When the New South Wales Nationals leader John Barilaro called for Malcolm Turnbull’s resignation last week, it was simple for Turnbull’s federal allies to dismiss it as just another distraction – just another frustrated voice howling into the empty air.
Barnaby Joyce and Matthias Corman said it was unhelpful and Julie bishop said that Barilaro was not in her party room, so it was irrelevant.
Turnbull himself accused Barilaro of sucking up to Turnbull’s old enemy, the shock jock Alan Jones. He is, he insists, enjoying himself, and while his smile may be becoming a bit strained, there is no hint that he intends to assuage the discontent.
But it is not as simple as that. There are ominous signs that Barilaro’s intervention may become a catalyst for an insurgency – not yet a fully formed rebellion, but a game breaker in what has become a political impasse.
Barilaro is not just another fringe dweller with his own pet peeve, as is the case with George Christensen, Wacka Williams, Andrew Broad or Barry O’Sullivan and the other part-time dissidents in the Nationals party room. He is mainstream, National heartland – a leader in his own state and one who demands attention across its borders.
And at a time when the Nats are feeling their oats, as it were, this can spell trouble. Mathias Corman, ever zealous to guard the Prime Minister’s constantly turned back, says that not to worry; once Barnaby Joyce rejoins the federal team stability will be restored.
But this may be wishful thinking. Even from his temporary exile in his New England electorate, Joyce mused that the incipient revolt over the banking inquiry might not be such a bad idea. He knows, better than anyone, that his troops want more independence, more clout – and, it follows, less Turnbull.
It is highly likely that they will demand bigger and more frequent concessions from his wafer-thin government, and an actual split from the coalition is not out of the question. Of course the Nats would guarantee confidence and supply – they do not want to wreck the place altogether, at least when there is still a chance they can retain the perks of office.
But they could well make government effectively unworkable, which would have much the same effect. And in doing so they could force the Libs to make a choice: Turnbull or the bush. Given that there are quite a few Libs who would welcome their current leader’s demise, the risks are very real.
So far Turnbull has held the line partly at least because there is no consensus for an alternative, but the Nats are ready to fill that gap: they are deeply suspicious of Scott Morrison and regard Julie Bishop as beyond the pale, but Peter Dutton, a hard line conservative and a Queenslander is regarded as an ally.
He may be unpopular with the electorate, but so is Turnbull – for the marginal Nats, the change could hardly be worse and just may be better, at least in holding their own seats. Barilaro, formerly a councilor in Queanbeyan, may seem an unlikely revolutionary, but weird times turn up weird warriors. Yet another worry for Turnbull before he tucks into his Point Piper Christmas pudding.