Absent even the drover's dog, Barnaby snags the Nats leadership unopposed

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Absent even the drover's dog (apologies to Bill Hayden), the clownish Barnaby Joyce seized the leadership of the Nats unopposed and, to an astonished public, became our new deputy prime minister. David Tyler reports.

IT'S OFFICIAL, Barnaby Joyce will soon be only a heart-beat away from being Prime Minister.

What is going on? What went wrong with the rumoured Liberal plan to keep Wokka on the payroll until after Turnbull got back in?

Will Barnaby even be re-elected, given Tony Windsor's threat to nominate as an independent who would at least represent his electorate and not sell out local farmers' by giving their water to Shenhua mining?

Is Barnaby the best man to arrest the National's slow but inexorable shuffle into extinction?

As news of Joyce's anointment as Nationals Leader filtered out Thursday, a mob of LNP loyalists in the ABC rushed to put a positive spin on the member for New England's elevation, occasioned neither by merit nor popularity but by old bull Warren Truss's retirement. Rumours of a challenge proved unfounded and no-one outside the Nationals could explain the process of acclamation or herd instinct which gave Barn the nod in the end.

One thing is certain. A Barnaby explanation is unlikely to help.

ABC TV news showed an image of Joyce and Turnbull in profile in the Canberra afternoon sun, hayseed and spiv picking their way across press cables in the grounds of parliament house. It was not a reassuring image; not an election-winning look.

The pair are at best an odd couple but many in MSM were keen to give the marriage of convenience a boost. Few bothered to note the different religions of the pro-foreign investment PM and his new keep the bastards out agrarian socialist deputy. It can't last and it won't work.

A few, such as Bernard Keane foresee disaster. With Robb's resignation, Turnbull will lack capable and experienced hands on deck. An embattled PM will have to contend, moreover, with a deputy who is a maverick on fiscal policy and foreign investment. Tony Abbott had to drop him after four months as shadow finance minister. Joyce seemed set on playing the role of fiscal village idiot. Debt was so huge, he once alleged that Australia would soon default on its foreign debt. Just what you need, really, in an aspiring deputy PM.

Someone on ABC's The Drum gushed that Joyce would certainly get the Nat's brand “out there”, whatever that may be, in an echo of the Liberal mantra. Bugger policy, just get the message out. No-one, however, would quibble with the “out there”. Another thought Barnaby said what he thought, unwittingly identifying his Achilles heel.

Joyce's cringeworthy grandstand over Johnny Depp's dogs has clearly worked well for him in some quarters. “Bugger off back to America” certainly has a ring about it.

Who knows? “We decide whose dogs come into this country” could be an election winner in the way that a similar slogan worked for John Howard after the Tampa crisis. The country's been barking mad on migration since.

Hilarious! John Oliver on Barnaby and Depp's dogs

Dubious claims and dog-whistling aside, what seems clear is that the Nationals are now packaged on MSM as a kind of circus who merit a cheer for giving us Joyce, a favourite clown, an outspoken but amiable and benign buffoon, who will entertain us as a celebrity in the razzle-dazzle Luna Park of our national politics. Soft focus; no hard stuff. Jokey blokey.

Little space is made so far in the popular imagination for the real Barnaby whose unabashed populism, loose grasp of fiscal policy and capacity to shoot from the lip could well and truly cruel the Coalition's chances in the next election. Now he's got the job, let's not over think the selection process.

Can Barnaby handle his responsibilities? So far, most of these would appear to be well beyond him. Veteran cat herder as he may be in the national's cupboard of a party room, with big Wokka as backup, he may now have to muster a whole coalition or front the despatch box while his PM is overseas innovating, posing for photographs with soldiers or selling off more of the farm, as befits any hot-eyed zealot of the cargo cult of free trade deals, the Liberals' new evangelical religion.

ABC Media Watch: Is Barnaby Joyce a LOONEY?

With Wokka out to pasture, the new bull will need to do the mysterious things Nats do in the name of leading the party. His critics say he has neither the discipline nor the character. Voting, it seems, is rare, but somehow consensus is forged. Perhaps it’s a young-bull, old-bull tussle.

Even here, while Barnaby has the seniority and the scars to prove it, he may struggle a bit to exert authority given his unpopularity and his volatility. At least there's only ten of them in parliament to contend with.

While Barnaby's struggle to be boss of his party mirrors, something of the same in Toff's Corner between Malcolm and the many Liberals who can't stand the man, his need for approval may also gee up his populist anti-foreign investment and debt rhetoric, heedless of its effect on the economy. Some of these are as well-presented and enlightened as his views on the climate.

“Look … I just… I’m always sceptical of the idea that the way that anybody’s going to change the climate – and I’m driving in this morning and we’re driving through a frost – is with bureaucrats and taxes. All that does is … it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. I make you feel guilty so I can get your money and put it in my pocket and send reports backwards and forth to one another.”

Dear old Barnaby, the sheep-wrangling syntax mangler, has some funny old views on a whole range of issues. He's a cheerful climate change denialist who opposes same sex marriage because a diamond is not like a square. He warned us in 2010 of approaching economic Armageddon. Carbon tax, he notoriously claimed, would kill sheep farming.

“It’ll be the end of our sheep industry. I don’t think your working mothers are going to be very happy when they’re paying over $100 for a roast."

Joyce is also capable of picking a fight in court, such as when in October last year he accused Tony Windsor of profiteering out of selling property to Shenhua. Windsor threatened to sue.

But let's not laugh at Barnaby. It's too easy to rubbish the Nationals as an historical atavism, a party which has long since lost its relevance, party in terminal decline. Small in numbers it may be, but those numbers matter to the Liberals. Let's remember that in 2010, without his leadership of the revolt against the carbon tax, Tony Abbott would never have seized the leadership from Malcolm Turnbull. 

Chances are, the way things are lining up, Barnaby could well be the Bill Shorten for PM camp's best ally.

You can follow David Tyler on Twitter @urbanwronski.

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