In Depth

Barnaby Joyce wombat trail reveals his tactics in second stint as Deputy Prime Minister

Jamieson Murphy
By Jamieson Murphy
Updated May 12 2022 - 5:52am, first published May 11 2022 - 10:00pm
WOMBAT TRAIL: While known for his abrasive and confrontational on-camera demeanour, grassroots campaigning is a core pillar of Barnaby Joyce's regional appeal. Photo: Supplied

ON THE day of Barnaby Joyce's electorate campaign launch, the wooden wombat that symbolises the National Party's leader election trail throughout regional Australia broke.

A more superstitious man might have taken it as a bad omen, but Mr Joyce laughed it off. In his second time around as Deputy Prime Minister, he knows you make your own luck - and in politics, that means framing the debate in your terms.

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Mr Joyce is aware that he's not everyone's cup of tea. "If this was a popularity contest, I would have lost a lot of elections," he said. Instead, he's been painting the narrative of a "choice between two teams", one a known quantity, that while not necessarily well liked is strong and experienced, while the other is weak, inexperienced and a dangerous unknown.

It's the same rhetoric Prime Minister Scott Morrison has adopted, but Mr Joyce's campaign team proudly declare it was their boss who first came up with it.

There's little details in Mr Joyce's campaign that have earned him the title of Australia's best retail politician - consistently (and most likely intentional) incorrectly pronouncing the last name of Labor leader Anthony Albanese, giving his political opponents nicknames (labelling the shadow treasurer "sneaky Jim" Charmers) or staying clear of the political weeds to deliver the key message ("this announcement means more doctors for the bush").

He's the master of side stepping questions he doesn't want to answer, and turning them into an attack on Labor and the Greens or a dictation of the projects his government has delivered to regional Australia, complete with an extensive list of rural cities and towns.

Mr Joyce knows climate change is an important issue in the regions, but he's betting the issue is yet to cross the threshold of flipping rural votes. "No one rates me as a climate change politician, it's not my political battle ground," he said.

Loud support for the resource sector is a pillar of his pitch, because it helps to make "Australia as strong as possible, as quickly as possible" (a line that is another corner stone of his campaign).

Asked on camera if he'd asked some Nationals politicians to tone down their anti net-zero rhetoric, such as Senator Matt Canavan who declared "net zero thing is all sort of dead", the Deputy Prime Minister sidestepped the question, declaring Australia would meet its climate obligations.

But privately, Mr Joyce said he had asked Senator Canavan to watch his words because it damages the campaigns of inner-city Liberals competing against strong independent candidates standing on a climate platform. He also acknowledged it made the Nationals less appealing to rural voters yet to be sold on the party, because they wanted some insurance on climate change.

While climate action could decide metro seats, in the regions Mr Joyce thinks it'll be infrastructure dollars, spent on things cities take for granted, like good roads and a secure water supply.

The last time the wooden wombat was spotted whole.

As Infrastructure Minister, he's come under pressure for committing funding to a number of large water infrastructure projects before the business cases have been completed. When pressed on creating a pre-determined outcome, Mr Joyce waves away the concerns by saying he was cutting through the bloated bureaucracy, claiming he'd "never seen a dam that hadn't been good for farmers, businesses and the community".

His "just build the damn thing" argument is compelling to many rural voters, tapping into their frustration at being left behind because "the cities just don't get it".

"I always like to tell people this story, I remember doing the deal to get the Roads to Recovery with [Treasurer] Josh Frydenberg, and he went 'what is this policy about mate? Roads of 20 kilometres or more than haven't been worked on for 50 years?," Mr Joyce tells a crowd in Armidale.

"I said to him 'have you ever visited near [Mr Joyce's home town] Danglemah?'"

Off-camera grassroots campaigning core to Joyce appeal

Wombat trail reveals the tactics of Barnaby Joyce 2.0

But despite all the retail politics, at the heart of Mr Joyce's strategy is grassroots campaigning. It's a side not often seen by the city-based media, but it's one of the reasons Mr Joyce is held in high regard across much of regional Australia.

He knows the power of winning voters over one at a time. Even in between official campaign events, Mr Joyce is engaging with locals, coming across as warm, friendly and interested.

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At Singleton McDonalds, in the NSW seat of Hunter which the Nationals hope to snatch off Labor, Mr Joyce is chatting to staff taking his order (almost all interactions start off with "g'day, I'm Barnaby"), and on the way out he takes the time to ask an elderly lady how her day is and what she's drinking (it's a mango frappe).

"It costs me nothing to be nice and say hello, and they get to tell their friends they meet the Deputy Prime Minister. That's one of things I love about Australia. Can you imagine in America anyone saying they saw the Vice President at a Maccas and he came up and said hello?," Mr Joyce said in between bites of a McSpicy.

It's an open secret Mr Joyce is not well liked south of the "Barnaby line" in Victoria, where the state National Party considered breaking away from the federal party following his re-election as party leader.

But Mr Joyce dismisses the idea as leaks to the media from southern Nationals MPs disgruntled at being demonstrated, which is "just part of politics".

"I'm generally pretty well received down there, people come over to say hello, they're friendly, they toot their horn, so I go off experience. Trust me, I know what it's like to go somewhere you're not liked, I've been to Melbourne," he said.

Mr Joyce loves to speak in analogy, which often doesn't convey well in the media, but his in-person delivery strikes a chord with the room. He doesn't sound clean and polished as other high-profile politicians, but that's the other secret to his regional popularity. Country voters are instinctively distrusting of men in suits talking in circles, who in their minds have ignored them for decades.

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Growing up on the land, Mr Joyce can talk the talk with farmers, asking what grasses they get out this way or pointing to a sea of termite mounds in outback Queensland and if that meant the soil was phosphorus deficient (it is), and randomly spouting off the Latin names of trees.

"Politics is all about service," he says, as he gives a tea farmer struggling to find labour the details of someone in his office who can help them with visas. He uses a variation of the same line at several smaller announcements, such as a $2-million grant to expand a childcare for children with autism in Townsville

"This won't make the national media, but it's massive for this area....this is what we try to do, you see a problem on the ground, and you try to extract your digit and get moving," Mr Joyce said.

Underlining Mr Joyce's second stint as Deputy Prime Minister is the knowledge he's in the twilight of his political career, giving him a great sense of urgency and a willingness to push Nationals candidates to the forefront.

The wooden wombat will be repaired and sent back on the road, where some people will see it as the embodiment of rural politics, while others won't be able to see past its cracks and flaws. Much like Barnaby Joyce himself.

Jamieson Murphy

Jamieson Murphy

National Rural Affairs reporter

National Rural Affairs reporter, focusing on rural politics and issues. Whisper g'day mate to me at jamieson.murphy@austcommunitymedia.com.au

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