It’s likely only one person in Australia enjoyed Barnaby Joyce’s trainwreck radio interview on Monday night more than the current leader of the Nationals, Michael McCormack.
You might recall the inoffensive but unremarkable Mr McCormack was given the thankless task of gluing back together the pieces of the country party after Mr Joyce lobbed it from the bassinet in February last year due to the emergence of sexual harassment allegations against him.
However, since then, Mr McCormack has been plagued by a relentless and barely concealed campaign to return Mr Joyce to the leadership.
There was even talk that a coup would occur in the final days of the Parliament, just after the budget but before the election was called, to reinstate the man formerly known as ‘Australia’s best retail politician’ to his rightful place.
Then it suddenly occurred to the Joyce camp the last thing Prime Minister Scott Morrison needed just before the election was a new round of leadership instability within the Coalition, and so the apparently inevitable uprising was ‘postponed’ until after polling day.
However, as a result of the Mr Joyce’s now infamous #watergate radio interview, Mr McCormack is now better placed than he was last week to fend off the leadership manoeuvres.
The current Nationals leader would have taken some comfort from his colleagues being confronted with the distinct lack of leadership displayed by Mr Joyce during his #watergate meltdown.
Aggression and argumentativeness might arguably have their place in an effective leader’s artillery, but incoherence and questionable logic do not.
Yet the former deputy prime minister’s idea of a compelling answer during the on-air interview was to yell, “Labor, Labor, Labor, Labor” down the phone at his interviewer.
Nevertheless, there would have been one person who enjoyed Mr Joyce’s unintelligible dummy spit even more than Mr McCormack.
Twice during the final year of his prime ministership, Malcolm Turnbull saw a promising rise in the Coalition’s opinion poll ratings clipped by the self-indulgence of the belligerent Mr Joyce.
The first time was in February 2018, when the then Nationals leader resisted calls to stand down over allegations that he may have breached the ministerial code of conduct due to his extra-marital relationship with a staffer, Vikki Campion.
The second was in July that year, when Mr Joyce and Ms Campion accepted $150,000 in return for an exclusive television interview, during which they levelled a number of accusations against Coalition MPs, including demands that Ms Campion abort the child she’d conceived with Mr Joyce.
Just before both these events, the Turnbull government had drawn within striking distance of Labor, according to Newspoll.
In February 2018, Newspoll recorded the best two-party preferred vote (48-52 per cent to Labor) for the Coalition since April 2017. But the Coalition lost two percentage points off its primary vote – dropping to 36 per cent – after two weeks of speculation whether Mr Joyce had breached the ministerial code by moving Ms Campion to another minister’s office.
The Coalition’s primary vote slowly grew again after Mr Joyce’s eventual resignation over the subsequent sexual harassment complaint, reaching 39 per cent (and a 49-51 per cent two-party preferred for Labor), but dipped again following the furore over the couple’s paid interview, although the two-party preferred held firm.
Mr Turnbull would be justified in concluding that these and other interventions by Mr Joyce, notably the Nationals backbencher’s fact-lite rebellion against the National Energy Guarantee, contributed to his downfall.
If the scuttlebutt is true that the former PM wishes to see the Coalition defeated at the May federal election to ‘preserve his legacy’, Mr Turnbull would have therefore noted with some satisfaction that Mr Joyce’s latest scandal similarly comes at the worst possible time for his successor.
According to the latest Newspoll, the Coalition’s primary vote before #watergate was back up to 39 per cent, although so is Labor’s, producing a two-party preferred of 48-52 per cent with the Opposition still in front. But there are four weeks of the election campaign to go.
Mr Morrison’s campaign challenge, which is to drag the government’s approval up to the low 40s, was a Herculean task even before Mr Joyce distracted voters from the PM’s efforts with his latest act of blustering belligerence.
Nevertheless, it is Mr Morrison’s duty to swiftly clean up the odorous mess admittedly created before he was PM, but by the man he appointed as his “drought emissary”.
Failure to do so will relegate Mr Morrison to the same outcome that Mr Joyce created for Mr Turnbull – the end of his prime ministership.