Don’t do it! Joyce declares war on independents

It explains what often seems so inexplicable to many in southern states, where Joyce is largely absent this campaign. He readily admits they don’t like him down there. But in the Hunter and in Queensland, Joyce taps into deep and ongoing resistance against a rapid rush to decarbonisation while reluctantly acknowledging the broader need to act.

It explains why neither side of politics wants to make this an election about net zero, even Joyce, who knows it will only damage the chances of Liberals in big-city seats. But he can’t ignore it either: Queensland has too many seats in play, and where the issue is still – despite more than a decade-and-a-half of climate wars – deeply polarizing.

The 2022 wombat trail

Even though the Coalition and Labor are both signed up to net zero by 2050, it’s not a promise that wins many friends in the north, where jobs and livelihoods are still very much seen to be linked to coal and gas.

At every stop – during three days this week in which the Financial Review joined Joyce on the “Wombat Trail”, as the National Party leader’s federal election campaign is known – Joyce’s stump speech reminds voters where the nation’s bread is buttered. From the revenue earned through resources exports. It’s how the country affords the imported cars, imported clothes and imported fuel it needs.

It can sometimes feel like a radical line, given it comes from a National Party leader’s lips, as it reminds Australians that they don’t make much any more. But it’s also true. Plus federal and state government budgets depend on those export royalties and taxes.

Greens leader Adam Bandt’s call this week to slug coal exporters with a new levy is manna from heaven for Joyce. Not quite a Bob-Brown-Adani-Convoy sized target, but not too far off either.

Greens leader Adam Bandt has called for a new levy on coal exporters. AAP

“Every time you hear someone talk about shutting down an export industry”, Joyce tells a gathering of older LNP members in the north Brisbane seat of Longman, “think: ‘that’s my pension’.”

Joyce’s campaign is targeted at retaining the LNP’s 23 seats in Queensland (of the state’s total 30 seats), while targeting new ground in the Northern Territory seat of Lingiari, Hunter in NSW, and even Liberal seats like Longman and Blair – a Labor seat that takes in Ipswich and where Joyce visited on Thursday.

The National Party is also defending Nicholls, in central Victoria, against a strong independent candidate running on water policy who has tapped into anger that Joyce is only interested in mining seats rather than old-school country politics.

That’s left the Wombat Trail tracing a well-worn route between the Northern Territory, central Queensland and the Hunter Valley.

Unlike Wombat Trails of the past – such as the late Tim Fisher’s 1998 campaign, which this correspondent covered for 10 days – today’s version flies mostly beneath the radar of big-name media brands. Only a handful have funded the cost of joining the trail in the opening weeks, including The Australian Financial ReviewAAP and Sky.

It’s also bleakly obvious, compared the coverage Fisher’s Wombat Trail could generate 24 years ago, that local media has become dangerously weakened. In Mallee, in northwest Victoria on Tuesday, the deputy PM’s press conference had no television crews in attendance. Some have dubbed the Wombat Trail in 2022 the Bermuda Triangle.

But that does not mean it is not working. Far from it. Indeed, the whispers from inside the machine suggest the numbers across Queensland are looking strong, particularly in Flynn and Capricornia, which Labor are targeting.

What helps is that Joyce has a far simpler goal than the prime minister: to deliver the National Party’s side of the Coalition bargain by holding Queensland and potentially adding to the tally across the north. Each one of those wins, should they happen, would make it harder for Labor to find the net seven seats Anthony Albanese needs to win the lodge.

All of which has many inside the Coalition furious at this week’s antics by Matt Canavan, who turned the media spotlight onto net zero in earnest by declaring the government’s target dead.

Nationals senator Matt Canavan who turned the media spotlight onto net zero in earnest this week. Alex Ellinghausen

On Tuesday, Joyce slapped down Canavan’s suggestion that hydrogen hubs – one of the more popular elements of the Coalition’s “technology-driven” plan for lower emissions – saying they were an essential way to create alternatives to coal jobs.

While Canavan’s views on net zero are hardly news, their effect on southern Liberal MP’s campaigns has resembled one of those next generation light anti-tank weapons that have become so deadly for Russian tanks in Ukraine.

What galls most for Liberals and the Prime Minister is the sense that they bent over backwards to accommodate Joyce on net zero ahead of last year’s UN climate conference in Glasgow by handing huge slabs of cash to the National Party – creating, some might say, a huge Barnaby Bank. Certainly, he’s been using it, doling out largess on a daily basis across regional and rural Australia.

Independent threat

Joyce is also deeply aware of the dangers posed by Canavan, who was unrepentant this week, telling the Financial Reviewin effect, that it was not his job to worry about inner-city Liberal voters considering defections to independents.

A big tension in this election is that Canavan’s antics are raising the likelihood of independents winning in Sydney and Melbourne – which Joyce says would be a far worse fate for the nation than a Labor win.

As we sit at a table in the Caboolture Sport Club, Joyce warms to a theme he’s been hammering all week: the “selfish” and “polarizing” consequence of a parliament dominated by independents. Particularly, if they end up decapitating the moderate wing of the Liberal Party, which would be the case if they take out Josh Frydenberg in Kooyong, David Sharma in Wentworth and a slew of others, like Tim Wilson in Goldstein and Trent Zimmerman in North Sydney .

Joyce predicts this election will see Labor “relinquish” its remaining “peri-urban and blue-collar seats”. The rest of Australia will be more-or-less “status quo”, which means, he says, this election will be determined by the voters of Australia’s wealthiest electorates – Kooyong in Melbourne, and Wentworth in Sydney’s eastern suburbs.

Those voters face a choice between “strength or instability”, he says, even as he admits he has no sway on those seats. “I know you don’t like me,” he says of inner-city voters, “but you have to go into the ballot box and decide – because you are going to determine the fate of the nation.”

“And I’ll be quite honest, I’d prefer you vote Labor. Please don’t vote for independents. Don’t do that to the nation. “

Joyce says he might not agree with Labor “but at least they’ll have to run the country, and at least our nation is going to be a safer place. If you vote for independents, you’re going to make our nation chaotic. And we haven’t got room to be chaotic. “

Lessons from France

Joyce warns a teal wave would polarize politics like never before, pushing the Liberal Party’s center of gravity further to the right than the National Party.

“One of the reasons Australia has never had a civil war or major disturbance is because we have to go through that arduous process of understanding that everybody votes so you have to have everybody’s views regarded,” he says.

That party process, which filters and hammers out divergent ideas, ensures the country lands in a “middling position – that’s how it works”.

“And that’s where the safety is. But as you start breaking up into smaller components, what you’re going to have is echo chambers. “

“We don’t want politics ending up as an argument in pursuit of the individual. We want it to remain about a policy discussion. And a policy discussion means the more caustic sides are taken off. “

Joyce believes one of Labor’s flaws is that it has lost its true blue-collar base. “It’s actually turning into a less successful political operation because it becomes an echo chamber of a certain bread, that’s not tempered by people who are actually blue-collar workers.”

“If the independents have a clean sweep, politics will have changed, and it will have changed for the worst.”

Election campaign. Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce running along the Fitzroy River in Rockhampton in the seat of Capricornia. James Brickwood

“And the way they’re going, they might just do that. And not just blow the show up for the election, but blow the show up and change how politics works. “

In that world, Joyce predicts, politics will turn into a field of joy.

“It’d be like now you’ve got a really hard-right Liberal Party, and you’ll probably have a more moderate National Party than the Liberal Party.”

“Then you’ll have a hard left-green and a wandering former blue-collar Labor and everyone will play to their small constituency in a less considered way because they don’t have to be considered of other people – because they’re no longer there. They’re gone. “

Joyce points to the recent French presidential election result as an example. “The great politicians find their way through a broad political church. That’s why Marine Le Pen in France has not been successful. She’s a superstar in a small group but people elsewhere see her as a little bit dangerous. “

“When you boil it down, these independents, they want a house that nobody else owns, a car that nobody else owns, and a political party that nobody else owns. It’s inherently selfish. “

“And it’s saying: I don’t want to be part of the team. I think I’m entitled to my own political toy. I say: you know that makes the nation weaker and destroys the political system, but they say, yes, but I’m entitled to that. Oh mate. Serious? “

‘The better government’

Asked why the Coalition should – after nearly a decade in power – be given the keys once more, Joyce retorts: “we’ve been in power for ten years because we’ve been the better government, otherwise we wouldn’t be there.

“And if you’ve been in opposition for ten years you should have been vastly better prepared for this election than you are. And saying ‘it’s your turn’, is not a good policy. “

But what is the Coalition’s argument for office?

“I want to see through stuff that I know will fall over. There will be no dams built. The inland rail will fall into a bog. Exports, starting with live sheep, will start to close down. Coal exports will go straight away under pressure. Gas exports will go straight away under pressure. “

It’s a message Joyce will hammer relentlessly in coming weeks, as the Wombat Trail picks up in intensity. “The National Party used be the wool-tie brigade. Now it’s weatherboard and iron, ”he says. His voters of him are not only on the land. “They’re in houses in peri-urban areas and in the small towns.”

If Barnaby’s hunch about this election comes true, it will confirm Australia is changing fast, regardless who wins.

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