Former Nationals leader Tim Fischer has called for calm as murmurs of a leadership spill swirl just two months after the Liberals toppled Malcolm Turnbull.
With reports of a possible return to former leader Barnaby Joyce, Mr Fischer told The New Daily the Nationals should stick with current leader Michael McCormack.
“Michael McCormack has covered more ground in his first six months than I did in my first six months as leader,” Mr Fischer told The New Daily, noting Mr McCormack was disadvantaged by becoming party leader and deputy prime minister at the same time.
Mr McCormack came to the job in February when Mr Joyce quit after his relationship with former staffer Vikki Campion was revealed and a sexual harassment allegation was made public. A party investigation was unable to make a finding on the allegation.
The leadership questions come just two days before Wentworth goes to a by-election to replace Mr Turnbull, who resigned from the seat after losing the Liberal leadership. The Liberals are facing challenges in that seat from Labor and high-profile independent Kerryn Phelps.
Mr Fischer, who was deputy prime minister to John Howard from 1996 to 1999, rejected the notion that the National Party tended to shy away from infighting seen in other major parties.
It’s not all beer and skittles, I can tell you.
“And it just is necessary – every now and then – to make a stand against in my case some proddings from Queensland. Nothing changes.”
Fairfax Media reported on Thursday that Queensland supporters of Mr Joyce have been counting the numbers to challenge.
“It’s unfortunate timing with the Wentworth by-election about to unfold,” Mr Fischer said.
The Liberal Party could be unseated despite holding it on a 17.7 per cent margin.
Dr Phelps was tipped to take the seat 55-45 against Liberal candidate Dave Sharma on a two-party-preferred basis, according polling leaked to The Australian earlier this week.
The Coalition will lose its majority and need to govern with crossbenchers in the lower house if it loses Wentworth.
Mr Fischer pointed out the latest leadership speculation was also distracting voters from positive unemployment figures released on Thursday.
“There’s a lot of other things happening,” he said. “But I think Michael McCormack is in the box seat and I’m sure he’ll do well.”
The former leader said he believed Mr McCormack was cutting through, and said he should continue to gain more traction.
I think he’s cutting through but he will get better at that as time goes on.
“I think the party should stay with Michael. I think he should be allowed to lead and be conscious of the dichotomy of his constituency broadly defined – not just the Riverina [electorate], I mean the state and nation, so he can choose the right words to cut through.”
Mr McCormack on Thursday said he had the support of the partyroom, but acknowledged “maybe one or two” were backgrounding media.
“But you know, one or two doesn’t make a majority,” he told reporters.
“Barnaby Joyce has said that he’s not canvassing out and I believe him. Whether or not others are, well, that’s a matter for them.
“I have to say, not one National Party member has come to me and said they’re dissatisfied in anything.”
Mr Joyce said he was not vying for the job, holding meetings or shoring up numbers, but admitted he would take the leadership if it was offered up to him.
“It is faux modesty to say if you’re offered a job, you’d turn it down. That is garbage,” Mr Joyce said.
“If it was offered to me I’d take it, but I’m not touting for it. I’m not collecting the numbers.”
Nationals MP Michelle Landry said Mr Joyce would likely become leader again one day but rejected there was interest in a leadership change.
“I’m sure at some stage in his career Barnaby will be leader again, but Michael is our leader now. He has the support of the partyroom,” Ms Landry told Sky News.
“Now is Michael’s time and I think that Michael is doing a great job.”
Nationals rising star Agriculture Minister David Littleproud has ruled out a tilt.
Frontbenchers Darren Chester and Matt Canavan have both backed in the leader.
“We can’t go through a sitting week without some speculation on leadership,” Mr Canavan told reporters.
“It’s the National Party’s turn this week. We’ll ride through it.”