News National ‘If Barnaby is the answer, Christopher is the problem’

‘If Barnaby is the answer, Christopher is the problem’

Barnaby Joyce and Christopher Pyne
Barnaby Joyce and Christopher Pyne Photo: AAP
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Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce has wasted no time high-tailing it to the Old Dart. There, in a London pub, he was being his homespun self, being shouted beers and being the sort of retail politician an increasing number of government backbenchers wish they had in Malcolm Turnbull.

Mr Joyce, who often mangles his words and glows bright red as he gets excited attacking the Labor Party, is seen as authentic and in touch with his base. There’s even talk of an embattled Liberal National Party in Queensland making him a key weapon in their upcoming state election campaign.

But this talk and thinking highlights the funk engulfing the federal Coalition government. Because while Mr Joyce may well appeal to conservative voters – a proposition Pauline Hanson is sure to put to the acid test – he is the antithesis of Mr Turnbull’s brand.

And that has been dramatised in another bar. The swish Cherry Bar at Sydney’s Crown Casino where Christopher Pyne and a merry band of moderates gathered for a Liberal conference dinner after-party.

It is a regular occurrence at these conferences and the participants traditionally refer to it as a ‘Black Hand’ function – the origins of the name are disputed but conservative Liberals think it is very apt.

A secret recording of Mr Pyne’s speech at the event goes a long way to explain why. There the government’s key parliamentary strategist and Turnbull ally boasted the moderates were now in charge.

Someone gave the recording to conservative champion commentator Andrew Bolt. He was suitably incensed and attacked the “left faction” for gross disloyalty to Tony Abbott, who they helped depose and whose same-sex marriage plebiscite policy they were planning to ditch.

Mr Pyne is heard saying that the gathered lefties were in “the winners’ circle” and that of the couple of things they had to deliver was marriage equality which would happen sooner than people think.

barnaby joyce christopher pyne
Former PM Tony Abbott said he was incredibly disappointed by Mr Pyne’s comments. Photo: AAP

The Prime Minister was forced into damage control, saying “we have no plans” to ditch the plebiscite policy.

Mr Abbott on his regular radio 2GB spot was incredibly disappointed by Mr Pyne’s confession of betrayal and disloyalty.

The former PM said that the Liberal Party is socially conservative and the plebiscite was an election promise; to ditch it would be to break faith with the voters.

More to the point he said “that’s where the balance of the Coalition lies”. And that’s where Barnaby Joyce comes back in.

The Nationals made the plebiscite a condition of their support of a Coalition government under Malcolm Turnbull. The question is now whether Mr Pyne has revealed that Mr Turnbull is considering staring down Mr Joyce and the Nationals.

There’s no doubt if he did he would break the shackles the conservatives have constrained him in since September 2015, but he also risks blowing up his leadership and the government.

Something he has not been prepared to do quite so brazenly, although this year’s budget, education and climate positioning is ruffling right wing feathers.

It is no secret Mr Joyce was more at home with the politics of Mr Abbott. They share not only socially conservative views but a scepticism of climate change and a determination to protect and promote coal.

And there’s a bigger question. Does the Deputy Prime Minister have serious doubts about Mr Turnbull’s political nous? If not why did he offer the job of his chief of staff to Mr Abbott’s key tactician as prime minister, Peta Credlin?

According to the Daily Telegraph, Ms Credlin knocked it back telling the Nationals leader he must be joking. He wasn’t.

Mr Joyce honestly believes her talents are too good to be lost to politics. By that he means the politics of the Coalition government and its ability to win and maintain government.

Ms Credlin’s recent columns leave little doubt she thinks this is an increasingly hopeless task.

It’s enough to make Barnaby want another pint of English beer.

Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics. He tweets at @PaulBongiorno

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