News National Long dark cloud hangs over Barnaby Joyce
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Long dark cloud hangs over Barnaby Joyce

Barnaby Joyce
Barnaby Joyce has had a difficult few months. Photo: AAP
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Rumour and innuendo are brutal political weapons that usually surface when the stakes are high. And the stakes could not be higher for Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce and the Turnbull government.

Front-page stories in two News Corp tabloids at the weekend have infuriated Mr Joyce’s allies for being nothing more than damaging gossip dressed up as a pre-emptive strike ahead of a by-election in the seat of New England.

The Joyce camp is increasingly pessimistic the longer the High Court delays handing down its decision on his eligibility to be in Parliament.

The Court could reveal its decision at any time, although it may wait until Friday or next week when Parliament is not sitting.

While six other politicians are also on tenterhooks, it is the fate of Mr Joyce that is the most politically disruptive. It is a threat to the government’s majority, hindering Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s attempts to build momentum with his latest energy policy.

It could even overshadow the parliamentary marriage equality legislation promised, if the yes case – as looks likely – succeeds.

The carefully written News Corp article talks of “turmoil” in the Deputy Prime Minister’s private life.

New England by-election would be no sure thing

The Nationals have reason to be worried. New England is a conservative rural and regional electorate.

By-elections have a habit of quickly becoming a lightning rod for every issue that has voters off side with a government.

A deputy prime minister is about as high-profile a target you can get. Already a Melbourne Cup field of candidates is expected to run.

The Nationals believe the unions will be active on the ground and the activist group GetUp! won’t be far behind.

“Send a message to the government” is a time-honoured device in these circumstances.

And there are plenty of messages that may want to be sent, from energy prices to shutting the farm gate to gas exploration and extraction to the performance of the NBN.

New England, thanks to former independent MP Tony Windsor’s support of the Gillard Labor government, was one of the first areas to get the “real” NBN but not all of it.

There is speculation Mr Windsor may run again to remind the voters who missed out they are victims of the Coalition’s redesign. Election fever is not only restricted to New England.

Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk could announce a state election for late November as early as Tuesday.

Labor in senate estimates has trained its sights on another entrepreneurial National, Queensland senator Barry O’Sullivan.

It believes it has enough evidence to suggest he is in breach of the constitution for having a pecuniary interest in family companies that have won government contracts.

So far he has avoided attempts to scrutinise him but when you take his situation along with the questions over other Nationals – senators Fiona Nash and Matt Canavan as well as lower house MP David Gillespie facing the High Court – it’s no exaggeration to say the junior Coalition party is a trouble magnet.

The government is trying to turn the tables on Labor leader Bill Shorten. It has referred payments to GetUp! and to three Labor seat campaigns, including Mr Shorten’s, to the new Registered Organisations Commission.

The payments were made when Mr Shorten headed the Australian Workers Union. The unions royal commission made no adverse findings against the Labor leader when it examined the donations.

It is fair to say Labor believes it has less to worry about than the government.

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

For more columns from Paul Bongiorno, click here

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