Federal MP Barnaby Joyce has apologised after setting off community uproar in northern NSW over a joke on Facebook where he unofficially ‘opened’ a long-awaited and state government-funded bridge.
Mayor of Kyogle council Danielle Mulholland – in the rural NSW northern rivers region – said she had been inundated with angry calls from constituents who thought they had missed the official opening of the Tabulam bridge.
“There was a fair bit of community distress for people who felt they weren’t invited,” she told The New Daily.
Mr Joyce, the federal member for New England, posted a video on his Facebook page on Tuesday, visiting the new bridge on the Bruxner Highway.
Spanning the Clarence River, the recently-opened bridge is at the edge of Mr Joyce’s electorate, which borders the neighbouring electorate of Page.
Tabulam Bridge was unofficially opened by ah, me, today. Well it welcomes you into our seat so I reckon I am as a good…
“Tabulam Bridge was unofficially opened by ah, me, today. Well, it welcomes you into our seat so I reckon I am as a good as any to open this $48 plus million investment,” the Member for New England wrote online.
The project was entirely funded by the state government.
“Later some others maybe the second to open it. That is quaint, nice, but let’s face it, also second,” he wrote.
In the video, backed by light-hearted music, Mr Joyce says he’s “going to help [the state government] out” by opening the bridge himself.
“You guys don’t have to worry about doing it, I’m going to do it for you,” he said.
At one point, he jumps up and down on the highway itself before ceremonially cutting a blue ribbon with a pair of scissors.
“I declare this bridge well and truly open,” Mr Joyce said, joking that a plaque should be installed on the footpath to commemorate it, as someone off-camera says “woohoo”.
Ms Mulholland said members of her community were upset and thought that Mr Joyce’s ribbon-cutting had been the official opening of the long-awaited infrastructure project.
“My first response was, it was a silly thing to do. When it comes to major pieces of infrastructure like roads or bridges, the community likes to be involved,” she said.
“I know it might have been a bit of a lark for Barnaby, but the community wanted to know why they hadn’t been invited.”
In a Facebook post criticising the video, Ms Mulholland claimed Mr Joyce had “really whacked a beehive” and joked “you carry ribbon in your car?”
She said she didn’t know Mr Joyce personally and was confused why he had made the video.
“I’m sure he has better things with his time. It’d be like me randomly wandering to Ballina and opening a road there,” Ms Mulholland said.
“There was a lot of work that went into the Tabulum bridge, it was a long-term project … it’s not just about New England, it’s for the local communities and to the northern rivers.”
“I’m trying to understand why he’s come outside his electorate to do an unofficial opening. Tabulum is on the other side of the bridge, in the next electorate.”
Labor MP Janelle Saffin, the member for the state seat of Lismore – which contains the bridge in its boundaries – also hit out at Mr Joyce.
“They could do with a dose of good old-fashioned country manners. The Nationals seem to have lost that,” she told The New Daily.
“I see them as acting like silly boys. It’s a bit silly. They’ve squeezed out the mayor, the state member, and worst, the local community.”
“Tabulam is small. It’s suffered, from February 2019, terrible bushfires and damage, then drought, more bushfires, and now COVID, and then this happens during something that could be a big deal. I find it callous.”
A spokesperson for Mr Joyce said he had meant no offence with the stunt.
The MP’s office told The New Daily that it had been meant as a “light-hearted” video and “a bit of humour”, pointing to the Benny Hill-esque music that soundtracked the clip.
Ms Saffin said she was writing to the NSW state infrastructure minister to seek assurances the bridge would get an official opening and ribbon-cutting ceremony at some stage. Ms Mulholland said she would ensure the project is properly launched to the community, once it was “appropriate” given the COVID situation.
“I’m guessing he meant no harm, just as a bit of a giggle, but these openings are really important to the local community,” she said.
“They have a sense of ownership and investment in the project. To have an unofficial opening, without recognising any of those communities involved, it’s a little thoughtless.”