(Image: Tom Red/Private Media)

What’s the point of Barnaby Joyce?

Returned to his National Party’s leadership ostensibly because of his purported skills as Australia’s best retail politician, it turns out he can’t sell ice in a desert. So what is the point of his leadership and, through it, the point of his party?

The Nationals now hold the whip hand on how Australia will join the world tackling the challenge of climate change. But the best they can do is resort to their traditional politics of fear to extract budgetary concessions for the communities they have represented poorly.

The politics of climate change is, understandably, wrapped in emotion. What reasonable person wouldn’t fear the consequences of a planet slowly simmering towards conditions that render more and more of it unliveable? And the best Joyce can do is complain of missing precision in how setting a target to lower carbon emissions might work while imprecisely demanding the pork-barrel rolls through his electorates to fund unknown levels of compensation for undefined harms.

Somewhere there is a strong and logical case to be made for compensating those whose assets and livelihoods will be hurt by the economic adjustments needed if Australia is to join the world in setting net zero targets. It’s clear that thermal coal will decline over the next 30 years as an export and a source of employment in some parts of regional Australia. Equally, it’s clear that industries reliant on high energy will reduce in scale.

But listen to Joyce and you could believe that’s going to happen next week, a shutdown faster than the overnight closure of metropolitan Australia when COVID first emerged as a threat.

Joyce and the Nationals are right to want a plan on how the climate transition will happen, what the new jobs look like, how regional economies will reshape without coal. But there’s an important fact to remember. They are part of the government. In fact they have been part of the government for 48 of the past 70 years, the period that has seen the people they represent decline in electoral importance and the towns and cities they live in largely decline.

What is the point of the Nationals as representatives of regional Australia if it is going backwards?

On their watch, we have not created one substantial city between the Great Dividing Range and the Indian Ocean in the past 70 years. Our agricultural exports have diminished and are largely captive to the prices international customers (who are signing on to net zero emissions) are willing to pay.

People in regional Australia are noisily but not ably represented by the Nationals. Few are likely to be born there because their maternity wards have closed. Yes, they can go to school but mainly they leave to go to university and seek professional success because the Nationals in government have never delivered decentralisation.

If they stay, life can be good — less commuting, less pollution and lower house prices. But there are downsides. For whatever reason, they are one and a half times as likely as metropolitan Australians to smoke cigarettes and consume excessive amounts of alcohol. And that fuels a higher likelihood of obesity with the associated health risks.

While Joyce and the Nats are vocal on the downsides to their people of managing the climate change risk, they are ineffective in dealing with the more fundamental issues of regional Australia.

What does a solution look like to retailer Joyce and his fellow shopwalkers? It appears to include a grab bag of dams where they aren’t viable (and Australia has a great record of regional development through dam building i.e. the Ord River scheme), a coal-fired power station in north Queensland and, presumably, lots of handouts to line the pockets of those who won’t or can’t adapt to a changing world.

The notion of retail politics is hardly new. Successful politicians always had the ability to sell ideas. And that doesn’t just mean acting with self interest to take the easy road. It means using the “bully pulpit” to educate their constituents and ease their journey through difficult periods.

The Nats have a record of trading in fear but sometimes they step up. In living memory, we have the examples of the party finding a way to negotiate concessions that allowed it to support gun laws and native title.

Right now, under the leadership of Joyce and his narrow set of skills, the party is shaping as not being able to step up on climate change which will affect regional Australia more than just about any settled part of the world.

So what is the point of Joyce? Does he really have these retail skills? Or leadership? Or is he just blessed with a memorable name and a lot of bluster?