Nationals MP Darren Chester has taken a sensational swipe at his party leader and Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, calling him “incoherent” and warning Australians to “brace” for what is coming.
“I have no personal relationship with Barnaby, I don’t seek a personal relationship with Barnaby,” Mr Chester said on Monday, a day after he was dumped by Mr Joyce in a cabinet reshuffle.
“I’ve been screwed over by the National Party twice in the last three years.”
Mr Chester was veterans affairs minister until Sunday, when he was ejected from the ministry as Mr Joyce set his own team. Mr Joyce, who beat former Nationals leader Michael McCormack in a partyroom spill last week, rewarded those who backed him in the vote and punished those who didn’t.
Mr Chester lost his role, as did former regional health minister Mark Coulton. Resources Minister Keith Pitt has been moved from cabinet into the outer ministry – an effective demotion.
All three were said to have supported Mr McCormack. Mr Chester was a key ally of the former leader, who he called “one of the most dedicated, resilient and passionate advocates regional Australia has ever produced”.
In their places, David Gillespie, Andrew Gee and Bridget McKenzie – all Joyce backers – were promoted.
“I want to compliment Darren for the work that he has done, but that is the process of politics and it is now really an issue for how the new ministers go,” Mr Joyce said on Sunday.
“The National Party has a suite of people, people of – incredibly competent people.”
But Mr Chester was not as kind in his assessment of the new leader, pulling no punches on Monday morning when he spoke of the conversation where Mr Joyce told him he had been sacked.
“I wouldn’t normally comment on private conversations, but I’m gonna say the conversation I had with Barnaby was so incoherent yesterday, I couldn’t actually explain what he was even saying to me,” Mr Chester said.
“People of Australia, brace yourself, there will be more conversations like that.”
Last week, Mr Chester tweeted an article claiming “Joyce would be ‘plain stupid’ to dump Chester”. Mr Chester said they “didn’t have harsh words”, calling it “just a matter of fact conversation”.
“He was sacking me. I didn’t agree with him, and I got on with the walk I was having with my dog,” he said.
“The relationship I’ll have with Barnaby Joyce going forward will be completely and utterly business like … It’ll be nothing more than a pragmatic business relationship.”
Mr Chester said he was “disappointed and frustrated” at the ministerial changes, and even said sorry to Australians for last week’s Nationals leadership spill.
“I’d offer an apology to regional Australians for the conduct they saw from the National Party last week. The conduct by my federal parliamentary team wasn’t good enough,” he said.
“We’re sent to Canberra to fight for them, not to fight each other and I was very disappointed to be caught up in the middle of that.”
Mr Chester was to help oversee the royal commission into veteran’s suicide, and even as some veterans had expressed their concern over his stewardship of the portfolio, Mr Chester said he would miss working with defence personnel.
As Minister, I’ve been constantly impressed by the professionalism, determination & resilience of ADF personnel, veterans & families. Looking after your mates & acting with dignity & respect in adversity, have set a standard which I hope to emulate. Thank you for your service. pic.twitter.com/2yFkMDj0jm
— Darren Chester MP (@DarrenChesterMP) June 27, 2021
“I’m very confident that the work I’ve done with Liz Cosson, the secretary of the department, will ensure that veterans and their families are properly supported as they give their evidence,” he said.
Mr Gee will replace Mr Chester, becoming Australia’s sixth veterans affairs minister in six years. Mr Joyce denied the portfolio had become a “hot potato”, and said Mr Gee would do “an exceptional job”.
“The royal commission now is going forward and we want to make sure that the issues that are pertinent to that royal commission are actually vastly more important than any minister,” he said.
“We’re talking about hundreds of people who have taken their lives. So the issue is more important than any minister.”
Mr Chester is popular within Coalition ranks, and was regarded as a hard-working and competent minister. He held an early ‘farewell party’ at Canberra’s lively Kingston Hotel last Wednesday, before he was officially dumped as minister.
The party, which kicked on to the wee hours of Thursday, was attended by numerous National and Liberal members. Several Labor politicians also popped in to commiserate.
But despite claiming he had been “screwed over” by the Nationals, Mr Chester said he had no plans to retire or quit the party.
“I actually still believe you can achieve more as part of a team in politics, that you achieve more by working with your colleagues, fighting alongside them rather than fighting with them,” he said.
“‘m not intending to run as an independent, I’m intending to run as the endorsed National Party candidate for the seat of Gippsland.”