Labor frontbenchers have slammed resurrected Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce as “red-faced” and a “clown” on his first day officially back in the job, as the Nationals leader faced down critics inside and outside his party over past controversies.
It took just 10 minutes of Tuesday’s question time for Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese to bring up an infamous 2019 video where Mr Joyce, standing in a cow paddock, lamented that he was “sick of the government being in my life”.
But the Deputy PM stormed through his first session back in the hot seat. He lobbed his customary barbs at the opposition as he drew howls of laughter – both supportive and derisive – and Prime Minister Scott Morrison watched on big screen from quarantine.
“This is a very strange rant,” Mr Albanese said, interrupting Mr Joyce’s first question time response.
Hours earlier, the member for New England had been officially sworn in as Deputy PM by Governor-General David Hurley. The photo op was almost upstaged by Mr Joyce’s son, who ran in towards his father as the official photograph was taken, before being brushed aside with a swift palm-off.
Mr Joyce’s elevation has raised the ire of some inside the Nationals, citing the circumstances of his departure from the role in 2018 after news broke of an extramarital affair and an investigation – which later made no finding – into alleged sexual harassment.
Nationals MP Anne Webster said “we are going to find out” whether female voters would welcome him back to the job, while federal president Kay Hull admitted Mr Joyce was “very polarising” for some.
“You can be a lover of Barnaby Joyce or a serious detractor,” she said.
With Mr Morrison in quarantine after returning from Europe, and former deputy PM Michael McCormack relieved a repeat of Monday’s awkwardness of having to lead question time, it fell to Mr Joyce to take charge of the daily session.
Labor MPs peppered him with questions, asking why he’d decided to roll Mr McCormack, and railing against the Nationals focusing on party conflicts in the midst of the pandemic.
“What we needed from this government is more jabbing and less stabbing,” Mr Albanese had said on Tuesday morning, contrasting the vaccine rollout and the internal politics.
In the afternoon, Mr Joyce fielded just one question from his own side – a soft and flat dixer from key ally, Llew O’Brien, on how the government was supporting regional jobs. But Labor pinged all its questions his way.
Leader of the house Peter Dutton stepped in to save him repeatedly, successfully arguing that several Labor questions were out of order.
When he was permitted to speak, Mr Joyce took off with his typical bluster and aplomb, first claiming Mr Albanese’s job was under threat and hitting back with taunts that the Labor leader would never be PM.
Asked about the infamous paddock video, filmed on his phone as he railed against government and warned of divine punishment, Mr Joyce responded with another jab.
“I suppose I was reflecting on what would have happened if [Mr Albanese] was in government,” he said, to giggles from his side.
“I must say, at the time it was terrifying. I was overcome with fear, as to what might happen if the Labor Party was to be the government.”
Giggles came from the other side soon after. Asked by Labor about how he would represent women in agriculture, Mr Joyce began his response by noting he was “a father of four daughters”.
Some on the opposition benches howled with laughter as he spoke of his “incredible vested interest” in supporting regional women. In a later answer about backing mining communities, Mr Joyce noted he would stand up for workers in the Hunter seat of Labor’s Joel Fitzgibbon, his frequent TV news panel sparring partner.
Mr Fitzgibbon placed the palms of his hands together, in a mocking prayer movement, bowing his head as if in thanks.
As Mr Joyce railed against Mr Albanese needing “Greens preferences” to win his inner-Sydney seat of Grayndler, Speaker Tony Smith – who has recently suffered fools even less than usual – gently chided that Mr Joyce was “drifting from the question”.
So @Barnaby_Joyce back in the saddle. Spends the whole #qt red faced and yelling at @AustralianLabor Is this really the poltical change people want? Aren’t Australians just sick of angry old superficial self-interested politics? #auspol
— Tanya Plibersek (@tanya_plibersek) June 22, 2021
As question time drew to a close, Labor began piling on few personal asides.
Deputy leader Richard Marles, gripping the dispatch box as he thrust a pointed finger toward Mr Joyce, claimed he “behaves like a clown”. Fellow frontbencher Tanya Plibersek tweeted that Mr Joyce had spent the session “red-faced and yelling”.
Judging from Tuesday’s first outing, it should be an interesting week. Mr Joyce will lead question time for two more days before parliament rises for the long winter break.
Mr McCormack has already been dumped from the ministry, with Mr Joyce taking his roles of infrastructure and regional development. More changes are expected as the new Nationals leader moulds his own team.