Nationals leader Warren Truss as the political tease? Well, yes. A couple of weeks out from the start of the parliamentary year, Malcolm Turnbull – and the Nationals – are waiting on Truss.
Truss is widely expected soon to stand down as party leader and thus as deputy prime minister. Turnbull is holding out for Truss to announce his intentions before he does his coming reshuffle. But publicly, Truss continues to give nothing away about his plans. And privately, on all accounts, he is not sharing his thoughts either.
While Turnbull is overseas this week, Truss is acting prime minister – one would think for the last time. On Tuesday he was out campaigning, appearing in the northern Victorian electorate of Indi, which independent Cathy McGowan wrested from Liberal occupant Sophie Mirabella in 2013.
Truss was there to support Nationals candidate Marty Corboy. But, rather oddly, Mirabella was also an invited participant in his news conference. This had Truss looking like the country boy at the B&S ball trying to dance with two partners simultaneously.
A reporter asked the obvious question. Would visiting Nationals ministers be advocating for Corboy or for Corboy and Mirabella?
“Well, you can be sure that the Coalition will work together,” Truss said, careful not to step anywhere near a Mirabella toe. “So you’ll have Nationals ministers here, and they’ll be seeking to engage Sophie in their itineraries, and there’ll be Liberal ministers here and they’ll be seeking to engage Marty in their programs.” There was no way Truss was going to say, I’m here to urge the people of Indi to vote National.
In 2013 the Nationals did not have a candidate there because it was a Liberal-held seat. The last time they ran in Indi was 2001. Although Barnaby Joyce campaigned for Mirabella in 2013, some Nationals in the region backed McGowan. Mirabella is not their type.
Arguably the Nationals would be happy enough if McGowan retained Indi this time. They would then expect her to retire at the 2019 election. With Mirabella by then out of the way, the Nationals would hope they might have a chance of making the seat one of their own.
The main interest in Truss’ Tuesday appearance, however, was in what he would say about his future.
He remained cryptic. Turnbull had not pushed the issue of retirement, he said; “whether I’m going to go on forever or whether one day I’ll retire” was his decision. Little to be gleaned there.
But what about his statement that “it’s no secret that I had a very good working relationship with Tony Abbott and I’m looking to that kind of relationship growing and strengthening also with Malcolm Turnbull”? Did this suggest he intended to be working at a leadership level for some time, or was it just one of those lines thrown out to fill the moment?
There was the inevitable question about how he rated ambitious deputy Joyce as successor. “Deputy leaders have a fairly strong record of moving on towards being leader and I’m sure that Barnaby will be a very capable contender when and if a vacancy occurs … it’s a matter for the partyroom to make that choice.”
Truss did not say what everyone in the Nationals knows – that the prospect of Joyce becoming leader worries the hell out of him. It’s an open secret that he would prefer another successor but in a party short of senior talent Joyce remains the expected one, despite the presence of an “anybody but Barnaby” camp.
Amid the muddy waters of Truss’ remarks one thing came through clearly. In the reshuffle – coming in the wake of the Briggs affair, and Mal Brough standing aside though not quitting the ministry – the Nationals are set on pressing for another cabinet member. They did not get their quota when Turnbull became leader because they mucked up their arithmetic.
“It’s been recognised that as a result of the expansion in the inner cabinet that the Nationals are entitled to another position,” Truss said.
“That essentially happened at the time of the change of leadership, when the inner cabinet was expanded substantially, and that actually meant that there was an entitlement for an extra Nationals minister, and Malcolm Turnbull’s made it clear that that issue will be addressed when there’s a reshuffle in the future.”
In government circles that reshuffle is expected in the first couple of weeks of February. Just as it is expected that when parliament resumes the week after next Truss will put his partyroom out of its agony.
In the meantime, the guessing game is driving some of his colleagues to distraction. If Truss were foolish enough to let it drag on too long, he would risk losing a good deal of the respect in which he is now held.