Politics

The Barnaby Affair: Are the Liberals up to making him go?

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(Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons)

Tensions between the Liberals and Nationals over the Barnaby Joyce sex scandal have destabilised the Australian Government, writes Dr Lee Duffield, who says the historical record shows it’s nothing new.

THE LIBERAL PARTY have made it plain obvious they want Barnaby Joyce out as leader of their partner party, the Nationals. They now have to face the question: why keep the Coalition going if they despise the man so much?

As Labor front-bencher Anthony Albanese said on Thursday, the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull:

“... doesn’t have confidence in his own Deputy and doesn’t seem to have the wit to work out how to do anything about it?”

PRECEDENT IN HISTORY

Not so 50 years ago this month, when the elastic-sided boot was on the other foot and the then leader of the Country Party (later re-named National Party), John McEwen, made it public he would not continue in Coalition with the Liberals if one William McMahon became its leader.

Prime Minister Harold Holt had drowned in the surf, but heir apparent McMahon was seen as too much of a free-trader – a neo-con – while McEwen, the farmer, was hard in favour of tariff protection and campaigned against “dumping” of overseas produced goods at low prices in Australia. He thought of McMahon, morally, as a poor kind of man — as a chronic leaker of Government business to journalists.

We also heard, in grubby whispers, he was influenced by the rumours about McMahon being gay, a story famously junked in that vernacular exclamation from McMahon’s wife Sonia:

“Bill’s not a homo!”

The National Party in those days were all for “conservative values”, no exemptions for sexual licence of any kind, even for party leaders.

WHERE’S THE DIGNITY?

National Party Members of Parliament this time have been put on the spot. They want to stay in the Coalition Government, but in the electorate folks will be asking: What kind of people lead this National Party? What kind of people are its MPs and its card-carrying members? What kind of people vote for them? What dignity do they have?

The pressure on the Nationals – both MPs and the rank and file – comes in two parts: the scandal surrounding a staff member becoming pregnant with his child has made Barnaby Joyce an electoral liability and, at another level, many party members, as “socially conservative” country people, just don’t like that sort of thing.

The episode is as if intended to revive old-time attitudes and traditions of the National Party predecessor – the Country Party – and the bush communities that sustained it.   

Being in a conclave with several Party folks present, you might be told of a disdain for “peasants” in the ranks. It is firstly a reference to the small size of somebody’s agricultural property. It also may reflect a concern, from rich graziers through to respectable family farmers not to be made to look like hillbillies. You can get away with all sorts of things in a country town but, in the middle term at least, you have to keep an eye on your reputation.

The pitch will be that Joyce has been an honourable man, a political hard-hitter and an effective campaigner, but he has let his guard down.

He has been photographed too many times with glass in hand, signalling that, if not a booze-artist himself, then a man too comfortable in a boozy culture. Even with a life on the land, where a big thirst gets a cold beer and the stockmen get their rum, public figures, especially in bible-belt parts of the country, need to watch themselves drinking.

Adding-in any kind of sex scandal would be dangerous, regardless what understanding and tolerance exists in the community, especially with questions now asked about “jobs-for-the-girl” and public travel expenses.

There is a marginal handicap also for Joyce in being a Catholic. That is not just because of the conflict around adultery and faith and morals. It is because, with the beer and now a woman, among the more narrow and unforgiving in his own support base, wherever he hails from he’ll be an “Irish type”.

THEN AND NOW

Maybe this involves too much looking back at the past to try and read the situation of this politician among his party members in Australia today. He might hope to benefit from more tolerant, less austere and authoritarian ways of thought. He might hope there is not too much nostalgic hankering for old-time respectability in the leadership. How did they do it in times past?

Wind back the clock a short time – once more by 50 years – when the Country Party Premier of Queensland, GF “Honest Frank” Nicklin, called in one of his Ministers and sacked him from the Ministry for fooling around with a young woman employed in his office.

It did not matter that the man was Liberal Party, not one of Frank’s own boys from the bush.

HONEST FRANK TAKES ACTION

Frank being Old School, tee-total, old values, apart from thinking the Minister and the young woman in question were there just to do their work for the government, did not approve of adultery or even pre-marital sex, and definitely would not brook sexual harassment.

The Minister in question complained he had been falsely accused by departmental officers of having kissed and in other ways touched two employees — but out he went. 

Stories did the rounds that the Premier had acted after one girl’s father went in to see him about it, that the actual touching had occurred somewhere around the top of the Ministerial desk (rumours always have that one) and so on.

BJELKE-PETERSEN AND OTHER LEADERS PAST

With the National Party strong in Queensland the State leader of the Party gets maximum attention.

Joh Bjelke-Petersen came in, in 1968, rivalling Honest Frank with his own reputation for straight-lacedness, which easily side-stepped a few challenges. There would be a vicious story wholesaled around. but never aired, about some Jim Crow exploitative sexual goings-on in Bjelke’s youth, on the old family farm. At one time, they suggested him having a tryst with a female employee while on tour using the government jet — not believed.

Very early in his premiership, the Party had him sharing a beer with some blokes, for the cameras, until Allen Callaghan came on as press secretary and ordered up a different persona, closer to the man’s actual type. He had a religious faith, in the context of attending a Lutheran Church, designed to repress – at least in regards to drugs and sex – and that’s what made him as a private being.

In public life, as is universally known, Bjelke-Petersen could be fairly classed as a real mongrel: prone to bigotry, anti-democratic with his gerrymandering and intolerance of dissent, discriminatory in attitude and policy against Indigenous Queenslanders, a censor, incubator of official corruption, including widespread criminalisation among police, and on, and on.

But here is the conclusion for the week: he was no drinker and not an adulterer, which was how his own people liked him. He was "Country Party". 

Among Country Party (later National Party) leaders at national level, JD (“Doug”) Anthony, as Deputy Prime Minister, had a reputation among journalists for living up to his wholesome barnyard image. There was never any trouble with Anthony looking around for female company while out of the country, unlike one or two of his close senior colleagues. His successor, Ian Sinclair, got into some embarrassing legal proceedings in the late 1970s that demanded opening of personal accounts and the disclosure of provision for a lady friend. It was another take on being "old school": extra discreet, definitely private business, no government funding involved.

Times change and so do attitudes in the political community; the question right now is: how much?

Dr Lee Duffield is a former ABC foreign correspondent, political journalist and academic.

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