05 November 2017

The choice of Joyce

But look, oh look, the Gothic tree’s on fire
with blown galahs, and fuming with wild wings.
The hard inquiring wind strikes to the bone and whines division.

- Judith Wright For New England
The press gallery seems to be of one mind that Barnaby Joyce will win the New England byelection handily on December 2. Tony Windsor isn't running, PHON and ShooFiFa aren't running, therefore Joyce will win it in a canter, won't he?

Joyce has an excellent ground operation, the envy of any party. At the last election we saw money was no object; Joyce started his political career as the champion of Cubbie Station, and ever since he's had more sympathy for those who breach their water allocations than you might expect from the leader of the farmers' party. He's cultivated a beautiful friendship with Gina Rinehart. Those who say Joyce will win easily have a point: surely on the night of December 2 they'll simply weigh Nationals votes rather than count them, and that he's good for at least 70 percent of first preferences, surely?

I'm not so sure. Joyce is no longer a fresh face in a promising government. He is not a powerful member of a stable government that is racking up substantial achievements. Election campaigns often end differently to the way they start, and experienced press gallery journalists should know this.

This isn't simple contrariness against the gallery. To be fair to them, I'm not exactly the go-to guy for political predictions - but then again, when I said Tony Abbott would never be Prime Minister, I was closer to the mark than those who assumed he was good enough to become Prime Minister. On the same basis, I reckon any victory Joyce wins in New England will be pyrrhic.

Strong and stable

Joyce's central offering to the people of New England is that he is Deputy Prime Minister in a stable Coalition government. He spent the first couple of days of the byelection campaign sledging unnamed detractors from within that same government; strong people do not do this, they dismiss their detractors. Since then we've seen the President of the Senate and the Minister for Energy experience similar doubts over their nationality as that which put Joyce into the position he is in now.

Electricity infrastructure in New England has not been gold-plated. Coal-fired power still comes from the Hunter and from Queensland, and its cost to New England customers is rising as it is for the rest of us. It isn't only hippies who are installing solar in the hope of boosting reliability and cutting costs over time. If you don't blame Joyce for making the price and reliability of power worse, then you can't claim that he is doing much to make things better.

The position in Manus now, under this government, is similar to that point in the Gillard government where boatloads of asylum seekers were crashing against the rocks of Christmas Island. Remember Michael Keenan and Joe Hockey coming over all teary at that? They are the same people pooh-poohing the men on Manus Island digging for water while coming down off anti-depressants. It goes way beyond a bad look. A policy has failed when it ends up at this point, and so have the ministers responsible for it - and Barnaby Joyce has been one of those ministers.

This isn't to say Manus is a hot-button issue in New England right now, but it does go to the competence of the government and Joyce's place within it. It does mean that other political actors have scope to exploit the gap between what good government should look like, and what Barnaby's offering. The status quo, steady-as-she-goes approach isn't the elixir that the lazy press gallery thinks it is.

Old-fashioned journalism

He's the last of the backslappin', have-a-beer politicians - well, the last you'll find above municipal level. Some journalists have to hunt for their stories, but the press gallery love nothing better than dusting off a cliche, painting by numbers and then flicking it at the public. They'll be looking forward to writing those same stories from the pubs of New England - particularly where Joyce is the main act and not a sideshow in a multi-faceted, continental general election. It will be interesting to see if Joyce gets sick of them, or if he discloses some tidbit too tempting not to share.

Another cliche is the idea that people - rustics, particularly - are so bedazzled by promises of public largesse that they auction their vote the highest bidder. It's hard to imagine more largesse than that promised by Shenhua in its various explorations into the Liverpool Plains, or the similar proposals for the Pilliga. It doesn't quite work out like that. Joyce is stuck between those locals who like both places as they are, and the whiny drone of the economic vandal: "business confidence". NSW Mineral Resources Minister Don Harwin has almost nobbled the Liverpool Plains proposal, but any decision (including none) would have put Joyce in a difficult position. Mining companies were all very well when they were lobbying for non-farming land, but now that they're after the prime stuff it's all a bit Faustian for everyone's mate Barnaby.

The advent of social media and the weaponisation of polling this century saw the end of taxi-driver journalism. Journalists would hire taxis and represent the driver's patter as The Voice Of The Common Man, warping all coverage of political and social issues around half-baked impressions gained from reading tabloids and listening to gruntback radio. If you have ever wondered how Ray Hadley got to be like that, look back at taxi-driver journalism and wonder no more. When you hear journalists praising old-fashioned shoe-leather journalism, part of what they mean is plonking their arses in the back of Ray Hadley's taxi, switching on the tape recorder, and letting their stories write themselves. The only practitioners of taxi-driver journalism these days are press gallery journalists, long cut off from - dare one describe it thus - the mainstream of traditional media offices.

They'll miss the stories that are both more interesting and more telling. You don't have to pretend that warmed-over cliches are valuable and worth supporting.

Tamworth, Tamworth, Tamworth

Tamworth's airport is over-engineered for a town of its size. The airport was designed half a century ago to accept the biggest aircraft of that time, the Boeing 727. The idea was not to facilitate junkets from Canberra, or even the annual spike in tourism for the Country Music Festival. Tamworth airport was designed to support high-value agricultural exports by aircraft, where food could depart New England in the morning and then be consumed that evening in Asian cities.

Despite several free trade agreements endorsed by the Cabinet of which Joyce was a member, that dream is no closer to reality than it was in the 1970s, when Joyce and I were growing up in that area. Contrast this with the Wellcamp airport west of Toowoomba, which went from conception to execution within the past decade and which handles the sort of cargo (including from northern NSW) promised but rarely delivered from Tamworth airport.

If you ask Barnaby Joyce about Tamworth airport and its potential, he will offer a generous helping of word-salad that the equally ignorant press gallery will accept and pass on without demur or examination. It will also show how disconnected government policy is from actual economic development in this area, not to mention the value-free and valueless practice of press gallery stenography.

During byelections, press gallery journalists gingerly venture forth beyond those concentric roads around the building from which they operate and afflict the people beset by the candidates and flyers in those communities that in Canberra are just are names on maps. In the New England byelection, taxi-driver journalism is concentrated on Tamworth. Tamworth is the biggest town in New England, with regular air connections to Sydney (not many 727s on that route any more, but never mind). It's easy to blow in to Tamworth, squawking and flapping with the tape recorder, and get back to the city without having to bunk down in a local motel. However, there are two main problems with this as quality information: 1) towns within New England like Quirindi, Uralla, or Inverell aren't suburbs of Tamworth, with distinctions that matter for those who understand the subtleties of rural communities; and 2) a review of voting records shows that Tamworth's polling booths are particularly strong for the Country/NCP/Nationals.

If you want to reinforce your preconceived notion that Barnaby is returning to Canberra as a formality, go to Tamworth and get a full dose of it. Senior press gallery journos have done exactly this, from almost every media outlet represented in the gallery, which again utterly defeats laws and other measures designed to foster media diversity. Every gallery outlet but the ABC has closed its regional and suburban outlets, making coverage of this community with nuance and depth impossible. As I've said, you don't have to pretend that warmed-over cliches are valuable and worth supporting.

For a short time, Tamworth turned away from the Nationals to send Tony Windsor to state and federal parliament. The Gillard government's abrupt ban of live cattle exports to Indonesia hit Tamworth's meatworks hard. Tamworth did not get the benefit from the NBN that Armidale got. Then again, when Tony Abbott became Prime Minister, Windsor's difficult choice became understandable. The vote against Windsor in 2016 was a vote against this difficult and aberrant part of Tamworth's history and a return to the National status quo; it may negate his ability to shift the Nationals vote in future contests. His absence from this byelection hardly negates Tamworth's history as strong Nationals turf.

A careless man

Barnaby Joyce once drove a government vehicle through floodwater, barely escaping with his life and writing off the vehicle. Most rural people, and some in the cities, rightly regard people who drive through floodwaters as idiots.

There is no evidence Joyce has learned anything from that. He spent more than $600,000 on refitting offices in New England. He toyed with the lives of public servants and the effectiveness of an agency vital to Australian agriculture by shifting its offices. He promised a white paper (a comprehensive policy document) on Australian agriculture that shows no evidence of in-depth, long-term consideration, and which failed to even consider that changes to the climate might affect agriculture. His blustering approach to his own citizenship has forced a byelection on his electorate that need not have been necessary: when Jackie Kelly did something similar in Lindsay in 1996, the press gallery lectured her for foolishness and the waste of public money arising from it.

Joyce is careless with matters of public trust, and with public moneys. People recognise this and will vote accordingly. The survival of the Turnbull government, however, depends upon the foregoing not being the case, or being overlooked.

Sunday, 3 December 2017

Both Joyce and the government of which he's part are on the nose. The press gallery believe both that a) Joyce has some sort of magic on the campaign trail, and b) the government has been behind in the polls; but they have not concluded and dare not consider that c) New England voters will mark Joyce and the government down on December 2.

Having blithely assumed that Joyce would return to Canberra, reinforced with a quick fly-by through Tamworth, press gallery journos will be at a loss to explain why Joyce will not be returning to Canberra with a thumping majority. They will assert their expertise in matters political nonetheless.


  1. I am staggered people up there seem happy to vote in a re-election ( not a by-election) for a man too lazy to figure what he had to do to be an MP, not only that but slagged off people who were caught out.

    We won't be doing that in Bennelong I'm telling you

  2. Returning to your article after Joyce's "triumph." It's a real pity he didn't have a strong, well resourced or at least well known opponent. But Joyce's decisions in the government reshuffle suggest that you were right about a pyrrhic victory Andrew.
    Rais, Perth.