Barnaby Joyce News England
(Image: AAP/Steve Gonzales)

If last Saturday’s election can be called a miracle, Barnaby Joyce could be loosely cast as the Coalition’s Lazarus.

The embattled former deputy prime minister weathered a series of high-profile scandals over the past 18 months to remain the Nationals’ candidate for New England.

Soon after Joyce’s byelection win sparked by the citizenship saga, his affair and pregnancy with his former staffer were splashed across the front pages of tabloids. An indiscretion in the form of a “sugar daddy” dating site was enough to sink his colleague Andrew Broad. But not Barnaby Joyce.

There were some consequences: he lost the Nationals Party leadership. A “bonking ban” was put in place. But that’s not all. A sexual harassment claim against Joyce, which he denies, was also made public. He has been called to answer questions about signing off on an $80 million water buyback controversy. The Murray Darling fish kill also put a spotlight on water in his electorate, parts of which are fast drying up.

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Joyce was once the minister for agriculture and water; now he’s simply a local member awaiting the birth of his sixth child. It’s not without irony that Joyce’s strong showing, matched by Nationals successes across the country, has put his leadership ambitions on ice — for now. In the event of a Coalition loss, he might have made a tilt for his old job in the ensuing chaos and political bloodletting.

With his comfortable win his political career has been resurrected, but has he been redeemed? And why did none of the scandals seem to matter to New England voters?

Early in the campaign, Joyce tweeted a picture of a poster nailed to a tree off a dirt road in Weabonga. The caption read: “Others may get the cardigans but I will get the hillbillies”.

While some on Twitter described it as an insult, others in his electorate took it with good humour. “At least he’s colourful,” one voter remarked. At times brash, Joyce gives off the impression he’ll go in to bat for the electorate.

His post-election interview with the ABC offers some insight into why he thinks he won — because he’s been able to connect with farmers and blue-collar workers far better than Labor has. His reference to Labor buying “incense sticks and a kaftan” prompted laughter from his yellow-clad “Barney Army”. It’s clear he’s speaking their language.

Labor’s main election slogan on the streets of Tamworth wasn’t “vote for us”, but “put Barnaby last”. It’s not too dissimilar a sentiment from rusted-on Nationals voters, who had hoped the party would replace him.

Since Tony Windsor, some said, they feel like they haven’t had anyone else to vote for.

Joyce’s nearest challenger, independent Adam Blakester, garnered a little under 15% of the primary vote (34% two-party preferred) and told local media he was “befuddled” by Joyce’s swing, given his litany of failures. 

Linda Botterill, co-editor of The Nationals: Prospects for the Great Survivors, said voters might “hold their noses” and vote for a candidate they didn’t like to serve a higher purpose — in this case, the return of the Coalition government.

“You might not like the fact Barnaby left his wife, but you do like the fact he’s an effective advocate for rural Australia. And when you’re in the voting booth, you’re making choices about which is more important,” she told Crikey.

While the party has long pitched themselves as staunch advocates for the bush, the Nationals were under pressure in the NSW state election after challenges mounted by the Shooters and Fishers. “Because the [federal] election was going to be much, much closer — because Morrison was starting from behind — the National Party voters were less likely to put in a protest vote,” Botterill said.

In campaign mode, Joyce goes hyper-local. He touts his local credentials — born in Tamworth, studied in Armidale — and talks about jobs brought to the region through the (often maligned) relocation of the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority from Canberra. (The agriculture public servants were initially forced to work out of an Armidale Maccas, while their new headquarters is mired in questions about a suspicious fire, suicide, and tender process). 

A potential snag for Joyce going forward is his reputation with women. He recently withdrew from a local forum to address women’s issues like the rising homelessness for older women, childcare costs, the rate of domestic violence causing grievous bodily harm (five times the state average), and sexual harassment.

Stephanie Cameron, then-president of the Tamworth Zonta Club that organised the since-cancelled event, said they were “disappointed that women’s issues weren’t considered a priority by Barnaby Joyce”.

“We find it concerning that in safe seats like New England that all voters can be taken for granted, not just women,” she told Crikey.

Joyce’s swing might read as tacit endorsement for his performance; proof that there will be little impetus for change. But, though he’s won their votes, some locals say he’ll need to win back their respect. They want to see him “buckling down and getting on with it” and listening more to his constituents.

He told the Northern Daily Leader he wants to concentrate on local matters like securing a Tamworth university campus, water infrastructure projects and road upgrades. “I really do like being at home — people think you’re making it up, but I’ve spent 14 years on the road,” Joyce told the paper

It’s all swings and roundabouts for Barnaby Joyce. His story clearly isn’t over yet.