We’ve ridden Barnaby’s boom bust cycle before. God knows what’s to come

It’s been a week where problems broke containment lines.

Sydney battled its scary coronavirus outbreak, locking down local government areas by Friday. In Canberra, Barnaby Joyce managed to barge his way back to the deputy prime ministership despite the best blocking efforts of his opponents.

We’ll get to Covid, but let’s begin with Joyce.

My exceptionally clever London colleague Marina Hyde once christened Boris Johnson “Britain’s id”. If you aren’t au fait with Freud’s psychoanalytic theories of the id, the ego and the super ego, please activate your favourite search engine, and then resume reading.

While you do that, I’ll anoint Barnaby Joyce – Australia’s id.

Given the essential qualities, the Joycesurrection began in characteristic fashion. On Monday morning the would-be deputy prime minister told the media there was “no prospect of a spill at this point in time” – which of course meant the leadership spill was on like Donkey Kong.

By lunchtime, Joyce was back in the top job.

Needless to say, chaos ensued.

The reboot accelerated with Nationals picking a fight on water they had zero prospect of winning. This heartwarming saga began in the Senate on Wednesday when Nationals blindsided their Liberal colleagues by introducing amendments to a government bill to reduce environmental flows under the Murray-Darling Basin plan.

Just for the record, the egregious legislation requiring urgent amendments was actually brought forward by the water minister, Keith Pitt, who was a Queensland National, managing the water portfolio in the Morrison government – at least at the time of publication.

I say at the time of publication because people say Bridget McKenzie wants Pitt’s water portfolio – hence the flags running up flagpoles in the Senate, which is McKenzie’s chamber.

In any case, on the Nationals went, bagging their own legislation. The Liberals were having none of it, so the uprising was crushed in the Senate.

The whole circus then shifted to the House of Representatives, where the Nationals’ whip, Damian Drum, had another go at amending Pitt’s legislation. Drum’s talking points asserted South Australia didn’t need fresh water, because (wait for it) “rising sea levels will mean the SA lower lakes system will not need environmental water”. So things were deeply weird.

But the bathos was heightened by two factors. Firstly, Pitt, the responsible minister, was in the chamber spectating as Drum, his party colleague, moved amendments to his legislation. Secondly, McKenzie had escaped her own chamber and was sitting up in one of the visitors galleries in the House of Representatives, shouting encouragement down at Drum.

As you do.

If you are on the gantry during an elimination challenge on MasterChef.

Less often in the Australian parliament, it must be said.

Now we arrive at Peter Dutton. Dutton has managed the House for Scott Morrison since Christian Porter ran aground.

Dutton spent the week of The Triumphant Return™ shepherding Joyce, given Morrison was stuck in quarantine at The Lodge. Dutton laboured without fuss, adopting the methodical air of an emergency services worker clearing a china shop of breakable items before a bewildered rampaging bull rushes in the door.

In this spirit, during the water debate, Dutton moved that Drum’s amendments were out of order. The House Speaker, Tony Smith, backed in Dutton, effectively binning the amendments.

But Smith then invited the House to dissent from his ruling if the chamber so inclined. As it happened, Labor was so inclined. The manager of opposition business, Tony Burke, told the chamber he was moving dissent in the Speaker’s ruling not because he had any quarrel with Smith, but to facilitate the water debate Drum had demanded.

At this point Drum promptly reversed ferret.

Just so we are clear about the sequence, Drum, by this point, had been grandstanding on the floor of the House (with McKenzie as Greek chorus) for the best part of an hour.

But to explain his sudden volte-face, the Nationals whip declared with great piety he would not be party to this “grandstanding” by the Labor party. He would not be having the debate he initiated.

It was left to Anthony Albanese to sum up events. The Labor leader said if Drum now wanted to fight for the right not to speak – “then so be it”.

“That’s the modern National party.”

It’s important to lay out this whole sequence to understand just how bonkers things get when adults snatch lollipops out of each other’s hands and perform atomic wedgies on one another in the parliament of Australia.

But I confess I’m also confused, at the substantive level, why Nationals would pretend to pick a fight with the Liberals, and each other, about water, during a year of good rain. Water is a politically explosive issue for the National party all along the Murray-Darling Basin, so why hang a spotlight over this particular issue in a year when things are looking better on the ground?

And why would you stage a public fight on an issue that really matters to your base in the full knowledge that you lose the argument? Don’t you just look impotent?

My questions here are somewhat rhetorical, because this genre of performance art isn’t about facts, or logic.

It is about the vibe.

Joyce’s currency as a political leader isn’t coherence. It’s cultural affinity.

Having grown up in Joyce’s stamping ground of New England, I’ve seen the cult of Barnaby. I’ve talked to constituents who are rusted on Joyce backers because he is one of them, he looks like them, he speaks like them, he articulates their view of the world.

It doesn’t seem to matter to these voters that Tony Windsor (the king-making independent who held the seat before Joyce) delivered tangible bounty to the electorate during the 43rd parliament.

Actual stuff. While Windsor was one of those parliamentarians wired to see the future and lean in, extracting benefits for his constituents on the way through, Joyce doesn’t challenge the people he seeks to represent.

He mirrors them. Joyce is the 50-something every-bloke, battling to shore up his economic status, and his white male privilege, against the forces of change.

That’s his pitch: if you look like me, I am you.

Joyce works in the parts of the country that he works in because he’s a relatable character, certainly not to everyone, but to some voters. I’m sure he believes his redemption story (I’m now a “better person”) enhances his relatability rather than detracts from it. Whether he delivers anything tangible or not doesn’t seem to matter to the cohort of voters that are happy to be mirrored.

There are risks though, and they are significant.

Joyce might well work for the coalition in central Queensland, where the government needs to hold seats, and the Hunter Valley, where the government wants to win seats (and Joel Fitzgibbon, the lionhearted Labor member for Hunter, was evidently worried enough this week to scamper to Ray Hadley to disassociate himself from Labor’s refusal to fund carbon capture and storage through renewable energy agencies).

But it is entirely possible that Australia’s id could blow either himself, or the government, to smithereens.

This is hardly conjecture. We’ve all ridden Barnaby’s boom bust cycle before, and God knows what’s to come. Apart from that “God knows” factor, Joyce is also polarising, and the problem with base whisperers is they can activate and motivate political opponents who might otherwise sit things out.

Let’s get ourselves back to Covid, which is where we started. This week, as Sydney rolled into dangerous times, federal politics was reduced to a political circus.

It really was appalling. In the middle of a crisis, Australian voters don’t need government by impulse, and what we witnessed this week was a complete collapse of common purpose in the governing Liberal and National parties.

Morrison can’t afford roiling, chaotic posturing and self-indulgence to be layered on a growing (and entirely reasonable) controversy about his government’s failure to roll out the coronavirus vaccination program in timely fashion, and the government’s failure to provide sufficient dedicated quarantine facilities.

The story of the government’s first year of pandemic management was, broadly, a competence story. But right at the moment, the year-two story is dominated by themes of incompetence and missed opportunity.

If the Nationals add to that noise, Morrison faces political peril.

For a harbinger of this, we can look to America. Donald Trump was a cultural affinity politician who thought that quality, along with incumbency, rendered him bulletproof in uncertain times. But Trump’s election rebuff demonstrates that competence, and the appearance of competence and steadiness, still matters.

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