Two former National Party leaders attempted to reignite their political careers in the past few days. John Anderson, leader from 1999 to 2005, was unsuccessful in his attempt to secure Senate pre-selection for New South Wales. In recent times Anderson has garnered considerable respect for his role in Australian public intellectual life with his web-based interview program, Conversations with John Anderson.
At the same time, Barnaby Joyce was successful in his attempt to regain the leadership of the federal Nationals. Joyce lost the leadership in 2018 following revelations of his affair with staffer Vikki Campion and other claims of sexual harassment, which he denies. Joyce is back after spending three years in the sin bin.
There are great contrasts between Anderson and Joyce. Anderson takes ideas seriously and has himself suffered a number of tragedies during his life, including the infant death of his youngest child. He is a man of great dignity and gravity and, at 64, would have been a great addition to the Australian Senate. He has no leadership ambitions.
Barnaby Joyce is, well, Barnaby Joyce, a flamboyant populist who has the capacity to make Australian political life interesting and keep himself in the headlines. He is also a polarising figure. His return to the leadership of the Nationals occurred because he had the numbers, but the majority in his favour was thin.
At a time of great concern about the treatment of women in parliament, he would also appear to have “form”, and one must wonder what message his return to the leadership sends to the women of the bush. Of course, 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.
But the real question is: why has Joyce returned? The Liberal Party in recent times has changed leaders largely because the incumbent was perceived to have lost popularity with the electorate. This explains why Scott Morrison spends so much time in pursuit of public approval.
For the Nationals, the situation is different. They have a small, but fairly stable, number of seats, most of which they would be unlikely to lose, at least outside Queensland. The Nationals leader is not regularly scrutinised in terms of their popularity. The leader does not have to appeal to a wide range of people across the country, just to a certain constituency.
This means that fights over the leadership are generated largely by personal ambition and policy issues. In this case, the leadership change seems to have been all about Joyce’s desire to be leader and the issue of climate change.
There can be no doubt that Joyce’s colourful personality has an appeal in certain quarters. Certainly Peta Credlin, herself a product of rural Australia, welcomed his return as Nationals leader. In a government full of grey bureaucratic types, perhaps personified by the likes of Greg Hunt and Josh Frydenberg, Joyce looks like someone brimming with energy, the sort of energy that appeals to non-metropolitan Australians.
This brings us back to the contrast between Anderson and Joyce. I find that students look back to the Howard era as one of stability before the period of flux and change that began with Kevin Rudd. This is a common perception. Anderson, as a leader from that period, symbolises a certain solidity that many would say has been lost.
Joyce, on the other hand, may well be judged by history as the sort of leader that the post-Howard era threw up; more about style than substance. Barnaby stands alongside Rudd, Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison as a symbol of the strange ways that developed in Australia political life since 2007.
If that is true, then the return of Joyce seems only to indicate that Australia politics is still caught in the culture that emerged in the post-Howard era. It is a political culture of personal ambition, a certain nastiness, as exemplified by the experiences of women in parliament and an obsession with popularity as expressed through polls.
The failure of the Nationals to find a place for John Anderson in its Senate team is another example of this political culture. At this point in time, we need sane sensible voices in our political life, voices that are not obsessed with personal ambition. Our politicians do not yet seem to have learned the lessons of the past 15 years.