McCormack elected Nationals leader as Barnaby 'rests' on the back bench

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Cartoon by Mark David / @mdavidcartoons.

Barnaby Joyce is not dead; he is just resting on the backbench. Michael McCormack will have to accept that Barnaby is the power behind the throne, waiting to usurp him when the time is right.

That time might be after the next election, although if the Nationals begin to slide in the polls, Member for New England Joyce could well be the next Lazarus – not with a triple bypass but a quadruple bypass in his case – well before then.

New Nationals Leader McCormack’s "leadership" interview last week was execrable. His reign could be quite short, especially given Joyce’s popularity among many in regional and rural areas. 

So how is it that such a bumptious bumpkin like Joyce could hold so much power? Let’s start with a simple electoral fact. Malcolm Turnbull won the 2016 election basically because the Nationals held their vote, unlike the Liberals who lost 3.3% of theirs.  

Although there is a complexity to this argument, the Nationals picked up a seat; the Liberals lost 13. This enables Barnaby to argue he is the reason the Coalition formed government — although this may well not be the case, at least according to William Howe from Crikey.

Barnaby, like Trump, is incompetent. Barnaby, like Trump, oversaw a corrupt system. Barnaby, like Trump, is an alleged sexual harasser. Barnaby, like Trump, is the outsider who is really an insider. Joyce rules for the 1%. This last fact "trumps" all the others. Sincerity — if you can fake that you’ve got it made.'  

That is why Joyce appears to be such a good politician, "the best retail politician in the country", according to former PM Tony Abbott. Abbott, of course, is the man who was dumped from leadership because in power he was a disastrous retail politician. He could not sell the shit sandwiches that were his neoliberal policies. Neither can Turnbull.

Joyce can sell shit sandwiches, in part, because his constituency is different to Abbott’s and Turnbull’s. It is the 1% in the rural and regional areas — miners and big farmers, for example. Joyce’s good friend, Gina Rinehart, is the classic example of both.

Of course, the 1% in rural and regional Australia are still a small minority. The middle class there – small businesses, managers, accountants and so on – are (as a gross generalisation and recognising differences in each electorate) more conservative than in urban areas. In part, this is because the working class in rural and regional areas is even less class-conscious than its big city sisters and brothers. This inaction almost inevitably sees the middle-class drift to the right.

This lack of any real class struggle, left-wing alternative on the ground may also help explain the rise of the middle class, potentially fascist One Nation on a diet of racism, racism and more racism. Oh, and climate change denialism, plus a history of supporting the Turnbull Government’s attacks on workers.

This conservatism may also be because some of the agricultural and most of the mining industries are export dependent and have been at the forefront of the free trade, let-the-market-rip policies of the Nationals and Liberals. The reality of economic individualism fits well into the political individualism painted by the conservatives.

The Nationals can pork barrel for their constituents. They do. Joyce’s apparently self-improving inland railway is an example of that, as is his move of part of his former agriculture department, the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority, to Armidale in his electorate. The move has been disastrous. However, for many of his constituents, this stupidity appears as yet another example of him fighting for "his" people.

In this way, to some extent, the Nationals can give the appearance of divorcing themselves from their own Government, a Government imposing neoliberal policies that attack poor people and workers, including many farmers. Of course, the decline of sections of regional and rural Australia after the collapse of the mining boom means that that reality conflicts with the appearance the Nationals want to give, in throwing a few scraps from the table of capital to their constituents.

Malcolm Turnbull arrives back from glad-handing Donald Trump today. Unfortunately, smarming up to the Smarmer-in-Chief hasn’t worked for Turnbull.

For example, Trump’s economic isolationism (part of the furphy of "Make America Great Again") means he may well impose tariffs on Australian steel and aluminium. The main target is China, but Australian exports could be collateral damage. There was no indication from the meeting that Trump’s previous commitment to exempt Australian imports would be honoured — just the opposite.

Turnbull’s mind will be on other things as well. He now has the 2013 Election (dream?) team of Abbott and Joyce sitting on the backbench. Abbott is playing mischief, most recently on immigration. Joyce used to be an "independent thinker", although his desire to return to the leadership – and unlike Abbott – his possibility of doing so, at least until the sexual harassment complaint is finalised, means he will be a team player, publicly. Behind the scenes, he will be positioning himself to return to the leadership.

Turnbull has big issues to address. Trying to sell the lie of the trickle-down of the $65 billion in tax cuts for business to a sceptical electorate is but one of them. As living standards for most Australians stagnate or fall, inequality increases and work becomes more precarious, any story from the likes of Morrison and Turnbull that shovelling more money to big business will solve the problems of workers is laughable — and the way to electoral Armageddon.

Just as bad from the point of capital is the fact that the Turnbull Government cannot get all their attacks on the poor and workers through the Parliament.

That is the challenge for capital in Australia today — to find someone who can sell the lie of neoliberalism, which is essentially a set of policies aimed at restoring profit rates to a doubting audience. With the latest Sky News poll at 54% for Labor compared to 46% for the Liberals and Nationals, two-party preferred, clearly, the current gang are not capable of doing that.

Barnaby Joyce is the symptom, not the disease. As the right disintegrates into internecine irrelevance, the task for the left remains to fight them industrially and politically for a better world. I can see the storm coming.

Read more by John Passant on his website En Passant or follow him on Twitter @JohnPassantSigned copies of John's first book of poetry, Songs for the Band Unformed (Ginninderra Press 2016), are available for purchase from the IA store HERE.

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