After three years on the backbench, Barnaby Joyce has returned to the role of Nationals leader and Australia's deputy prime minister after defeating former leader Michael McCormack in a party room ballot. Mr Joyce's desire to return to leadership is not a secret as he has previously mounted unsuccessful challenges, and rumours had been building for weeks that he would make another move. His resurrection, however, has sparked anger among women around Australia.
Mr Joyce resigned in 2018 following revelations of a long-term relationship with his former staffer, Vikki Campion, only months after divorcing his wife of 24 years. Ms Campion was soon revealed to be heavily pregnant. Many criticised Mr Joyce for hypocrisy, as an ardent advocate for conservative family values and Catholicism, and a vocal opponent of abortion and marriage equality. His affair was a major spur for then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's so-called "bonk ban", preventing sexual relationships between ministers and their staffers.
On February 20, 2018, a formal confidential complaint was made to the federal branch of the National Party, alleging that Mr Joyce had sexually harassed a Western Australian woman. Her identity leaked to the media three days later - the same day that Mr Joyce announced his leadership resignation. While it seems he resigned after mounting pressure from the initial scandal, he therefore appeared to have stepped down due to this sexual harassment claim, which he continues to strenuously deny. Although there was an eight-month internal investigation into the complaint, the allegations remain unresolved due to "insufficient evidence."
Fast-forward three years to 2021. Parliament House has been rocked by allegations of sexual assault and harassment. Brittany Higgins tore a hole in the facade, revealing the toxic patriarchal boys' club within. Former-attorney general Christian Porter has been accused of rape (a claim he has consistently denied), videos surfaced of staffers masturbating on the desks of women MPs, Liberal MP Andrew Laming faces accusations of bullying women and having taken an inappropriate photo of a woman bending over (also denied), in the aftermath, the Australian Federal Police have revealed that they received more than 40 reports of sexual misconduct by federal MPs and staffers in the preceding three months. We saw more than 100,000 people take to the streets in cities and regional centres around Australia in the March 4 Justice rallies, to protest sexual violence and harassment in politics as well as gendered violence and inequality more broadly.
This government fundamentally does not listen to or care about one half of the electorate.
Yet, even after all this, the Nationals re-appoint a man who triggered a bonk ban and stands accused of sexual harassment. While the allegations against Mr Joyce were considered reprehensible enough to provoke his resignation in 2018, it now appears that all is well - at least to 21 people in the National party room. In his first question time as reinstated leader, Mr Joyce responded to calls from the opposition to address the sexual harassment allegations. Using a tired cliché, he noted that he was "a father of four daughters" and therefore had "an incredible vested interest in making sure women in agriculture and every section of society have the best opportunity in the safest environment they could possibly live in".
This position is not new. In response to the allegations made by Ms Higgins in February, Mr Morrison recalled a conversation he had with his wife, Jenny, who advised that he "think about this as a father first". As Australian of the Year Grace Tame stated in her Press Club address, targeting Mr Morrison's comments, "it shouldn't take having children to have a conscience". The mere fact that Mr Joyce and Mr Morrison have both chosen to respond "as a father", rather than "as a person", indicates that they struggle to empathise with women as people in their own right, framing them in the context of their relationships with men - as men's property.
Mr Joyce's return has not been welcomed by all in his party, as many fear this move could further alienate women. Nationals MPs Michelle Landry and Anne Webster, for example, note "there would be women out there that would be unhappy with that". Nationals deputy leader for Victoria Steph Ryan and WA Nationals leader Mia Davis have also vocally criticised Mr Joyce's return, observing that his alleged actions "didn't really make him eligible for the top job". The founding member of Australian Women in Agriculture, Alana Johnson, criticised the party in general, arguing that "the astounding thing is that [they are] obviously just not listening, otherwise they would never have chosen Barnaby to be the leader again". Yet these concerns have been repeatedly overlooked by the "boys' club".
This move neglects a growing appetite for gender equality in regional and rural Australia. According to recent research from the University of Canberra's 50/50 By 2030 Foundation, regional Australia is leading the charge on positive attitudes to gender equality. The March 4 Justice movement held in more than a dozen regional centres, including Armidale in Mr Joyce's seat of New England, demonstrates this. Violence against women is a problem everywhere, but women in regional and rural Australia are more likely to experience it than those in urban areas, and have access to far fewer resources. Many at the March 4 Justice rallies in regional centres sought to address this and called to end gendered violence. In Armidale, organisers delivered a letter of demands to state and federal MPs, including Mr Joyce, seeking "to ensure our elected representatives listen". But are the Nationals heeding their calls when they choose a leader like Mr Joyce?
Mr Joyce justified his challenge by arguing that it will strengthen the Nationals for the upcoming election:
"I want to make sure that ... we can go to places such as central Queensland, that we have the capacity ... to give us the very best chance of winning the next election."
He has firmly argued for the "protection" of coal industries, declaring he would be "absolutely focused ... on the coal miners", enjoying support from Nationals members representing Queensland coal seats like George Christensen and Matt Canavan.
But by prioritising coal and a "bush-populist", "muscle-man" leader like Mr Joyce, the Nationals are sending the message that women - their issues and votes - don't matter. That combating sexual assault and harassment and other gender imbalances is not a priority. That men can be accused of sexual harassment yet their career prospects remain intact. They are demonstrating that the boys' club will always prevail.
This has already emboldened some men in the Nationals. Mr Joyce's first Coalition party-room meeting as the reinstated leader resulted in an explosive argument between the Nationals and Liberals over the planned $1.7b childcare subsidy boost announced in the 2021 budget. Nationals senator Matt Canavan opposed the bill, backed by fellow Queenslanders Terry Young, Gerard Rennick and Mr Christensen. The latter remarked how working women were "outsourcing parenting" by enrolling children in childcare. Aside from male politicians "outsourcing" the parenting of their children to their partners or childcare without issue, Mr Christensen's comments demonstrate the archaic ideology entrenched in some areas of the Coalition.
To add further salt to the wound, Mr Joyce was also appointed to the government's Status of Women Taskforce. Prime Minister Scott Morrison created this taskforce to improve the government's standing with women after the March 4 Justice protests. In this role, Mr Joyce will oversee a group whose mandate includes a focus on women's safety, economic security, equality, health and wellbeing. His inclusion undermines any semblance of credibility that this taskforce had and is yet another example of how this government fundamentally does not listen to or care about one half of the electorate.
After the identity of Mr Joyce's alleged complainant was leaked, she expressed hope that her experience would provoke improvement in the way that political parties handle complaints of sexual harassment. Instead, we see the resurrection of the man she has accused. In the wake of the March 4 Justice protests, it felt like real change was occurring. Generations of victim-survivors were speaking out about their own experiences and demanding the government address this in all areas of society. And, for a moment, it seemed they might have gotten through. Yet we now see that, when the lights are not directed on the hill, the parliamentary culture remains unchanged, dominated by "power games between boys."
- Dr Blair Williams is a research fellow and lecturer in Australian politics and gender-specific studies at the Australian National University.