Former industry ministry Ian Macfarlane is set to defect to the Nationals, in a move party sources say would entitle the junior Coalition partner to an extra frontbench spot.
The move is said to have been initiated by Macfarlane, who was dropped from the ministry by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in his reshuffle.
Deputy Prime Minister and Nationals leader Warren Truss confirmed he and Macfarlane had been talking since the reshuffle. He emphasised his long-term friendship with Macfarlane, stretching back before they entered parliament.
But Truss, questioned in a news conference called on the search for flight MH70, was unwilling to be drawn and would not confirm a deal.
The move leaked prematurely, after deputy Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce referred to it in the party leadership meeting on Thursday morning, which he chaired while Truss was at another meeting.
Macfarlane had discussions with Joyce – who has been always interested in “growing” the Nationals – as well as with Truss.
Truss was obviously annoyed at the leak. The original report, in the Herald Sun, said Joyce had done the deal. “If it was orchestrated by Barnaby Joyce, you wouldn’t expect me to know about it, would you,” Truss said, showing unusual tetchiness.
Nationals sources say the party was already on the cusp of being entitled to another frontbench position, under the formula in the Coalition agreement, and this would push them over it.
Macfarlane, 60, was industry minister in the Abbott government, and had held that portfolio in the Howard government.
He was one of Turnbull’s strongest supporters, voting for him in leadership ballots and being close to him when Turnbull was opposition leader. Turnbull dropped him from the ministry as part of getting generational change. Macfarlane later indicated he was considering his parliamentary future.
There is a merged Liberal National Party in Queensland, but in Canberra its parliamentary members sit in either the Liberal partyroom or the Nationals partyroom.
Macfarlane has impeccable rural credentials – a farming background and a period as president of the Queensland Graingrowers Association. His seat of Groom is centred on the regional city of Toowoomba.
Some sources in the Nationals, who are in the “anybody but Barnaby for leader” camp, hope Macfarlane could be a leadership contender if Truss steps down next year. Other sources strongly discounted this.
The embattled special minister of state, Mal Brough, comes from Queensland. If Brough had to leave the ministry as a result of the current police investigation, that could open a spot for Macfarlane. But Turnbull is so far standing by Brough.
The Nationals will meet Thursday afternoon.