"I don't know if Liberal governments always do a good job. I don't know if Labor governments always do a bad job. I do know that the National Party always tries to do its best for its constituents."
- Barnaby Joyce, on ABC Radio, 1st May 2017.
Barnaby Joyce is probably the current clown prince of Australian politics. He isn't exactly a political brawler and nor is he a grand statesman but given that he is a member of the National Party, he doesn't really to be. I get the distinct impression that the National Party and by extension Barnaby Joyce, occupies a sort of strange pragmatism in politics because federally they're almost guaranteed never to gain power in their own right and although there have been Country/National Party Prime Ministers, they've always come about because their coalition partners have undergone a political implosion.
The National Party itself is ironically named because it is not a unified national party. In four of six states, it runs as it always had done, in Queensland it has entered into formal union with the Liberal Party and in Western Australia the WA Nationals are struggling to remain in coalition with the rest of the party. Queensland is the exception but there's a very good reason for that.
As far as I'm aware, Queensland is the only state where the National Party has formed government in its own right without the Liberal Party. The Liberal Party really only represented a few inner city electorates and the during the premiership of Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, the National Party asserted itself and jettisoned the Liberals. Rather than remain as relevant as an Easter egg still left on the shelves in June, the Liberal Party more or less surrendered to the National Party in Queensland and they rebranded themselves as the Liberal National Party to take advantage of whatever political benefits that they could gain from the publicity by association with the federal parties.
This brings me to Barnaby Joyce himself. He used to be a Senator for the state of Queensland but moved downstairs to the House of Representatives and became the Member for New England as a National Party member and not a Liberal Party member. This says to me that Barnaby is more concerned with getting things done rather than wanting some tilt at the top job, because as a National Party member his chances of becoming Prime Minister are about as likely as Satan ice skating to work under normal circumstances.
If you look back through the list of Australian Prime Ministers, there have been two Country/National Party Prime Ministers and they were Sir Earle Page, Arthur Fadden and John McEwen. Earle Page was installed after the sudden death of Joseph Lyons, Arthur Fadden took the job after the forerunner to the Liberal Party, the United Australia Party, tore itself to pieces; and John McEwen got the job after Sir Robert Menzies retired from politics, Harold Holt wandered off into the sea and both the Liberal and Country parties also wandered around from side to side like brainless sheep. Unless Tony Abbott mounts a coup and deposes Malcolm Turnbull, or Turnbull decides that he's had enough and leaves, and the Liberal Party again implodes and finds itself bereft of sensible leadership, then just the sheer numbers within the coalition will always mean that there will be a Liberal Prime Minister over a National one.
I think that this is a pity. Precisely because the Liberal Party mostly represents people in the cities, and especially those people with connections to money, it is far too myopic to realise that Australia is a wide brown land. The Liberal Party was formed in 1945 by 80 members who met in the Sydney Town Hall and they included Sir Robert Menzies, the power brokers of the United Australia Party which had just recently ceased to be, people like Sir Keith Murdoch, and the IPA. Even just this week we had former Prime Minister Tony Abbott extolling the virtues of the IPA at one of its functions and then crowing about it all over social media. The National Party isn't beholden to forces like that and it has far broader concerns than just moving the great big pile of money from one place to another and taking a cut.
The National Party tends to care about things like infrastructure, health, and education etc. as means to improving the lives of people and in particular farmers and people living in rural areas. It likes the idea of reducing taxation and regulations insofar as much as this also achieves that same end. Of course it also tries to be nice to major primary producers and mining companies because it sees those entities as useful means of providing employment and driving the economy of the country; for this reason, the National Party often comes into conflict with its own members as it tries to play an internal balancing game. The Liberal Party in contrast doesn't seem to give a rip about those issues at all, as long as the coin keeps on rolling in.
Again we find ourselves back at Barnaby Joyce. I think that the National Party chose him as leader of the party because he is the most visible and memorable. The nearest political equivalent that I can think of would be if Boris Johnson was leader of the Liberal Democrats in the UK if they were still in coalition with the Tories. Boris Johnson would most likely make a terrible Prime Minister but he'd be the most famous in recent memory. Likewise, a Barnaby Joyce premiership would probably be equally as terrible but at very least it would all be a lark while the ship of state was on fire. As leader of the National Party, Barnaby has been placed somewhere where he can be seen but where he can not cause very much mayhem. Probably his most famous acts involved deporting Johnny Depp's two dogs Pistol and Boo; which by the way was exactly the proper thing to do, it's just that Barnaby had all the subtlety of playing croquet with a sledgehammer and an egg.
One of the unwritten and dangerously unthinkable things about Australian politics is that if the National Party wasn't so formally entangled with the Liberal Party and flew its own course as the WA Nationals do, then it potentially could be the perpetual kingmakers. Because Duverger's Law says that single member constituencies tend towards two party politics, then the National Party have aligned themselves forever on that side of the divide. Since government is formed from a majority of members on the floor of the parliament, then they could in theory decide to flip allegiance to the other side and depose the Liberal Party. A smart leader of a party like the Nationals could in theory threaten to cross the floor on matters of supply and then demand a greater say in the executive of the nation. Again that's not likely but given Barnaby's proven capacity for poise, grace and tact, it's not like there's anything to lose.
There's a thing which is imaginable and really really weird - Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce leading a National Labor coalition government. Of course it's not at all likely but given that 2017 has already shown that everything we know is wrong then thinking the unthinkable and watching the clown prince become king doesn't seem so impossibly impossible any more.