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Double trouble: How two faces of Barnaby Joyce keep Coalition's bush vote afloat

Insights

While the media focus has been on the divisiveness of Barnaby Joyce in urban areas, his campaign is working effectively in the regions with little scrutiny. writes Kishor Napier-Raman.

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There are two Barnaby Joyces in this election.

In the cities, there’s Barnaby the pantomime villain, the coal-loving rural hick, single-handedly holding the Morrison government to ransom on climate change, and driving some moderate Liberal voters into the arms of the independents.

But in the bush, there’s Barnaby the retail politician, roaming around the country handing out millions for classic Nationals’ boondoggles.

With the independent challenge to once-safe Liberal seats firming as one of the big stories of the campaign, it’s the first Barnaby getting all the media attention. Bush Barnaby, on the other hand, has largely flown under the radar.

Last week there were just two journalists — neither from one of the big media organisations — on the “Wombat Trail”, as the Nationals campaign is colloquially known. The lack of focus on the Nationals means Joyce is free to do what he loves best: dole out big bucks for the bush.

Take the recently announced $80 million water pipeline for Bowen, in the north Queensland Nationals seat of Dawson. The business case isn’t yet complete. It’s a similar story with numerous other regional infrastructure projects backed in by the Nats, including the $5.4 billion Hells Gates Dam project in regional Queensland announced before the budget.

Of course the real backstory here is that many of these big, shoddy infrastructure projects are the price of buying the Nationals’ support for a net zero emissions target, which Joyce was returned to the leadership to fight against.

Analysis of the last federal budget from the Financial Review suggests it cost up to $34 billion to get the Nats on board. With fewer eyeballs on Joyce’s campaign, it’s harder for voters across the country to really connect those dots.

And with nearly all journalists on the road travelling with either Morrison or Anthony Albanese (who’s apparently bored them into resorting to gotchas), there’s also little scrutiny on one of the main sources of tension within the government’s campaign.

As we’ve written before, there are several Coalition election campaigns happening in parallel. Morrison is running his “suburban strategy”, trying to offset projected losses in places like Parramatta. Moderates are essentially fighting a series of tough byelections on their own.

Joyce is in charge of shoring up the regions, particularly coal country, where the flip-side of the government’s both-ways bet on net zero is intended to resonate. While campaigning with Matt Canavan last week, who recently declared net zero “dead”, the deputy prime minister evaded questions on whether he’d urged colleagues to tone down criticism of the emissions reduction plan.

A greater focus on the Wombat Trail would mean more probing of the Nationals’ incredible stranglehold on the direction of climate policy, and a better understanding of what’s actually worrying regional voters.

It might also make the party’s very smooth ride through this election a little rockier. Putting aside the broader fate of the Morrison government, most signs are pointing to a status quo election result for the Nats.

Such was the size of the 2019 anti-Shorten swing that the party has a huge buffer in its regional Queensland seats. Labor’s best chance is in Flynn, but even there, an 8.7% margin might be too much.

The party could face an interesting three-way challenge in the safe seat of Nicholls, where local member Damian Drum is retiring, and Joyce is more unpopular. And Resources Minister Keith Pitt faces a long-shot challenge from independent Bundaberg Mayor Jack Dempsey in the seat of Hinkler.

On the offensive front, the party is pushing to gain Hunter in NSW coal country, while Joyce has also campaigned for the Country Liberals’ Damien Ryan, who’s hoping to spring an upset in the vast Northern Territory seat of Lingiari.

But at this stage, there’s a good chance the Nationals will finish up exactly where they started. That means their future as influential junior Coalition partner, and all that promised spending, lies in the hands of Liberal candidates in other parts of the country.

But many of those Liberals are finding that even the faintest whiff of Barnaby is enough to ward off voters.

This article was first published on Crikey and is republished here with permission.

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