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

We don’t know how close former Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce came to seizing the deputy prime ministership this morning. The Nationals won’t reveal the numbers. But the fact that he was a serious contender in any way reveals how farcical the government is becoming.

Scott Morrison has endured a nightmare start to the year, all of it of his own creation. There’s his climate denialism, and that of his party. There’s his loss of political judgment in relation to the bushfire catastrophe. And there’s the extraordinary and blatant rorting of taxpayer money that went on in the community sports infrastructure program, with the connivance of his own office.

But Joyce’s attempt to recover the position that he was forced to resign two years ago can only have left Liberals agog at the self-indulgence of sections of the Nationals Party.

On a day that was supposed to have been given over to the political class paying respects to the victims of the bushfire catastrophe, a significant section of the Nationals decided that a climate denialist and target of serious accusations of sexual harassment should be elevated to the second highest political office and restored to cabinet.

Remember, the allegations of sexual harassment against Joyce that forced his departure in 2018 remain unresolved to this day.

The only action taken by anyone in the Nationals in relation to them has been to leak the identity of a complainant. But a number of MPs and senators — just short of half of the Nationals party room — still think he’s fit to make deputy PM.

One wonders how regional and rural women — or, for that matter, anyone with a shred of decency — will react to that.

The government itself is still trying to clean up some of the messes Joyce left from his stint as agriculture minister two years on, including the continuing fallout from the maladministration of the Murray-Darling at the Commonwealth and NSW levels, and continuing questions over water acquisition deals made by Joyce.

And make no mistake: today was a revolt of a denialist rump, led by Queensland senator Matthew Canavan, who is not merely a climate denialist but a long-term advocate for substantially increased burning of coal.

To the extent that Scott Morrison might have ever been contemplating even the faintest of “pivots” on climate policy in the interests of not losing touch with the electorate, he’s now been given a clear warning that denialists in the Nationals will happily blow the joint up over it — despite some of the strongest calls for climate action during the bushfire catastrophe coming from regional communities.

At least when it comes to Liberal denialists like Craig Kelly, Morrison has some sway — one wonders whether the prime minister will intervene again so enthusiastically to protect Kelly’s preselection like he did before the last election. But he has no control over rogue Nationals who want to burn the planet faster.

At least Canavan managed to rebel in true Nationals style, resigning from the frontbench at the same time as he admitted a conflict of interest in relation to a grant made under the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility.

That program has been an unusual National Party bungle in that the problem has hitherto been the failure to spend any money, rather than the porkbarrelling of it.

Canavan, it appears, won’t be returning to cabinet after this morning, leaving him to spend more time with his coal, and plot the next leadership tilt with his former boss Joyce.

The clock is now ticking on McCormack’s leadership.

The end could come any time parliament sits in coming months, presenting Morrison with an ongoing distraction and source of destabilisation.

At any moment, Barnaby Joyce could return to the deputy prime ministership, presenting a beet-red face of climate denialism and sexual scandal to voters already soured on a government that has stumbled, bungled and rorted its way into 2020.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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