In the end, the tough man crumpled. For a fortnight Barnaby Joyce had resembled someone out in the snow who’d broken through the pain threshold, as he defied massive pressure and political common sense to try to cling to his job.
But as the scandal engulfing him tore at the government, he finally gave way; on his own account, a sexual harassment allegation that was revealed publicly only on Thursday was the last straw.
Most observers thought the saga had to come to Friday’s conclusion. The media stories weren’t going to stop. They were of two kinds. There were those surrounding the employment arrangements made for his former staffer and now pregnant partner Vikki Campion. The others were the various claims of inappropriate behaviour that kept surfacing.
His Nationals colleagues, despite their admiration for Joyce’s campaigning and other abilities, looked on aghast during the last two weeks, increasingly pessimistic about the way things were going. Never mind his enemies – by Thursday, even his loyalists could not see a way through.
Within the government, clearly the relationship with Malcolm Turnbull was gone after the prime minister’s extraordinary personal attack last week and Joyce’s counterpunch. The staged weekend meeting to suggest a patch-up was farcical.
The fact that Joyce informed Acting Prime Minister Mathias Cormann, rather than Turnbull himself, of his impending resignation announcement says it all. Joyce’s opinion of Turnbull now likely matches what Tony Abbott thinks of Turnbull. Abbott had a thinly veiled jibe in his tribute to Joyce, saying “part of the problem has been poor management at the most senior levels of government”.
Joyce’s departure to the backbench obviously brings immediate relief for the government and the Nationals. What it will mean beyond that is more difficult to predict.
Michael McCormack, from New South Wales, seems virtually certain to become the new Nationals leader. He’s a junior minister with a relatively low profile, and has sometimes been shielded in parliament’s Question Time by more senior ministerial colleagues. The party is moving in behind McCormack, because there is no real alternative, and in an effort to show it is regrouping.
Another NSW National, David Gillespie, has also put up his hand – despite still waiting on a High Court decision about his constitutional eligibility to sit in parliament. But he is not a chance.
McCormack might grow into the job, as leaders sometimes do. Tim Fischer (unkindly) likes to remind me that I wrote him off when he became leader, and then had to acknowledge how well he turned out.
But taking over in these circumstances will be hard going for the new chief, who must sell himself in the electorate as well as establish enough authority within the government to enable the Nationals to punch above their numerical weight.
In the parliament, the Nationals are a top-down party. They number only 21, so they need their leadership to be strong – ideally not just the leader but their other senior ministers as well.
They are eons from the glory days of John McEwen, Doug Anthony, Ian Sinclair and Peter Nixon. But Joyce, under whom the party performed well at the 2016 election, enabled it to hold its own in the Coalition.
His successor will step into a Coalition climate in which many Liberals are furious that the Joyce scandal and the Nationals’ failure to resolve it quickly wiped out the government’s good start to the year. Also, even before all this happened, the rural Liberals, looking for more bounty and kudos, were flexing their muscle against their Nationals colleagues.
Joyce (like Abbott before him) says he won’t snipe from the backbench. They all say that, the cynic might observe (especially a cynic watching Abbott’s run-up to Turnbull’s expected 30 losing Newspolls).
On the other hand, Joyce’s fall is different from that of Abbott. He was not knifed in a coup by his own party. Indeed, even on Thursday, some Nationals sources believed Joyce probably still had the numbers (whether they would have held in a spill is something else).
Joyce was brought down by his own behaviour, relentless media disclosures, and the reality that the government could not stand the damage being done to it.
Whatever he might say about being busy on other fronts, with the baby and all, discipline and quietness are not in Joyce’s nature. When he first entered the parliament as a Queensland senator, he crossed the floor countless times and caused many headaches for the Nationals’ leadership.
It would be surprising if, as a backbencher in the lower house, he keeps his opinions to himself, even if he eschews floor-crossing, given the government’s tight numbers.
It’s premature to judge how damaged Joyce is as a campaigner in regional Australia. Initial opinion polls are a limited guide. If it turns out he still has cache as a retail politician, it will be interesting to see how extensively the Nationals, under their new leader, choose to use him in the next election campaign.
At a human level, Joyce is the story of an unlikely rise and a self-inflicted fall.
Joyce – who garnered international publicity when he threatened to euthanise Johnny Depp’s dogs – has always been a larger-than-life politician, a distinctive brand.
When he arrived in Canberra in 2005, no-one thought he’d ever lead the Nationals. He punched through, overcame setbacks, and remade himself while retaining the characteristics that led people to regard him as authentic.
But then his personal flaws and indulgences cost him all he’d worked and schemed for, as well as bringing grief to many close to him.
In other times and circumstances, Joyce might have skated through, little harmed by the scandal. But today the personal can quickly become the political – something Joyce failed to understand.
Authors: Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra