Barnaby Joyce’s resurrection as Nationals leader and Deputy Prime Minister after three years out in the cold came with a burst of colour and controversy.
But it’s unclear as yet exactly what the Member for New England is looking to shake up in his second stint at the top, with talk of new coal-fired power stations and an eye on Queensland seats at the next election.
Mr Joyce will get to renegotiate the Coalition agreement with Prime Minister Scott Morrison, with expectations of a new spin on ‘net zero by 2050’ and a looming cabinet reshuffle to reward loyal supporters, as he promises to make the Nationals more “formidable” before election season.
“It is not Barnaby policy, it’s Nationals policy,” Mr Joyce pledged.
Like an Akubra-wearing phoenix rising from the ashes of the backbench, his unlikely return to the top rungs of the federal Parliament took some by surprise.
Standing in the freezing Canberra cold outside the Nationals’ party room meeting on Monday morning, few of the gathered journalists or politicos passing by expected a leadership change, with Michael McCormack widely tipped to hang on.
But a slim majority of Nationals went the other way, gifting the party leadership to Mr Joyce three years after he was forced to resign from that job.
His demotion came in a cloud of news breaking of an extramarital affair and an investigation – which later made no ruling – into sexual harassment allegations.
His return raises several questions about what he will aim to change this time around.
What will Barnaby Joyce change?
Governor-General David Hurley will swear in Mr Joyce as deputy PM on Tuesday morning, after which he will take his position on the front bench of Parliament.
On Monday morning, Mr Joyce had only praise for “good bloke” Mr McCormack, but admitted “there are times where I think we could do things differently” inside the party.
He called for the Nationals to be more “clearly identifiable in our policy structure”, and has previously advocated for the rural party to be given more “substantial” ministerial portfolios, not just the “second-rate” ones.
In a newspaper editorial in January, Mr Joyce blasted the Coalition as a “marriage of convenience”, sneering at the Nationals under Mr McCormack being “completely dominated” by the Liberals and “in the shackles of the expectation for harmony”.
They will be words potentially ringing alarm bells for Mr Morrison, currently in quarantine after returning from Europe.
Mr Joyce is expected to request a reshuffle of ministerial responsibilities among Nationals members.
It’s unclear whether this would be a small one, simply taking roles off McCormack supporters and gifting them to his own, or requesting a wider look at the whole ministry, in light of January’s “second-rate” comments.
Senior government sources told The New Daily they expected any reshuffle would occur later in the week, citing the final days of Parliament before a long break and trying to avoid installing new ministers vulnerable to Question Time attacks.
Mr Joyce’s recent comments about Biloela’s Murugappan family may also take on new weight; an issue on which he’s at odds with the government.
“Maybe if their names were Jane and Sally we’d think twice about sending them back to another country which they’re not from,” he said last week.
Mr Joyce said he wanted the Nats to be “more formidable” ahead of an election due within 12 months. He claims he will be more of an asset for the party in Queensland than Mr McCormack, and bring “a different suite of issues” to key election battlegrounds.
Mr Joyce spoke of making a stronger identity for the party, outside the Coalition, but others have raised questions about his suitability.
The circumstances that ended his last stint as leader have been raised by several Nationals MPs.
Michelle Landry claimed some women may be “unhappy” with Mr Joyce returning, while Anne Webster said she hoped he “has learned from his past”.
Mr Joyce acknowledged his “faults” and pledged to be a “better person” this time around.
What happens to net zero?
The latest leadership rumble followed last week’s comments from Resources Minister Keith Pitt, who said the Nats hadn’t been consulted on or agreed to any ‘net zero by 2050’ targets.
Mr Morrison has been inching closer to making this commitment, recently qualifying the goal – embraced by nearly all Australia’s major allies and trading partners – as the “preferable” government goal.
But many tipped Mr Joyce would take a harder line on this than Mr McCormack, with several Nationals MPs furious about what effect it would have on agriculture and regional communities.
It’s expected Mr Joyce may push for new coal-fired power stations, and give his party members more slack to speak out on climate policies.
After winning the ballot, Mr Joyce said he would talk with colleagues “about what they believe is best for them and then fight on that” on any net-zero talk.
Greens leader Adam Bandt called the Nationals “climate terrorists” while Labor leader Anthony Albanese accused them of “weasel words” on climate, with concerns Mr Joyce’s elevation will dent chances of Australia signing up to the 2050 goal.
Many Liberals were sad to see Mr McCormack leave.
Frontbenchers led a standing ovation as he finished his final question time as Deputy PM on Monday, with numerous Liberals praising him as a “decent” man.
Other Liberals were keen to see Mr Joyce return, expecting his election would reignite debate about how – and if – Australia would commit to net zero.
One Liberal, who is not in favour of stronger climate action, said there would need to be a tangible “compromise” on agreeing to any such target.
“Bring it on,” they told The New Daily.