisonous. First in the poll slump that followed the ouster of Malcolm Turnbull, then in the loss of Wentworth. The voters of Wentworth were — and still are, in the pages of The Australian — dismissed as affluent residents of “leafy” metropolitan electorates, but polling has consistently shown more than 40% of Coalition voters think we should do more on climate change, compared to around 15% who think we’re doing too much.

That’s why Scott Morrison is no longer carrying lumps of coal into Question Time, why Angus “the Invisible Man” Taylor hasn’t said boo about the government’s plan to fund dispatchable power beyond pumped hydro, when the entire point of that plan when it was devised last year was to fund coal-fired power. That’s why Tony Abbott, panicked about losing his seat, has resumed his eternal gyrations on climate policy and said wait, hang on, no we don’t need to abandon the Paris agreement after all. 

And most of all that’s why Morrison stopped lying about meeting our lowball Paris targets “in a canter” and declared he would be wasting a further $2 billion on the government’s emissions reduction fund — using a scheme designed by Tony Abbott in 2010 to mask his denialism to do exactly the same thing in 2019.

Except Joyce and the Nationals — unencumbered by having to appeal to the majority of voters — have snatched that mask off, insisting that the government be loud and proud about its love for coal. In a way, they’re doing the electorate a service by insisting on what many in both the Liberal and National parties really believe, that climate change is rubbish and Australia should keep on burning and exporting as much coal as it can.

Or, in the case of Barnaby Joyce, that the issue should be exploited to get rid of your internal enemy.

Peter Fray

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