In one of those strange twists of politics, Nationals Senate leader Barnaby Joyce’s ambition to switch to the lower House at this election, which had been apparently thwarted, could now be fulfilled.
Joyce had earlier hoped to move to the safe Nationals seat of Maranoa in his home state of Queensland. But this was frustrated when its veteran member Bruce Scott refused to budge. Faced with the prospect of fighting Scott in a preselection, Joyce backed off, earning points with colleagues for not causing his party unwanted trouble.
Meanwhile in New South Wales, the Nationals patted themselves on the back for recruiting state independent Richard Torbay to take on independent Tony Windsor in New England. Torbay, whose seat overlaps the federal electorate, looked to be the ideal candidate – well respected and well known.
It all turned sour this week. The revelation that Torbay, a one-time member of the ALP, had been helped in his early political career by the now notorious Eddie Obeid, was then followed by a statement from the Nationals on Tuesday that information – which they declined to disclose – had come to their attention which led to Torbay being dropped as a candidate and asked to quit the party he so recently joined. The Nationals are staying mum about the nature of this information. Leader Warren Truss said today he did not know it.
Joyce, who grew up in the New England area, immediately flagged he wanted to stand for the seat. The New South Wales Nats have to give the tick off.
In a nice irony, when searching for a candidate to take on Windsor the Nationals tested the names of both Torbay and Joyce, and found Joyce less popular in the area. It turned out to be one of those instances when research backfired.
While Joyce’s move would be a blow to the Nationals in Queensland, where his high profile is a vote magnet, he would be a formidable opponent for Windsor in a seat that was traditionally National party (formerly held by a Nationals leader Ian Sinclair).
For Joyce, running in New England would carry risk. Windsor is as canny a politician as you will find. He has used his balance of power position not just to become a national figure but to extract a lot of goodies for his area.
But in a conservative area, many locals have been critical of Windsor for backing the Gillard government, rather than swinging his weight behind Tony Abbott, of whom he is a bitter critic.
Windsor, who would cast Joyce as the blow in, is considered a tougher candidate for the Nationals to beat than his fellow country independent Rob Oakeshott. But if Joyce secured the seat, it would become safe for him – not too many independents like Windsor come along.
Earlier there was speculation that Windsor, 62, might retire at this election. He seems, however, to be relishing the prospect of the battle ahead. Today he was attacking Joyce’s “lust for power”.
But Joyce, who aspires to lead the Nationals and become deputy prime minister, has also shown he understands the value of some patience when it comes to the pursuit of power. If Joyce gets into the House of Representatives, he would be seeking to position himself as the successor to Truss rather than trying to wrest the leadership from him, which he would not have the support to do anyway. Entering the House at this election is vital for that positioning; if he was forced to wait three years, Joyce would be disadvantaged vis-a-vis others who have an eye to future leadership of the Nationals.
One of Joyce’s challenges would be his relationship with the Liberals, with whom he is often combative – such as over the issue of foreign investment. He gets on well personally with Tony Abbott. But 'dry' Liberals, and sometimes even the much less dry Abbott himself, look askance at Joyce’s populism, with its dash of agrarian socialism.
Michelle Grattan does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.