A northern New South Wales bookmaker has got it about right on the New England byelection. “Barnaby will be a shorter price than Winx,” he told a National. “And the only one who could beat Barnaby is Winx.”
Not only has Tony Windsor said he won’t contest, but now One Nation – with its focus on the Queensland election – and the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party are also no shows.
So, it’s all good for a relatively clear run in the seat for the man the High Court ousted from parliament last week. The only problem for the government is that on the way to victory Joyce will be spending more than a month roaming around his electorate in the glare of publicity when – at least at the moment – he is off the reservation, saying whatever comes into his head.
Such as his proposal for an omnibus referendum, which he said could be held with the next election. “You might have four or five things,” he told The Australian. He suggested it could deal with Section 44 of the Constitution, which brought him undone because of his dual citizenship, Indigenous recognition, and even the republic.
This can only be described as hare-brained. The chances of getting a referendum through to make things easier for politicians would be nearly nil. The Indigenous referendum process has stalled. As for the republic, well, maybe he was joking.
One can only assume the omnibus referendum was a thought-bubble driven by frustration or by liberation from cabinet discipline. Joyce’s colleague Matt Canavan, during his temporary spell on the backbench, also played on the wild side.
Tapping into something more serious is Joyce’s counterpunch against Liberal complaints about the Nationals causing all this trouble with their carelessness over dual citizenship. He pointed out sharply that the government’s survival in 2016 had been due to the Nationals’ good performance in holding seats and even gaining one.
The fallout from Friday’s High Court decision is putting considerable strains on Coalition relations, and that won’t end with the certain byelection win.
Apart from the Liberal blame game, there is angst in the minor Coalition partner about status, upset over losing the seat of senator Fiona Nash, who was also disqualified, and worry as to the consequences for the party’s frontbench representation.
Julie Bishop was appointed to act as prime minister while Malcolm Turnbull attends the Battle of Beersheba commemoration. Nationals muttered about their acting parliamentary leader Nigel Scullion not getting the gig, although in the end they agreed to Bishop – apparently for some (unknown) trade-off.
But what about when Turnbull is travelling in Asia for the November summit season? The Prime Minister’s Office on Monday night confirmed that Bishop will again be in place, “because there is no deputy prime minister” – that role hasn’t been filled in the temporary arrangement.
It will again be publicly embarrassing for the Nationals.
Then there is the shrinking of the Nationals partyroom and its implications. Nash’s Senate seat will go on a recount to the next candidate on the Coalition ticket in NSW: Hollie Hughes, a Liberal.
Earlier there were calls for Turnbull to intervene to persuade Hughes, once she got the seat, to resign so Nash could return. But even if the Liberals were willing to give up their windfall – never likely – such a course would not help Nash. Hughes could only be replaced by a Liberal under the constitutional provision that a casual vacancy is filled by someone from the same party.
Incidentally, questions have been raised about Hughes’ eligibility under another part of Section 44; the Liberals are confident she is fine but even if she wasn’t, the spot would go to another Liberal.
A further line of speculation suggested that NSW National senator John Williams might stand aside for Nash – not that that would help the party’s numbers. Williams said no chance. “I’m not leaving until June 30, 2019,” he says. He’s got a debt to pay off on his farm. If he pulled out early “I’d need a job, and if I left parliament for a job I would be leaving with a bad reputation – people would say ‘Wacka is as bad as the rest of them, with his snout in the trough’”.
The loss of a Nationals’ number translates into being one down on the frontbench. The Nationals have played tough in the past on what they are entitled to – now the boot is on the Liberal foot. They will be particularly anxious to try to retain five cabinet spots but it is hard to see how they will be able to justify this on the arithmetic.
The cooler heads in the Nationals are trying to keep the situation calm. They want to guard against the Liberals being able to take advantage of their weakened position, which includes their representation being two down in the cabinet during this limbo period.
With a reshuffle coming up some time after the byelection, the Nationals will be battling to protect territory and clout in the difficult circumstances they have brought on themselves.
Authors: Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra