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Barnaby Joyce missteps, linking live cattle suspension and boat arrivals

Richard Di Natale, Barnaby Joyce and Joel Fitzgibbon walk together ahead of the regional leader’s debate in Goulburn. Twitter/Richard Di Natale

The election campaign’s day 17 notably belonged to Barnaby Joyce, and not just for the package of concessional loans he announced for struggling dairy farmers.

For light relief, the day delivered another episode of the Depp-Joyce show. Appearing on American TV Johnny Depp described Joyce as looking like he was “inbred with a tomato”. “It’s not a criticism. I was a little worried … Just he might explode,” the actor quipped to an appreciative audience.

Derision from Depp is instantly returned in mockery from Joyce, who reached for a horror character and shot back: “I think I’m turning into Johnny Depp’s Hannibal Lecter”.

Depp’s reflections on Joyce won’t do Joyce any harm with the voters of New England, where he’s under challenge from former independent member Tony Windsor.

It’s another story with this week’s poll reflections on Malcolm Turnbull’s attributes.

Essential and Newspoll have documented a cooling on Turnbull’s qualities, providing some context for his falling approval ratings.

Tuesday’s Essential found that over the last three weeks there has been a seven-point rise in those saying he is out of touch with ordinary people (to 63%) and a five-point increase in the proportion who find him arrogant (to 51%). Those who said he understands the problems facing Australia fell five points to 47%. Turnbull is well ahead of Shorten on a number of attributes – it’s the movements that are interesting. Shorten’s numbers didn’t change significantly.

In Wednesday’s Newspoll the figures on Turnbull’s attributes were mostly going in the wrong direction, while Shorten’s were moving the right way. For example, since February those who see Turnbull as arrogant has risen from 55% to 60%; the proportion who think he is in touch with voters has fallen from 54% to 51%, while those rating him as trustworthy went from 59% to 56%.

Shorten’s score on trustworthiness rose from 44% to 49%; he has had a substantial jump, from 48% to 60%, in those who describe him as in touch with voters. In February, Turnbull led Shorten 54-48% on being in touch with voters; now, Shorten is ahead of Turnbull 60-51%.

Turnbull is much more disciplined than he used to be, but he might have found the campaign trail character-forming on Wednesday.

It started with the ever so mutually polite encounter with Alan Jones. It was their first broadcast since their recent rapprochement-of-convenience and their egos were on strong leashes. Turnbull will be back with Jones during the campaign, but who knows what will happen after, if Turnbull is re-elected and Jones returns to his aggressive self?

The Liberals, who’d been scoring off Labor’s senator Nova Peris pulling the pin on Tuesday, lost a candidate of their own on Wednesday. Carolyn Currie, in the new notionally Labor regional NSW seat of Whitlam, was a small fish. But any drop out is unhelpful, especially when she suggests the area could be best represented by an independent or a Green.

More seriously, Turnbull had to deal with the aftermath of Tuesday’s fiasco, when the claim by Treasurer Scott Morrison and Finance Minister Mathias Cormann of a A$67 billion black hole in Labor’s numbers spectacularly fell apart.

Turnbull dug in. Pushed to say whether he stood by the $67 billion figure, he said: “Well $67 billion is the list of the measures that they have either blocked or proposed or said they want us to roll back. Now if they are changing their position or they have new promises and want to abandon old promises they are entitled to do that. But they should spell it out.”

Pointing to Friday’s debate between Morrison and Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen, Turnbull challenged Bowen to “spell out exactly what his alternative budget looks like”.

For the government to produce a shonky number and then say it is up to Labor to discredit it is outrageous, but we’re already well into the say-anything-and-hope-it-hurts stage of this campaign.

The Morrison-Bowen debate, which precedes Sunday’s Turnbull-Shorten debate, has taken on extra significance after Tuesday’s embarrassing performance. Morrison won’t want a loss.

Avoiding pitfalls is a major test in election debates – one that Joyce failed in Wednesday night’s regional leaders face-off in Goulburn when he was pitted against Labor’s agriculture spokesman Joel Fitzgibbon and Greens leader Richard Di Natale.

As exchanges heated up, Joyce linked Labor’s suspension of the live export trade to Indonesia and asylum seeker boats from there. “Might I remind you that when we closed down the live animal export industry, it was around about the same time that we started seeing a lot of people arriving in boats in Australia,” he said.

It was dangerous ground, implying causality and involvement by the Indonesian government. Joyce had indeed exploded.

Moderator Chris Uhlmann asked Joyce: “Do you realise you are suggesting the Indonesian Government then unleashed the boats in response?”

Joyce replied: “I think it’s absolutely the case that we created extreme bad will with Indonesia when we closed down the live animal export industry.”

Later, he said: “I believe that the independents and the Greens and the Labor Party, when they closed down the live animal export industry, created immense bad will, and our capacity to manage other problems which became present were affected.”

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