19 April 2011

Barnaby's calculations

I feel the change comin'
I feel the wind blow
I feel brave and daring!
I feel my blood flow

- Barry Manilow Weekend in New England

Barnaby Joyce will not run against Tony Windsor in New England. It's too risky for him, the very prospect is just bluff. He wants to run in Maranoa, the electorate where his home base is, and he's letting local Nationals know that he won't just wait for the good old sitting member to step down.

Joyce was born and raised in New England, but so what? Gillard was born overseas and raised in Adelaide but represents a safe seat in Melbourne, Kevin Rudd and Wayne Swan wouldn't have been elected if either had run for election from Nambour, and John Howard came from a multicultural Labor-voting part of Sydney that would not have sustained his political ambitions. Tony Windsor won more than 70% of the vote in 2010, a rock of certainty for his community in a shifting political landscape, and if an election were held today it is no certainty that Joyce would win. A National will only beat Windsor if a Coalition government is a near certainty, and today the situation is so fluid only partisans would claim that. Windsor is in a much stronger position than Tamworth independent Peter Draper; talk that he might retire would evaporate if Joyce were the Nationals candidate.

Even if Joyce ran and won, he would have to work and work that electorate to stay ahead of strong, community-based local politicians: to defeat Windsor is not to defeat the whole idea of local representatives who can work effectively with anyone, or the reality of such people at the local level in northwestern NSW. Barnaby Joyce could be an effective local member in New England - but he didn't go into politics just to be a local member. He would be able to build a base among local Nationals (he'd need it to fend off rivals), but support for him would always be shallow and fraught with locals who'd fancy their own chances. There are plenty of families in Walcha with more clout than the Joyces.

Barnaby Joyce built his accounting business, his political base and his family life in St George, Queensland. The farming around St George is irrigation-based; in New England it's pastoral, which in Nationals terms is chalk and cheese. St George is in the electorate of Maranoa, a safe Country Party/Nationals seat since 1943 and held since 1990 by Bruce Scott. Scott was a junior minister in the Howard government and is unlikely to be a heavy-hitter in a future Coalition government. Joyce might reasonably expect to not only be a senior figure in the next Coalition government, but also that he would be the next Nationals MP for Maranoa. Even Scott might expect that, but Scott may feel that he has more to offer and not be ready to hand over to Joyce in just two years.

Joyce could do what they do in the ALP - front Scott and tell him he's finished, then barnstorm Maranoa and the LNP to knock Scott off his perch. For the Nationals that would be unutterably vulgar. The Nationals are not the ALP, however, and as a former Queensland Nationals President Scott can play the intra-party game. If Joyce got ahead of himself the party organisation would freeze him out, knowing that he wouldn't have what it takes to build an independent platform like Windsor or Pauline Hanson.

From the Queensland Nationals perspective, Joyce should wait: going into the House at 49 or even 52 would not be unusual for a Nat, but Joyce won't and can't wait. This is his moment and he might expect he has a way to go yet - but not if he cools his heels in the Senate, fobbed off by a second-rater like Bruce Scott.

To have power is to have options. Joyce claims that he has the option to switch to New England, leaving any post-Scott succession plan for Maranoa in tatters. Maranoa lacks both the lush pastures of the Darling Downs and the mineral riches of further north; economically and demographically (the two factors that matter in politics), it's a backwater. Joyce can pitch himself as a politician with real presence and clout on the national political stage, with power that can be brought to bear for Maranoa were he the local member. Scott can't offer that. His options are essentially negative - diminishing Joyce without offering much himself.

If Scott hangs on too long and drives Barnaby off to far Tamworth, the region's future is bleak in terms of making themselves heard in Canberra and other centres of national power. No one who could replace Scott could build the sort of political profile for Maranoa that Joyce has today. Scott has the option to hang around, but that option can be taken from him if that was believed to go against the interests of the region and the party. If he plays it right, Joyce will have the options and Scott will have none - Joyce will have the seat of Maranoa and an enhancement to his power, an enhancement all the greater if he can defeat Scott without having to fight him.

Barnaby Joyce is 44. Tony Windsor is 60. Bruce Scott is 67. When the next election is due two years from now, those men (like all of us) will be two years older.

Joyce is participating in intra-party maneuverings, but he's not projecting the full force of his attack onto his fellow Nationals. He could go the ALP, but he does that all the time anyway. He could go the Liberals, but he has to work with Tony Abbott. He did the maverick thing as Shadow Minister for Finance last year, but the big-city smarties in the Libs and Labor isolated him and made him look like a buffoon. At a time when Wilkie, Crook, Katter and Oakeshott might be persuaded to put the Coalition in power, he'd be mad to play up Coalition divisions for his own benefit. Joyce is more effective as a team player.

His most obvious target is Windsor. Attacking Windsor unites Nationals and Liberals. Windsor is right to disdain him as a rival, and not to make Joyce appear like some conqueror free to roam the landscape as he pleases looking for plunder. The real targets, however, are the LNP executive who are fond of good old Bruce, and the Nationals in Maranoa. Joyce would be an effective MP for Maranoa while Scott is just an old man who's already had a good go. If Joyce plays his cards right, Joyce has prospects and Scott doesn't; if he doesn't play his cards right, both men are finished. Windsor will look after himself and is a separate issue.

New England is a gambit for Joyce, not the main game. People who fancy themselves as knowing a bit about politics, who sit around Canberra and presume to report on it, have no right to take Joyce at face value. They have no grounds to assume that political conflict is inherently interesting: it's a turn-off to both politics and media. Standard journalistic practice doesn't help here, either. They should know enough to recognise that posturing and verbiage is not enough, however much it might suffice their lazy and dull-witted editors. A journalist worth their salt would go after the real story rather than just splice a few press releases and concoct a story that is obviously too fragile to survive a volatile political environment all the way to 2013.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for your insightful comments. More depth and analysis of Joyce is to be found here than on the pages of the nation's newspapers.