Most of the leadership speculation this year has been about Malcolm Turnbull. He has now lost 25 Newspolls in row, his judgement was called into question over the way he handled the energy debate, the citizenship saga and the backflip on the banking royal commission. But he finishes the year on high winning two by-elections and seeing the issue of same sex marriage now resolved.
However now it appears after the Cabinet reshuffle that it Liberal’s Coalition partner the Nationals that have been plunged into internal chaos. This was after the dumping of Nationals Cabinet Minister for Infrastructure Darren Chester. It was made clear by both Turnbull and Chester himself that this was at the behest of Deputy Prime Minister and Nationals Leader Barnaby Joyce who will now take on Chester’s portfolio of Infrastructure.
The official reason given for the dumping of Chester was one of solely geography. Since newly elected Deputy Nationals Leader Senator Bridget McKenzie had to be put into Cabinet who was from Victoria, her position had to be at the expense of another Victorian which was Darren Chester.
However, it has been widely speculated that this decision was payback for the fact that Darren Chester had done the numbers for Bridget McKenzie in the National’s Deputy Leadership ballot over Joyce’s preferred choice of deputy Queensland Senator Matt Canavan.
Bridget McKenzie on Sky News today dismissed the geography reason by pointing out that the Nationals’ sole North Territory representative Nigel Scullin is also a Cabinet Minister. It didn’t bother Barnaby Joyce previously that his Deputy Fiona Nash was like him from New South Wales.
Added to this apparent act of political vengeance was that David Littleproud a Queensland Nationals MP was catapulted straight into Cabinet as Agriculture Minister from the backbench despite only being elected to parliament at the 2016 federal election. His only claim to fame recently was being one of the four MPs who voted no on same sex marriage in the House.
Another Nationals MP who was demoted Keith Pitt it has reported that he is considering quitting the Nationals and sitting on the crossbench. In his statement released today he did not rule that out.
One would have thought that Barnaby Joyce having had to recently contest a by-election due to holding New Zealand citizenship would have returned to parliament being a bit more humble. But he has just undertaken an act of extreme political brutality which has turned the reshuffle which is supposed to be a positive news story into a political firestorm.
It has brought into question Barnaby Joyce judgement and could in the near future lead to leadership speculation. Despite the perception that he is embodiment of the National Party base he is actually not that well respected. He is seen as being too close to Malcolm Turnbull and unresponsive to the rural vote flocking to other parties such as One Nation and Katter’s Australian Party.
Given that Barnaby Joyce didn’t get his pick for Deputy Leader it is not out of the question he could lose the leadership in a potential partyroom spill. Nationals Senator John Williams didn’t even rule out the possibility that Darren Chester could himself rise again from the backbench to claim the leadership in the future. The National Party’s last leadership spill was in 1989 when long time leader Ian Sinclair was rolled by 38-year-old Charles Blunt so there is a precedent for this possibility.
The drama of the past 24 hours has been all Barnaby Joyce’s making and exposed tensions in the National Party which nobody even knew existed until now. He has certainly returned to parliament with a bang, but it seems not with the same political prudence.