Cross-posted from The Australian today:
WITH wife Natalie by his side, Barnaby Joyce will take a deep breath today and leap off the political cliff that is their New England.
It will complete his audacious journey from outsider to contender for the leadership of the Nationals and the second-most powerful job in the land.
Barring an upset of epic proportions, the man who made his name by crossing the floor of the Senate* to vote with his conscience, who swore that the trappings of high office would never be for him, will be preselected to run for the lower house of parliament, in a new state, against the MP who was instrumental in forging the “new paradigm” of minority government with the Labor Party. This is all or bust for Senator Joyce, 45, the opposition spokesman on regional development, local government and water, and leader of the Nationals in the Senate.
Assuming he is preselected, he will resign from the Senate by the time writs are issued for the September 14 election, midway through his six-year term.
If he goes on to win the seat of New England for the Nationals, and the Coalition comes up trumps in the general poll, Barnaby Joyce MP will be a mover and shaker in Tony Abbott’s new government, a leader in waiting for his party and potential deputy prime minister.
Yes, it’s a lot to get the head around. But so is the progress of the once-maverick Senator Joyce, as his life and career turn full circle to where it all began for him, on the northern tablelands of NSW. He was born in New England, was schooled there, played rugby for the district and wooed his wife, believing that his future lay in farming the land, not running the country.
It’s the place he left in 1994 to start over in Queensland after his parents demanded that he make the impossible choice between them and the woman he loved.
And it’s where his anticipated struggle with the powerfully entrenched independent Tony Windsor, buttressed by what should be an impregnable margin of 21 per cent, will be one of the most keenly watched match-ups when Australians go to the polls next spring.
“This is where I’m from,” Senator Joyce says, as he noses through the evening traffic in Tamworth in his dusty Land Cruiser, with Natalie and their 13-year-old daughter, Caroline, in the back fiddling with an iPod.
“I was born in the hospital here, Nat was born in the hospital here, Caroline was born in the hospital here and our three other girls were born here. Our parents live in the electorate. What more can I say?”
If he is labouring the point, it is because it’s sensitive. The battle lines have already been drawn in his anticipated head-to-head against Mr Windsor, with the four-term federal MP branding the Nationals man as “second-choice Joyce”, a dig at his past interest in the bush seat of Maranoa in southwest Queensland, as well as the sacking by the Nationals of their original candidate for New England, Richard Torbay.
Senator Joyce is acutely aware that his local connections are under scrutiny. But if Mr Windsor was trying to suggest he was some sort of “blow-in”, then, Senator Joyce retorted, he had better explain why he “sold out” his conservative-leaning electorate and backed Julia Gillard to retain power after the inconclusive 2010 election.
“I’m not saying it’s going to be a walk in the park – I’m not naive,” Senator Joyce said of the challenge of winning back what was once a crown jewel for the Nationals. “This is going to be incredibly hard and I think if Tony hadn’t supported … the Green-Labor Party-independents alliance then it would be a suicide mission.
“But he did … every day he has been there, he has kept them there, in power. Every decision of this government he must stand behind because it is a government he is part of.”
Despite a personal approach from The Weekend Australian and follow-up calls to his office, Mr Windsor did not make himself available to be interviewed. He crossed paths fleetingly with Senator Joyce on Wednesday, in full campaign mode, at a regional development forum in Armidale. They shook hands and exchanged a brief, seemingly cordial word.
First order of business for Senator Joyce is today’s preselection at West Tamworth Leagues Club, in the heart of the state seat Mr Windsor represented before jumping to federal parliament in 2001 at the expense of the Nationals.
Up to 150 branch members are expected to vote. The only other candidate, software entrepreneur David Gregory, 34, said he would like to think the result would be close “but, seriously, I’ve got no idea what the numbers are”.
Unabashed, Senator Joyce insisted the endorsement was in the bag. “I think faux modesty is conceit, so I’m not going to say it’s going to be tight,” he said. “I will win the preselection.”
The circumstances in which he and Natalie left New England all those years ago are a poignant but little-known counterpoint to the high-stakes politics. The couple met at university in Armidale, the other population centre in the electorate. She was studying arts while up-for-a-beer Joycie fitted his accountancy course around rugby commitments. First impressions didn’t work for her.
When he asked her out by the fountain outside the Armidale Ex-Services Club, where they pitched up together on Wednesday, she thought she would give him a chance. “I’ve been following him around for years and there is no point stopping now,” Natalie, now 43, explained.
Her family lived near the town of Manilla, north of Tamworth. Young Barnaby hailed from Danglemah, on the range east of the town. For him, university was a “last hurrah” before he settled down to working full-time on his parents’ property. When they realised that marriage was on the cards, they gave him an ultimatum: it was the farm or Natalie.
(In 2005, the newly elected Senator Joyce told this reporter that his parents were worried about what would happen if the couple divorced and carved up the property.)
It didn’t take him long to make the decision, estranging him from his parents. In 1994, he landed a job with the then Queensland Industry Development Corporation to run its branch in St George, which became the couple’s new home, 550km west of Brisbane.
The arrival of their four girls eventually thawed relations, but it took years. The subject is still touchy for the reunited family. Natalie politely closed down the discussion, saying: “We are way past that … things are good.”
Her husband agreed. “Things are better, and that’s where you like to live.”
Defeating Mr Windsor – assuming he recontests the seat, which, as local journalists point out, he is yet to confirm – will be the biggest challenge of Senator Joyce’s career.
In 2010, Mr Windsor increased his base vote by five percentage points, gaining 62 per cent of the primary count and an astonishing 71.5 per cent after preferences.
But his unwavering support for the Prime Minister has hit his local standing. An automated poll by ReachTEL last August had Mr Windsor badly trailing Mr Torbay, the former state independent MP and mayor of Armidale, who is now under investigation by the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption, amid reports that he accepted $50,000 from the Obeid family, a claim this week rejected by patriarch and former Labor powerbroker Eddie Obeid.
Internal polling conducted by the Nationals before Mr Torbay’s stunning exit last month also put him ahead of Mr Windsor, but by a margin of less than five points, The Weekend Australian understands.
Armidale Mayor Jim Maher, a former lecturer in politics at the University of New England, believes the uproar over Mr Torbay will favour Mr Windsor. Dr Maher tipped Mr Windsor to take the seat in 2001, and believes he will hold out against Senator Joyce’s star power. The non-aligned Mayor of Tamworth, Col Murray, agrees.
Senator Joyce accepts that he is taking a heavy risk in taking on Mr Windsor, 62. There is no plan B if he loses; the Queensland Liberal National Party would have already filled the casual Senate vacancy, and there was no question that he could or would be reinstated.
“I think I will be in a world of trouble if I don’t get up here,” Senator Joyce said.
Typically, he professed to have no second thoughts about the move. Staying in the Senate was not an option.
“One would presume on the current polling that the Coalition will win the election, in which case I can see very quickly that if I stayed in the Senate I would get pushed into a position where I have … to cross the floor, because that’s what a senator’s supposed to do,” he said.
If he does win New England, restoring to the Nationals a seat that was held by one-time party leader and Fraser government minister Ian Sinclair for 35 years, Senator Joyce has pledged he will never challenge his leader, Warren Truss, despite Mr Truss’s relatively low public profile.
“I’ve had these discussions with Warren and what I’ve said to Warren, I’ll say to you: as long as he is there, I will back him,” Senator Joyce said.
“He’s a good bloke doing a good job and I understand when people say they see more of me in the media, and that’s fine, but that’s not what blows Warren’s hair back.”
He would not be drawn on speculation that Mr Truss, 64, would be prepared to stand aside for him after a term as deputy prime minister if the Coalition won the election.
For my part, the Big Question is this.
Has nearly eight years spent swimming in the steaming, fetid cesspool of Australian politics seared Barnaby’s conscience … or will he again vote according to the supreme sovereignty of Conscience, in the CFZ of the lower house of Parliament?
* Barnaby crossed the floor 19 times from July 2005 through to the end of the Howard government era in 2007.
UPDATE: Barnaby wins preselection to contest the seat of New England –
Senator Joyce acknowledged running for New England would be a risk for his political career.
“Why do I take a risk of my career in New England?” Senator Joyce said.
“Because we’ve got to do something about this.
“We all know that the country just cannot go on like this – it’s got to turn around.”