View from The Hill

View from The Hill

Barnaby Joyce’s challenge: applying the whip to the Nationals’ whip

As the Nationals’ chief whip, George Christensen has a central role in keeping the party in line. Mick Tsikas/AAP

Bizarre as it might seem George Christensen, the rebel MP who threatened to cross the floor unless the government changed the superannuation package, is the Nationals’ chief whip.

After the election Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce asked him to step up from the deputy whip position. When the vote in the party room came, there was no other nomination for the job.

That gives Christensen a central role in keeping the Nationals in line, rather than a licence to freelance.

“I asked Barnaby if that [post] would preclude speaking out,” Christensen says. He was told it would not, because he wasn’t part of the executive. But he would have to give up the position if he crossed the floor. The sanction would apply to abstaining in a vote, he says.

In the event, the government’s reworking of its superannuation plan satisfied Christensen; indeed, he was able to claim a day in the sun as part of the push, including vocal conservative Liberals, which secured change. The floor crossing threat evaporated, for that time.

In this parliament where the Turnbull government has the slimmest majority, any serious rebellion by the freewheeling Christensen has the potential to embarrass the government.

It is ironic that Joyce, as party leader, is the one charged with keeping Christensen in the tent. When he was a Queensland senator Joyce was the Coalition’s bad boy in a finely-balanced upper house. Joyce crossed the floor multiple times; he prided himself in driving some hard bargains within the Howard government.

In the past few days Christensen’s pre-election threat that if the backpacker tax wasn’t properly fixed he would quit the Coalition has reared its head.

He says his remark has been over-blown. The context was his confidence that after the election the government – which had deferred the implementation of the proposed 32.5% backpacker tax – would produce an acceptable compromise. He is not arguing backpackers should pay no tax, but an appropriate level.

Treasurer Scott Morrison and Joyce will take a submission to cabinet on the tax, and there is pressure for an early resolution. Morrison on Monday indicated discussions had been held with the backbench; he also declared that “if there are changes to be made, then certainly my view as treasurer is that they will be made in a way that does not disadvantage the budget”.

Following Pauling Hanson’s call for a stop to Muslim immigration last week, Christensen urged a ban on immigration from countries with a high level of violent extremism.

He acknowledges an overlap of views with One Nation. “I’ve never seen One Nation as the bogeyman others paint it.” He says he will continue to advocate his view on immigration: “If we [the Coalition] are to stop bleeding to the right we need to tackle an issue like that.”

He told The Australian that he had asked Hanson not to run a candidate against him in the election. One factor in One Nation’s decision to stay out of his Queensland seat of Dawson was that “obviously, they were not looking at ousting an MP who was advocating the same sort of views espoused by One Nation”. The Senate One Nation vote in Dawson was 13.26%, according to an analysis of One Nation’s footprint in Queensland done by the Liberal National Party (LNP).

A one-time president of the Young Nationals in Queensland, Christensen has held Dawson since 2010. A journalist by training, he worked for former National MP De-Anne Kelly, who previously held the seat. He comes from a cane farming family, and sugar is a hot button issue with him. No wonder Joyce was being dismissive on Monday of a Liberal backbencher’s suggestion of a “sugar tax” on soft drinks.

Christensen, who was raised a Catholic but converted to the Antiochian Orthodox church, is part of the religious right, and takes a strong stand on moral issues. He was outspoken against the Safe Schools program. When the Queensland parliament last week lowered the age of consent for anal sex he warned it held the danger of old men preying on youths.

Joyce’s nightmare would be if Christensen at some point jumped ship, as former National Bob Katter did some years ago.

“I want to make sure that we keep our team together,” Joyce said - “the last thing we want” was a repeat of the Katter scenario.

The odds seem against Christensen doing a Katter. “Never say never,” he says. But “I’ve been in the National Party and the [successor] LNP for more than 20 years. I’m very loyal to Barnaby Joyce”. And the clincher: “More can be achieved within the government than outside.”

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