You have to feel a little sorry for Malcolm Turnbull as he returns from his triumph in Washington, such as it was. First it was overshadowed, at breakfast tables as much as in the media, by continuing attention to the affairs of Barnaby Joyce, whose desire for survival even until Friday outweighed any sense of duty to his party, the government or, it seemed, the country. Almost to the end, Joyce seemed to think he could stare his enemies – including Turnbull down – and that, ultimately, the problems would go away.
Ian Sinclair, one of his predecessors both as Nationals leader and member for New England, was given to quoting the phrase: never complain, never explain, never apologise and never resign. Joyce has done the lot. But Sinclair had an entirely different personality. Joyce, much given to a rambling, incoherent and self-serving legend of himself, had to perform yet another U-turn to face circumstance. It should take at least a few months before anyone much regrets his passing – and even then it won't have been for his personal judgment, eloquence or service to the public interest.
How quaint that a man so lionised by Australia's richest woman, so devoted to the interests of wealthy irrigators impoverishing other farmers, would say that political life was about serving battlers in weatherboard houses on the edge of town. How typical that he would boast of his rural primary school rather than his posh secondary boarding school, as if he had come from the other side of the tracks.
Joyce spent 10 days reminding Turnbull that he had no say in who led the National Party, and making it clear what little he thought of Turnbull's anger at the damage the protracted scandal did to the government. That continual harping on Turnbull's impotence must have been grating. Some of the Nationals, meeting on Monday to elect a successor, will feel the Nationals have nothing to gain by having a leader seen as pliant to Turnbull's interests, or subservient to the higher interests of a government in trouble with voters on its own account.
Turnbull's incapacity to much influence the Nationals runs almost parallel with the other big problem in his love affair with the electorate: the widespread perception that he lacks the numbers in his own party's caucus. If he wants to continue to be Prime Minister, he must thus serve the interests of others in his party other than his own. He must endure being despised by many of his colleagues, and being an increasing object of contempt to those who had expected something better or different from him. Though Turnbull is known for pride as much as ability, he must pretend to enjoy the shit sandwich he is eating; indeed, to have chosen it of his own accord. That must stick in his craw, because he was once seen both as authentic and prepared to stand up for his beliefs. He may fool himself, but not the audience.
For now, Turnbull will judge that any other Nationals leader will be better for the government's fortunes than Joyce. He might not be so sure in three months. It would be a surprise if the successor proved to be as self-indulgent and personally embarrassing as was Joyce. But it will be just as surprising if he proved to have the combativeness, political reflexes and opportunism of Joyce, let alone the capacity to inspire a followership.
Many of the Nationals are bland and boring, and some of their guiding ideas and ideals – particularly on matters of gender, race and values – are well out of step with majority opinion. Most are sensible enough to keep mum about some of their nuttier views; but they will no longer find it so easy. That leader will be keen to re-establish a party brand, and to make it clear that the Nationals are no lapdogs of the Liberal Party. One means of demonstrating that is to publicly dis the Prime Minister; for more than 20 years, not a single National has faced any internal punishment for stepping out of the ranks.
Gough Whitlam once derided the Victorian socialist left of his party as being so concerned with complete attachment to principle that it would rather lose office than compromise. In politics, only the impotent could afford to be pure, he said. Turnbull might well argue along the same lines, whether about the compromises he has needed to make with party conservatives or in having to suffer the buffoonery and self-destructiveness of Joyce, and other odd Nationals. He must deal with what he has, or what he gets. His advice is unwelcome, his preferences and feelings irrelevant. Turnbull has little credit in the bank, either with his party or the Coalition partner, perhaps even with the electorate.
He could simply give up, perhaps with some grand gesture of sacrifice on the altar of some pretended principle. He could sit helplessly waiting to be knocked off, whether by a party rival or the electorate. Or he could simply plod along within the existing harness, doing the best he can with what he has and what he can get away with, hoping that time, circumstance and perhaps the misfortunes of his enemies (whether before or behind him) will one day allow him to do more.
Perhaps even – O frabjous day! – to be himself, if he can remember what that was. And perhaps even with some respect, whether for his humility in his trials, his patience and steadiness under the whip, and his realism and pragmatism. It might even have been character-forming, given that many of his supporters once feared he might be too headstrong, too given to insisting on his way or the highway, too little inclined to listen and to attend.
The Liberals and the Nationals have generally worked together comfortably enough, even if the alliance has prospered only when they have had clear goals beyond individual and group survival. It's not a marriage, and the players (apart from Malcolm Fraser, Peter Nixon and Sinclair 40 years ago) have not even been political bedmates or personal friends. But the parties' partnership has usually been profitable to both. They can squabble, particularly about the distribution of the goodies and patronage that come from being in power, but each must ultimately compromise. A full-blown split causes loss of office, which is, in political terms, death.
The Nationals (and their predecessor, the Country Party) have, historically, focused more crudely on the plunder of government than on the principles by which public goods are rationed out. The Liberals have long had a tendency to look away in embarrassment at the greed and the corruption of spirit displayed when Nationals exercise power. Yet the Nationals have generally seemed steadier, more disciplined, more socially conservative and less likely to fragment than the ever-fractious Liberals.
The Nationals' addiction to trinkets and a transactional relationship with electors once had it described as a prostitute. In 1974, Billy Snedden showed a characteristic lack of feel, as he watched parties flirting with the Democratic Labour Party, when he asked: "Who's churching the old whore now?" It swiftly proved that the "old whore" of the metaphor was the then Country Party, not the DLP.
Last week, I remarked that Joyce should be made to resign not for his private indiscretions but for his performance as a member, minister and party leader. I found this quoted by a conservative commentator, who described it as an urban view. This cut me to the quick, since I think of myself as a rural lad at heart, and of sound National, or Country Party, stock. An ancestor attended one of the party's founding meetings about 100 years ago and remained loyal to his death, even if he occasionally bewailed its having become (in NSW) a party for rural toffs of the Protestant persuasion, rather than the alliance of townsfolk, rural workers and cockies he had romantically expected.
Still, as he once remarked, the Prots in those sectarian days would allow the Catholics a right of veto over who misrepresented them in Parliament. About 80 years ago, for example the (Protestant) manager of a nearby rural property ran off with the station owner's wife. He married her, and they settled several hundred kilometres away, forgotten by all but a few locals. About 30 years, an intervening war and the end of the wool boom later, the man developed aspirations to be a Country Party candidate.
We Catholics had large families, and my ancestor put out a three-line whip and used every tie of blood to have them oppose the attempt in Country Party branches. The candidate failed to win preselection.
I was young and naive at the time, and very bemused. Surely a man was not unfitted for public office simply because he was divorced, I asked? Surely, pious Catholics (as my grandfather assuredly was) would follow Jesus' advice not to judge?
My ancestor insisted he was not visiting his morals on the poor chap. Heaven forbid, he said (if unconvincingly to me). But he feared that, if others found out about the man's "murky" past, they might judge him adversely; not be as understanding as they themselves would be. Their desire was to see a Country Party man (in those days it was always a man) elected; the best way of ensuring this would be to make sure that he wasn't the sort of candidate of whose character some voters would have doubts.
That's been Joyce's problem, right from the start. And not only in his own electorate, but in typical National constituencies. We understand, of course, because we are broad-minded and tolerant and know that everyone is human. But will everyone else? Joyce had some success at attracting votes, and Queenslanders in particular seem to like his incoherence, incapacity to finish sentences and pretence that he is just one of the boys down at the pub. And they have loved the exuberance with which he threw other people's money at pet ideas and local projects. Some owed him, personally and professionally, and that involved some appreciation of his virtues as well as his faults.
Actually, the evidence (for example, during the same-sex marriage referendum) suggests that rural electorates are only slightly more socially conservative than most urban ones. We may be all sinners, in spite of our high aspirations, but Joyce was deeply vulnerable to hypocrisy charges, because he had foisted his moral views on others. That's not a charge one could make against, say, Warren Truss, John Anderson, Charles Blunt, Sinclair, Doug Anthony or even Jack McEwen, even if most of them were a little more straight-laced than average.
Any look back at the party's history suggests that the idea of tight and instinctive loyalty to leaders is largely invention. The party, first, is very state-based, and its fundamental character differs in each area. (The first Catholic National from NSW, incidentally, was Tim Fischer in 1971 – into state parliament – and he sneaked in, as it were, by representing a constituency close to Victoria, where Catholics in the Nationals were not uncommon.) Most Victorian Nationals have no great affinity with their siblings in NSW or Queensland, or, for that matter, tradition of capacity to form partnerships with Liberals. The Queensland party, at state and federal level, is deeply divided (the more so after a fusion of sorts with the Liberals). No one does backstabbing and disloyalty like the Country Liberal Party in the Northern Territory. The West Australians, when they can get candidates up, are almost from another planet, and are humoured, at best, if only because their presence suggests the National Party is actually national. In South Australia and Tasmania, all National Party seedlings have died.
It will not be precedent or mere unthinking loyalty that settles the Nationals leadership. It should be a cool calculation of personal self-interest, party interests and Coalition interests. That may, of course, involve some assessment of the damage Joyce could cause if he throws a tantrum at the result.
The Nationals have remarkable parliamentary representation considering that the party receives only about one vote in every 14, and from an inexorably declining rural demographic. Turnbull may be stuck with the collective assessment. But the electorate isn't, and is bound to be suspicious, if only because the winner will be a person of little profile, personality or record.
The Nationals are besieged by One Nation populists, able independent personalities, and Liberals with organisation and a lust to change the way politics works in the regions. No wonder Nationals were ambivalent about forcing Joyce to face the fact that he had become a complete liability. Even as one of the walking dead, still negotiating the minefield, he had a followership. Until he threw in the towel on Friday, none of those now planning to put up their hands on Monday could have counted on more than three votes from his, or her, mates. That's loyalty to the leader, or fear of his retribution, for you.
Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times. email@example.com