Digital Snapshot

by Katja Theodorakis

“That’s the Nature of Politics”? Australia’s Revolving Door Politics Offer a Snapshot of the Political Mood

A New Deputy PM: Leadership Spill Brings The Return of Barnaby Joyce

Digital Snapshot #18/21

1 July 2021

A potpourri of current affairs topics from Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific brought to you by KAS Australia and the Pacific. The weekly digital snapshot showcases selected media and think tank articles to provide a panorama view and analysis of the debate in these countries.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in these articles do not necessarily reflect KAS Australia’s position. Rather, they have been selected to present an overview of the various topics and perspectives which have been dominating the public and political debate in Australia and the Pacific region.

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It’s been an interesting, if not tumultuous 10 days in Australian politics: Australia has, since last week a new Deputy Prime Minister – a change that leaves the Coalition with its sixth ‘PM and deputy PM combination’ since 2013, when it came to power. Michael McCormack from the National Party – the Liberal Party’s Coalition partner which represents rural Australia – was ousted in a so-called ‘Leadership Spill’ in the party room and replaced as party leader (which automatically brings the position of Deputy PM) by Barnaby Joyce. Mr Joyce was forced to resign due to controversial actions as Deputy PM several years back.

The phenomenon of frequent leadership changes has become known as Australia’s revolving door policy, which is for obvious reasons not great for democratic stability and the electorate’s trust in its political leaders.

In Australian party politics, factions – as organized intra-party groupings –  not only reflect policy and ideological differences within political parties, but they also help distribute leadership positions. And they are said to have become more important than they used to be in Australia, which may also be part of the changing nature of representative democracy internationally, as one study concluded.

New rules have since been introduced in the Liberal Party, to guarantee more stability, but they do not apply to the junior Coalition partner. Now, two-thirds of the federal Liberal party room will need to support a leadership change, which is regarded as a near impossible threshold to reach.

Fights over party leadership (and hence the role of PM or Deputy PM) have been described as driven by a combination of personal ambitions, power struggles and policy issues. When the Liberal Party changed leaders over the past years, the arguments brought forward as a justification were framed as for ‘the greater good’: that the serving leader did not represent the party’s direction anymore and had hence lost popularity with the entire national electorate, not just a certain constituency.  

Expectedly, the Nationals’ internal politics are not exempt from power struggles and divisions over personalities as well as policy direction, with a particular tussle for “carving up fiefdoms for individual advancement” allegedly characterizing the Nationals party room over recent years. In this case, the leadership change seems to have had Barnaby Joyce’s desire to return to power as well as the issue of climate change at the core.

Upon his return, Barnaby Joyce was described as standing “alongside Rudd, Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison as a symbol of the strange ways that developed in Australia political life since 2007. Joyce seems only to indicate that Australia politics is still caught in the culture that emerged in the post-Howard era.”

The Implications

Mr Joyce’s appointment brought with it a Cabinet reshuffle that saw him push for key supporters to be promoted to the front bench.

Political observers right away remarked that the change to Barnaby Joyce would present challenges for PM Scott Morrison and the Liberal Party’s relations with their Coalition partner – in the already thorny areas of climate change and the government’s ‘treatment of women’. As one analysis bluntly described it, “it’s like the government has gone back in time. The Prime Minister’s head must be spinning. His efforts to re-position on climate change and win back women are threatened by the return of Joyce.”

  • Climate change and FTA with the EU

Political observers expect that under Mr Joyce’s leadership, the Nationals are likely to counter the drive within the Coalition towards moving away from non-renewable energy sources.

This is especially consequential when it comes to formalizing the net zero emissions target by 2050, which the Morrison government had pledged following substantial international (and also domestic) pressure. In particular after the G7+ summit, there are increasing global expectations on Australia to make good on its promise ahead of the global climate change summit COP in Glasgow later this year. This is seen as an uphill battle now due to the expected resistance of Mr Joyce and his backers – it is said his conservative stance was the key reason for his Party to put him forward as a replacement for Michael McCormack who was seen as ‘too close to Morrison’ on climate change for the Nationals’ rural constituency where economic well-being not only comes farming but is increasingly dependent on mining and gas companies.

Since Joyce’s return, Liberal MPs have been escalating calls for stronger action on climate change to counter the Nationals’ new leader. They are arguing that he should support farmers, which includes a focus on sustainability, rather than supporting a mining industry who naturally pressure against cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

If PM Morrison was not able to deliver on his pledge a net-zero target, Australia would be perceived as failing to address climate change. This is especially salient as Australia is in the process of negotiating a free trade agreement with the European Union – alongside the UK one, a deal expected to become increasingly more important amidst heightening tensions with China that are impacting the trade relations.

The FTA negotiations with the EU are advancing but have met some hurdles along the way – Australia’s climate policy being a key sticking point the EU is using as leverage. So if Australia does not fulfill its commitment in this area, Australian farmers could face higher costs to get their products into European market as Australian imports into the region would be slapped with new tariffs.

  • Stemming the tide of ‘cultural change’ on women’s treatment

Another area in which Barnaby Joyce’s return poses a challenge for the Liberal party is the “women’s agenda”. Mr Joyce’ was forced to resign as party leader due to serious concerns about the respectability of his actions and character in 2018. This included a credible (yet to this day unresolved) sexual harassment allegation (which he denied), and severe code-of-conduct issues: it emerged that the father of four had an extra-marital affair with his then- staffer which he kept secret from his wife, and was only forced to admit when it was revealed the staffer was pregnant (who is now his partner). Also in response to only a belated, and seemingly reluctant public apology, as the leader of a party representing traditional family values, Joyce was seen as having lost ‘moral authority’.

His return, and subsequent astounding appointment to a cabinet taskforce for women is especially tricky in a political culture that is under scrutiny for poor female representation, marked by “low levels of women in party rooms, and in lower houses particularly, practically and symbolically important as the chamber of government”. As one commentator put it, re-instituting Barnaby Joyce as Deputy PM “leaves the government again having to navigate a constituency that feels for too many years, men in power have failed to treat women appropriately.”

The Political Mood Surrounding the Barnaby Saga

The return of Joyce is representative of the fact that the nation’s stance on climate policy has long had a polarising effect on Australian communities and hence Australian governments. Recently released polling data confirms this, with the 2021 Lowy Institute’s Poll revealing that Australians are concerned about lagging leadership on climate policy and its reputational impacts for Australia. Six out of ten Australians think that the government is doing too little to combat climate change, while most support Australia’s engagement in international climate negotiations to address the issues.

These numbers will give Prime Minister Scott Morrison headwind as he is facing increasing international pressure to explicitly commit to climate action targets this year.

Poignantly, the so-called “Barnaby Saga” comes shortly after another national survey revealed Australia was undergoing a “political confidence crisis”. More than half of Australians agreed that corruption was commonplace, meaning they didn’t trust politicians to do the right thing by citizens. And while this percentage was strongly of the view that politicians should resign if they lie, the data has revealed they’re also resigned to the likelihood that lies would continue anyways, often without politicians being held accountable. Even more interestingly, on the topic of the so-called ‘bonk-ban’ – rules against relations between politicians and their staffers – which was the direct result of Mr Joyce’s affair, only 29 per cent were in favor of making politicians who have extra-marital affairs resign – following the survey numbers, resignation was reportedly only seen as necessary for politicians who had been corrupt or untruthful in the execution of their formal duties.

Having been described as a “flamboyant populist” and polarizing figure, Barnaby Joyce is seen as someone who will keep himself in the headlines and make Australian political life somewhat entertaining. He was able to return to the leadership with only a thin majority in his favor; however, as one commentator remarked, “the reality is the National Party is so dominant in many of the seats it holds that Joyce’s reputation in such matters doesn’t really matter.”

It appears, for better or for worse, we will have to settle with “entertaining” – if nothing else wins the vote. Such as when Mr Joyce claimed he helped The Nationals to embrace gender equality in ministerial appointments. After promoting formerly demoted colleague Bridget Mackenzie to the front bench, he said in an interview “You only have so many positions – we needed women back in the cabinet. Bridget’s there not because she’s a woman – but because she’s competent. But it certainly does on the policy front help us tick that box.”

The newly appointed Deputy Prime Minister was also fined $200 for not wearing a mask in regional New South Wales, following a tip-off to Crime Stoppers.

Revolving doors do go round and round so in a way they say maybe more about continuity than change.

The Barnaby Backstory – ‘blokeyness’, babies, and the bonk ban