Barnaby Joyce receives Rinehart prize for even worse judgement than Turnbull

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(Image by @TwoEyeHead)

Joyce clearly talks the agriculture talk and walks the mining walk as he receives the inaugural Gina Rinehart prize for even worse judgement than Turnbull, writes Ingrid Matthews

APOLOGIES, READERS. I am not actually obsessed with Barnaby Joyce. I usually do not give him much thought.

But something is rotten in the state of Australian politics and, right now, Joyce embodies everything about that.

Four months ago, on 26 July 2017, Barnaby Joyce told reporters:

"My grandmother is English. I'm working on the presumption I'm not English. I’ve never been to England." 

This statement was quickly exposed to be untrue and reported as a "gaffe", but it is more than that. How can anyone be so basic as to misspeak on whether he has been to England? It is a very long flight. Long service leave actually exists to accommodate the even longer sea journey. For generations, people of Joyce’s background have made pilgrimage there. England is the most romanticised of countries in the white Australian imagination.

In light of later developments, it seems likely Joyce became befuddled while frantically checking whether he was qualified to be elected or sit in the Australian Parliament under s44(i) of the Australia Constitution Act. Famously, despite having signed a form attesting to his eligibility, he was not.

Before the ink was dry on 'Re Joyce', news outlets cut to a picturesque lookout above Tamworth, where Barnaby was campaigning for re-election carrying out electoral duties. For days afterwards, Joyce was everywhere, spruiking his crass brand of Aussie white nationalism, which is as dangerous as its overt Trumpianism is overlooked.

But then he disappeared, suddenly as absent as he had been unavoidable. Rumours swirled. Kicked out of home, said some. A girlfriend; sexual harassment, said others. Rehab, went the speculation around Joyce’s fondness for beer. New England in lock-down, reported Independent Australia, from a largely deserted and unfriendly Tamworth shop front.

There was the empty chair behind his place-name at a Teachers Federation meet-the-candidates event, and there was where Joyce chose to be instead: in Canberra at a glittering Hancock Prospecting-branded dinner hosted by Gina Rinehart, where she handed him an envelope while awarding him the $40,000 inaugural "Champion of Agriculture" prize.

Like his inability to be honest about visiting England, Joyce apparently cannot perceive that accepting an envelope from a mining billionaire in front of scores of people with cameras is a fantastically terrible thing to do. His moral compass has not just stopped working; it is not right twice a day. His compass is magnetically corrupted — unfixable. Joyce may brush off disqualification from the Parliament with his boorish brand of buffoonery, but his clear incapacity to represent his constituency here was exposed for all to see.

What Barnaby did and what Barnaby did next

Every single story on the Agriculture Day dinner has footage of Joyce embracing Rinehart, Joyce posing for pictures with Rinehart. Joyce may yet be re-elected, if only on the circumstantial factors of a crowded field and largely unknown contenders, but Rinehart has done him no favours.

The key facts are these.

Rinehart inherited Hancock Prospecting from her father, a racist eugenicist who advocated forced chemical sterilisation of Aboriginal people. Rinehart reportedly worshipped him. She is "sorry" the dinner and award were "used" by Joyce’s political opponents.

This was the "inaugural" award, so whoever makes the decision to allocate $40,000 of Hancock money to a National Agricultural Day prize came up with it this year.

Joyce gave an acceptance speech.

He said:

"Bloody oath. I’m obviously very humbled … all I can think about now is the things I’m going to do on my own farm …"

This shows a clear intention and can only give the lie to his subsequent retraction.

He also said:

"Agriculture. Mining. We’re the people who put money on the table."

Now, I know Joyce tends to blur and slur, and bluster and bumble. But, like his decision to accept that envelope – like his decision to sign a declaration shown to be false, like proclaiming he has never been to England – this rhetoric is a window into his thoughts. Mining and agriculture compete for water resources. Open cut mining and fracking destroy the country, poison the earth, crack riverbeds, place aquifers at risk.

And as for "money on the table" when presumably he meant food … I mean, talk about Freudian slippage. Joyce clearly talks the agriculture talk and walks the mining walk.

As revealing as his ill-judged acceptance speech is the frantic back-peddling.

This tweet on the Joyce Twitter account implicitly denies wrongdoing:

When Joyce says he was "surprised to receive" the novelty cheque and "did not take any cheque from the event", he slides past the envelope he did receive, which Rinehart put in his hand. When he says "as soon as office hours resumed", he took "immediate action to politely decline any acceptance", he slides past the fact that, right there on the night, while hobnobbing with a billionaire miner outside of office hours, he made an acceptance speech.

This signal dishonesty is what I call the time machine technique. It is evident when a person who has been caught out shifts the relevant timeframe retrospectively, to exonerate themselves without appearing to lie.

Bring on the by-election

All that is predictable enough, at least to those of us who would not vote for Barnaby Joyce in a decade of Sundays. But there is a barometer of confusion in the National Farmers Federation response. In a tweet featured in most news stories, President Fiona Simson is not pleased that the NFF was "not consulted".

She echoes Joyce’s "surprise" at the $40,000 "presentation". Her timeline is also peculiarly contradictory. Simson shared tweets expressing anger at the award, yet when former local member Tony Windsor let his disapproval be known, Simson was defensive.

Of Gina Rinehart, Simson said: 

"It was her dinner. Her money and partners. She’s a farmer."

This may seem baffling, but a little background sheds some light. At the 2015 Breeza Harvest Festival, I interviewed people about community resistance to the Shenhua Watermark coal mines. Simson took the stage alongside Windsor and Red Chief Land Council custodians. (Jacqui Lambie was there too. She got a rock star welcome.) This display of unity belied the most palpable feeling among old-school farmers, which was a sense of betrayal by the National Party.

These people are loyal, yes, but they have also prospered handsomely from the political patronage of their men in Canberra. Their prosperity is not necessarily threatened: many could retire and die rich by accepting mining company offers for their water licences and land. Rather, the threat is existential. If mining buys up all the farmland, they lose their identity, their usefulness, their connection to country. (My research on farmers and First Peoples’ resistance is available here).

The farming lobby has quite the high wire act to perform, generally, let alone during a by-election which threatens majority Coalition Government and that lucrative political patronage to which agriculture is accustomed. Whether enough locals desert the National Party for an upset result is debatable, but either way, the inaugural Champion of Agriculture prize is another nail in its credibility coffin.

Ingrid Matthews travelled to Gunnedah, Breeza, and Coonabarabran as a researcher with Linköping University. Ingrid is a sessional academic who teaches law and human rights. You can follow her on Twitter at @iMusing or via her blog oecomuse.

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