The return of Barnaby Joyce to the leadership of the National Party and the Deputy Prime Ministership has been somewhat awkward for the Liberal Party. It is puzzling however that the Labor Opposition has not managed to make the Coalition Government more uncomfortable.
Satirist Sammy J. in his Playground Politics series has given a full rendering of the controversies around Barnaby Joyce’s career in his reading of ‘The Very Hungry Barnaby’. Apart from the issues so beloved of tabloid media such as Joyce’s clash with international celebrities about their dogs, Joyce’s return to the Nationals’ leadership has been greeted as a sign that backbenchers have been unhappy with the way that the majority of Liberals have failed to notice rural objections to climate change measures. Surely, any objective observer would conclude that such discontent is fanciful. The Liberals have been pleased to be seen as climate change deniers rather than radical innovators.
Nationals MPs will have had their personal reasons for reinstating Joyce. Perhaps predecessor Michael McCormack did not live up to their expectations, especially in relating to the Morrison Government. You would like to think that they have been unimpressed with some of McCormack’s more bizarre statements, such as the charge that anyone who did not support Coalition policy on coal mining at the last election should “get off the grid”. It is more likely that career ambitions, settling old scores and angling for promotion were the main considerations.
Several prominent rural women including at least one Nationals backbencher expressed fears that Joyce’s return could alienate female voters. Joyce famously left his wife and children after an affair with a staffer which led to her bearing his baby. While this in itself might be a personal matter, Joyce’s apparent inconsistency in preaching family values and opposing marriage equality and access to abortions has alienated many women.
Allegations of sexual harassment by a couple of prominent female Nationals have been unresolved. Joyce denies the allegations and has been given the benefit of the doubt by those Nationals who supported his return to the leadership. Presumption of innocence has become a prominent catchcry in Coalition circles lately, extending even to a staffer Brittany Higgins accused of raping her in the office of a minister.
Politically, Labor’s direct criticism of Joyce’s return has centred on the likelihood that he will replace McCormack on a committee addressing women’s workplace safety. This criticism seems perfectly justified. The Prime Minister should be able to replace Joyce without too much embarrassment while leaving him in the role offers the Opposition a vulnerable target. What is surprising however is that no pressure has been placed on either the Minister for Women or the Minister for Women’s Safety to at least express a reaction to Joyce’s return. While it is likely that the Ministers would avoid the question and make the usual meaningless ‘motherhood’ statements about how the government cares about women, such statements would at least provide some evidence for critics.
Back in the early 1990s, an exhibition in the parliament had for its title ‘Trust the Women’. The exhibition and a book by Ann Millar with a similar title explored the struggle for female suffrage a century earlier. While presumption of innocence is an important legal principle, as a political ethic it is antiquated and spurious. Sometimes, leaders must make political judgements that can seem unjust to individuals in order to provide community healing. Regardless of whether charges against Joyce were accepted by internal National party inquiries, the prime minister has
a broader responsibility to show that the government trusts women. If he chooses to ignore the allegations of sexual harassment made by female National Party members, the message to Australian women is appallingly negative.
By returning Barnaby Joyce to the party leadership the Nationals no doubt wanted the prime minister to realise that he can expect their views to be more strongly represented than they were under Mr McCormack. Perhaps they were not aware of the difficulty they were creating for the government’s relations with Australian women. Could they have been so naive?