Public Malcolm and Kiwi Barnaby's perplexing Pilliga purchase: It's a gas!

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Deputy PM Barnaby Joyce is very keen to open up Australia's gas reserves (Image via @Thefinnigans)

Malcolm Turnbull's push to open up gas fields in NSW has again drawn into question Barnaby Joyce's odd purchase of "mongrel" country in the Pilliga, writes Ingrid Matthews.

IS THERE anything less edifying in the Australian political landscape than pointless prime ministerial press conferences? Flanked by men as hapless and hopeless as he, oozing pompous paternalism, gravely pronouncing on respectful debate, or successful multiculturalism, on terrorism and more terrorism, or energy "security" (by which he means – or ought to mean – energy supply).

Many in the parliamentary press corps insist that Turnbull is, deep down, better than his Blackout Bill bullshit. But there is no real evidence to support this claim. In contrast, there is ample footage – and policy failures – to conclude that the Prime Minister really is as petty and inept as he appears. Presumably, those who cling to the notion that Turnbull is smart and able, while masquerading as weak and compromised, know him in some capacity other than his public persona. But so what? Political leadership, by definition, occurs in the public sphere.

Turnbull apologists may measure him against some private standard to which we are not privy, but Private Malcolm is irrelevant, because Public Malcolm is Prime Minister Malcolm. That is how the Fourth Estate works in a democracy and public interest obligations require journalists be alert to these basic of institutional arrangements.

Anyway, where were we?

Ah yes, the mess of Australian energy policy in a climate-catastrophe world. Turnbull kicked off this week by conceding that his ill-conceived adventurism into the state and territory policy jurisdiction of power supply has failed. This concession came by way of calling for Victoria to reverse its fracking ban and for NSW to expedite fracking approvals.

Turns out – hold on to your hats – that asking energy CEOs to stop maximising profits is a completely ineffective energy policy.

Whether Turnbull intended to get a result, or was merely going through the motions, is not entirely clear. What is increasingly clear, however, is that the position of his deputy is manifestly untenable.

The many conflicts of Barnaby Joyce

At this latest energy policy presser, the Prime Minister specifically referred to a coal seam gas project in the Pilliga region of Gamilaraay Gomeroi country. This was a typically ill-judged Turnbullism, unless he is trolling the Nationals leader, which is possible. Turnbull has long had form on trolling women and, just last week, he trolled the whole scientific community by following more CSIRO funding cuts with a space agency announcement.

Either way, his reference to the Narrabri gas project opened up media space (again) for Barnaby Joyce’s 1,000 hectares in the Narrabri Shire to be reported as news. These land purchases go back to at least 2006, as detailed by Independent Australia here:

It should go without saying – but never can – that the lands to which Joyce has obtained title are sacred ground. Like every inch of this country, it is home and life source to many thousands of generations, to ancestors, traditional custodians, and descendants, to First Peoples who never ceded territory or sovereignty.

The coal seam gas protest in the Pilliga is a continuation of Gamilaraay Gomeroi resistance to colonisation, to defend country from (further) toxic destruction. Mainstream messages tend to focus more on farmers’ and food bowls, but the local Pilliga Push is led by local First Peoples for the protection of land and waters, for the good of all, on a continuum of time, sovereign rights and ongoing ancestral obligations to country.

White locals, meanwhile, call the Joyce properties "mongrel" or "goanna" country. This obnoxious conflation of mixed-breed dog with sacred totem is emblematic of colonial disregard. Joyce himself, who plays up his country credentials and claims great affinity to the land, told 2GB radio “there's nothing for me to earn from it”.

I felt sick reading that quote — and I am white.  He has unfettered access to the soil, to every tree and creek and rock, and calls it "nothing".

The question that remains is: why outlay $572,000 for this "nothing"? One theory is the land would be subject to compulsory acquisition for inland rail at some future time. The reason Joyce gave to Fairfax is he “came from the land and [wants] to go back to the land after politics”. The more credible explanation is that coal gas seams run beneath the earth — seams that may or may not be fracked by companies which were chaired by Joyce’s friend, colleague and predecessor John Anderson during the purchase period.

It is this conflict that Turnbull, by accident or design, has raised again. Meanwhile, the gas presser also prompted questions on the "gas trigger", or Australian Domestic Gas Supply Mechanism, established on 1 July this year by the Federal Government to regulate domestic/export gas distribution. Executive power to "pull the trigger" is vested in the Resources Minister.

This is a significant power, one that should be scrupulously free of any whiff of conflict or corruption.

Yet when former Resources Minister and Nationals Senator Matt Canavan resigned from Cabinet over his Italian citizenship, he posted on social media that it

'... has been such an honour to represent the Australian mining sector over the past year.'

If Canavan’s brazen confusion is bad, Joyce’s appointment to acting Resources Minister is arguably worse. Turned out Joyce was also a dual citizen (he has since renounced), via his New Zealander father. Of the seven MPs potentially disqualified by s44(i) of the Australian Constitution, six are (or were) senators.

But Joyce sits in the House of Representatives. His breach carries the highest stakes because the government has only a one-seat majority and so he continues to hold the positions of Minister for Agriculture, for Northern Australia and for Water Resources. He is Deputy Prime Minister and Nationals leader and was acting prime minister when Turnbull attended the Pacific Islands Forum last month (which even prompted a rebuke in government cheer sheet The Australian).

In his capacity as Minister for Water Resources, Joyce has been criticized for appointing a biased nominee to the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. On his watch, ABC investigative flagship Four Corners exposed that the public “are effectively subsidising already wealthy agricultural interests” via water buy-backs intended for the river being “stolen” by irrigators. All this continues while the legal fact of his dual citizenship at the relevant time is conceded by Joyce himself.

We can assume Joyce is preparing for a by-election (given past process) and he can probably win. But that does not change the conflicted impropriety of concurrently holding six very powerful positions. Nor, for that matter, does it change the crass impropriety of Turnbull shouting at the High Court on future constitutional decisions from the floor of the parliament.

So where was Joyce when the Prime Minister pointlessly and impotently chastised the states on their fracking policies? Where was he when Turnbull was threatening industry with the "gas trigger" — a discretionary power of a potentially (at least) conflicted acting Resources Minister Joyce? While the Water Ministry is tainted by (at least) apprehended bias?

Turnbull was asked, of course. His response reveals everything we need to know about a government desperately trying to hold on to power while pretending to sort out its mess of a power policy: “Mr Joyce,” it was reported, “was attending to duties in his electorate”.

Ingrid Matthews is a sessional academic who teaches law and human rights. She visited Coonabarabran, Gunnedah and the Pilliga Push camp as a field researcher with Linköping University over three trips from October to December 2015. You can follow Ingrid on Twitter at @iMusing or via her blog oecomuse

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