Australia

From journalist to deputy prime minister: Who is Michael McCormack?

Michael McCormack visits the Miriam Vale Evacuation centre, Gladstone, Saturday, December 1, 2018. Source: AAP

Michael McCormack's brief time as leader of the Nationals has been eventful. SBS News takes a look at his political career ahead of the May election.

The rise of Nationals leader Michael McCormack came after fall of former leader Barnaby Joyce.

Mr McCormack took over as party leader of the Nationals last year after a widely-publicised sex scandal saw Mr Joyce step down.

And it has not been smooth sailing since.

Ascent to politics

Mr McCormack was raised on family farms in NSW's Riverina region.

He started his career as a journalist, becoming the editor of a local newspaper, Wagga Wagga's the Daily Advertiser, when he was just 27 years old.

"During his career at the newspaper, Michael was a champion of many community issues," Nationals material says.

"He is most proud of the significant part he played in helping to save Wagga Wagga’s Royal Australian Air Force base from closure in 1997, which not only resulted in the retention of the base but the expansion of its role the region."

But in the 1990s, Mr McCormack came under fire for a controversial editorial where he described homosexuals as "sordid" and blamed them for the AIDS crisis. He has since apologised for the comments

He went on to work as campaign director for Nationals MP Kay Hull. When Ms Hull retired in 2010, he contested and won her seat of Riverina.

Mr McCormack has been assistant defence minister, veterans' affairs minister and small business minister. He is the current minister for infrastructure and transport

Mr McCormack was tasked with taking the census online in 2016 for the first time, but the process was memorably plagued by technical failures.

Nationals leader Michael McCormack in the drivers seat of a truck.
Nationals leader Michael McCormack in the drivers seat of a truck.
AAP

Time as leader

Mr McCormack has found it difficult to step out of Mr Joyce's shadow.

When replacing Mr Joyce in February 2018 as Nationals leader and, in turn, deputy prime minister, Mr McCormack pledged to unify the party.

“Barnaby Joyce will [continue to] play an important part in our party and in our nation – but we are also going to continue to work as a team, not as individuals, going forward," he said.

Just months into Mr McCormack’s leadership, another Nationals MP, Andrew Broad, announced he was quitting politics after being engulfed in his own sex scandal.

Like the rest of Australia's political leaders, Mr McCormack has spent much of the past 12 months discussing the issue of coal.

He said in October coal was an important part of Australia's energy mix.

But in March, a hesitant Mr McCormack received a letter from six Queensland Nationals asking him to underwrite a new coal-fired power station in the state.

It came as the Liberal Party was facing increasing pressure from farmers to bolster its credibility on tackling climate change.

The letter fuelled speculation Mr McCormack's own leadership was at risk, as did subsequent comments from Barnaby Joyce saying he wouldn't feel guilty for taking over as Nationals leader again in the event of a leadership spill.

Also in March, Prime Minister Scott Morrison attempted to lift the profile of Mr McCormack, branding their leadership team "ScoMo and Big Mac".

National Leader Michael McCormack and PM Scott Morrison.
Nationals Leader Michael McCormack and PM Scott Morrison, aka "Big Mac" and "ScoMo".
AAP

How has he been doing?

As the Coalition's junior partner and a self-described champion of rural and regional Australia, the Nationals have a unique and difficult role to play in federal politics.

Dr Zareh Ghazarian, an author and political scientist at Monash University, said previous successful Nationals leaders have featured prominently in the political debate – but he is not sure Mr McCormack is pursuing that course.

“Michael McCormack doesn’t seem to have that high public profile Barnaby Joyce or his predecessors had in the past,” Dr Ghazarian said.

“So, I think for the National Party there has been some frustration there.

“But that’s not necessarily a bad thing – the main focus of the National Party is really to contest, those rural and regional seats, especially in Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland."

Michael McCormack (left) shakes hands with Drought Envoy Barnaby Joyce (right) during the National Drought Summit 2018.
Michael McCormack (left) shakes hands with Drought Envoy Barnaby Joyce (right) during the National Drought Summit 2018.
AAP

Dr Jill Sheppard, a lecturer at the Australian National University's School of Politics, said Mr McCormack's modus operandi seems to be a mirror-image of Mr Joyce's.

"I think he is popular among his colleagues, but they worry that he's not very popular with the electorate,” Dr Sheppard said.

“Barnaby Joyce is not very popular with his colleagues, but has been, a lot more popular with rural voters."

Election watch

Whether Mr McCormack has done enough to remain as leader after the election is hard to say, Dr Ghazarian said.

“We will get a clear indication, obviously, but at this stage, there is clear concern,” he said.

“The National Party seems to think he may not have done enough - especially if there’s talk about Barnaby Joyce coming in to try and boost their profile again.

“I think that suggests some within the National Party are concerned about what their prospects are at, and after, the next election."

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