Anyone who doesn’t live inside the Canberra bubble might have been surprised to learn this week that disgraced former Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce fancies himself as having a good chance to make a comeback.
Yes, the man once described as Australia’s best retail politician appears to have concluded that he’s wasted in the remainders bin and should be returned to the top-10 line-up at the front of the store.
That’s unfortunate news for the actual leader of the Nationals, Michael McCormack, who has found it difficult to make the minor party competitive against its fiercest opponent, One Nation.
Leadership rumbles have never really subsided in the junior Coalition partner since Mr Joyce stood down earlier this year following the twin revelations of him having an extra-marital affair with one of his staff, and a sexual harassment complaint lodged against him.
MPs loyal to Mr Joyce then tried to secure the elevation of little-known Queenslander David Littleproud to the leadership in the hope that having a Joyce supporter in the role would maintain his influence within the Nationals.
However, the inexperienced Mr Littleproud, who did appear to have the numbers, was ultimately convinced by party elders to wait for a more auspicious time to take the helm. It would have made no sense to them to waste a viable young leadership contender in the conflagration that is expected to consume the government at the next federal election.
So a non-supporter of Mr Joyce, Mr McCormack, was handed the poisoned chalice instead. And the poor sod has been white-anted by the Joyce forces ever since.
If you’re experiencing déjà vu, it’s because we’ve seen this movie before.
Mr McCormack isn’t the first Nationals leader and deputy prime minister with a speaking style that causes voters’ eyes to glaze over in boredom before he even utters a word.
He’s not even the first to lose policy battles with a Liberal-dominated Coalition government.
Even though both these criticisms have been levelled at Mr McCormack since becoming leader, his real problem is that he isn’t a populist reactionary leader like Pauline Hanson.
The Joyce forces have been telling Nationals MPs in marginal seats under threat from One Nation that only their man can out-Hanson Hanson at the federal poll in early 2019.
For his part, Mr Joyce has unconvincingly been playing coy. On Wednesday, he rejected any suggestion he was campaigning for the leadership but confirmed that he would accept it if asked to do so.
In the same television interview, opposition frontbencher Joel Fitzgibbon mentioned that a stream of MPs and journalists has been seen entering Mr Joyce’s Parliament House office, located across the hallway from that of the Labor MP.
If we are to believe news reports, Mr Joyce already has the numbers to take over again. It’s impossible to tell whether this is accurate or simply an attempt to create momentum and capture the votes of indecisive Nationals MPs.
If it is true, we could see a leadership coup as early as Friday.
A number of journalists have reported expletive-laden responses from Nationals MPs who have been asked whether the Liberals would welcome such an upheaval on the eve of the Wentworth by-election.
This is particularly relevant when voters in that electorate are already cranky about a previous leadership coup.
However, the more pertinent question is why Nationals MPs would even think Mr Joyce is capable of delivering them electoral salvation. If we’ve learned anything from this year’s Joyce saga, it’s that the man is probably not fit to return to a leadership role.
Mr Joyce has divulged that during his previous stint as Nationals leader, there were times when he didn’t (or wouldn’t) give priority to the best interests of his party, the government or the nation.
He’s admitted to poorly managing the intense stress brought on by his messy personal life, which was exacerbated by the revelations of his ineligibility to sit in Parliament, and the exposure of his relationship with Vikki Campion.
He’s admitted to poor political judgement, staying on in Parliament when he suspected he was ineligible to do so, and hanging on to the Nationals leadership when he believed he would have to stand down once Ms Campion’s pregnancy became public.
And then there’s the allegations of sexual harassment, which the National Party eventually dismissed due to ‘insufficient evidence’.
These revelations also raise a cloud over some of the contentious decisions made by Mr Joyce during that time, such as moving the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority and its Canberra-based staff to his electorate in rural NSW.
Mr Joyce may claim that his relatively short time in the political wilderness, as well as the now-public nature of his relationship with Ms Campion, have allowed him to move past those turbulent times.
He may claim that he has a new sense of purpose and a strong and healthy state of mind.
But can anyone be sufficiently rehabilitated from that sort of turmoil, after only eight months, to be able to take on the stresses of party leadership and an impending knife-edged election? Or will Mr Joyce’s political and personal judgement again be impaired?
This is the real question that Nationals MPs should be asking themselves as they weigh up their options, before throwing the Coalition into a Barnaby-based crisis for the third time in less than a year.