Barnaby Joyce’s push to return to the leadership of the Nationals and the deputy prime ministership will face its acid test in Tuesday’s party room meeting.
Anything could happen in the unpredictable cauldron of conflict the party has become, but Michael McCormack is confident he has the numbers to hold on.
Mr Joyce’s siren song of greater independence from the Liberals and even more government handouts for the bush was being resisted for most of Monday, but Queensland National Llew O’Brien believes it is worthwhile testing their resolve and will move a spill motion against the leader.
Mr O’Brien needs at least 11 votes for the spill to succeed; if he gets them the lacklustre McCormack is gone.
Mr O’Brien shares the view of many in the Sunshine State that the New South Welsh leader is weak and too bland to cut through in the bush.
Up until the Bridget McKenzie implosion this had the support of only a handful of the party room – maybe six out of the 21 MPs and senators.
But now with the disgraced deputy leader out of the picture, the tensions have erupted.
Mr Joyce has never hidden his ambition to return to the leadership.
Victorian National Damian Drum says watching the rivalry between Mr Joyce and Mr McCormack “was a bit like watching mum and dad fight – you wish they didn’t, but that’s the way it is”.
Certainly Mr Joyce is an unabashed defender of pork barreling no matter the cost, as his decision when last Deputy PM to move the pesticides agency from Canberra to his electorate proves.
Its estimated cost is $193 million a year, with a Canberra office also having to be maintained.
The party room meeting in the first instance was to fill the deputy leader’s vacancy created by Senator McKenzie’s forced resignation over the sports grants scandal.
The front runner for this job appears to be Queenslander David Littleproud, who is the drought and emergency management minister.
This could be a useful springboard for his eventual leadership ambitions.
Mr Littleproud may even emerge from the meeting as leader as a compromise candidate, such is the unpredictability of the situation.
Another Queenslander Matt Canavan, the coal champion and resources minister looked set to become the party’s senate leader, replacing Ms McKenzie until he quit the ministry over a conflict of interest.
But the sad reality is the Nationals are far from repentant for the brazen way in which Ms McKenzie rorted the $100 million sports grants program.
Brushed aside is the forensic investigation of the Auditor-General who found extraordinary bias in the way the minister ignored the independent assessment of Sport Australia to direct millions of dollars to politically targeted marginal seats.
Michael McCormack was not alone in welcoming the confected defence rolled out on Sunday by Prime Minister Scott MOrrison.
Morrison cited his departmental head’s confidential finding of no bias by McKenzie – directly contradicting the Auditor-General.
Just as shameless was the Liberal MP who is Attorney-General, Christian Porter.
His view, according to Mr Morrison, was that Senator McKenzie was legally entitled to override Sport Australia in the way she did to allocate the money.
No written support of this was supplied, experts say because there could not be any genuine basis for it.
Mr Joyce, like Damian Drum, thinks Ms McKenzie did nothing wrong.
Mr Drum says it was up to the minister to make the final decisions and he blames the media for an unfair pile on.
He says he doesn’t think “bias in government spending is anything new” – a sad blindness to the reality of what happened here, especially in regard to the unfairness of this program.
The Auditor-General found it confused eligibility with worthiness and withheld from the public the key criterion of being a targeted marginal seat.
Mr Drum’s Victorian colleague Darren Chester told Sky News that the public’s trust can only be restored when greater transparency ensures these programs are fair.
Pity Chester isn’t running for the leadership.
Then again, the culture of his party would make him an outsider for this view.
Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics