If you were sitting in the same Canberra coffee shop last Wednesday morning as my husband David and I were, catching up over breakfast with Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce and his wife Natalie, you’d have been hard-pressed to pick up any indication that the dedicated agriculture minister and family man would be the nation’s deputy PM the following evening. Not from him, anyway.
You might have observed a few grimaces though from some sad old characters at a gathering in the Nationals partyroom the evening prior. A leak that much-loved Warren Truss would announce his retirement the following day set the usual suspects across the corridor into a spin – presumably ruminating over the inevitable ascension of Barnaby.
(As the Nationals’ former deputy campaign director, I learned not to pay much attention to splutters from the 'Anyone but Barnaby' camp.)
So I wasn’t completely surprised to find myself driving back to Canberra - again – late Thursday afternoon, to sit with Barnaby’s family while the party vote was undertaken.
Everyone was very nervous still. The office was quiet. There was no hubris. A minute later, Barnaby is confirmed as leader and Fiona Nash his deputy.
The National Party began a new chapter. It will be a very different party with Barnaby Joyce and Fiona Nash at the helm. It will be a much better National Party and, I believe, a much better Coalition.
Five things you need to know about Barnaby
1. Barnaby has a long memory
You always want to be on the right side of history. Barnaby respects loyalty and I pity those who haven’t. The Nationals don’t change leaders very often, and Barnaby is likely to be leader of the Nats a long time.
2. Malcolm Turnbull needs Barnaby Joyce and vice-versa
Turnbull and Joyce will make a formidable team. Barnaby is 'campaign gold' and as much a blessing for the Liberal Party as the National Party. He complements the prime minister perfectly, and will win votes in marginal Coalition seats at federal elections.
3. Barnaby is not homophobic
My husband David and I both consider Barnaby and Natalie good friends of ours. Yes, we even invited them to our wedding in New York in 2014. As for same-sex marriage, people are entitled to their own opinion and I’m pretty sure the will of the Australian public will guide Barnaby. He’s a great bloke. Looking for circumstantial evidence? I’d look at which Nationals are in cabinet and the ministry, and which aren’t.
4. Barnaby is a scholar
Barnaby is a qualified accountant, graduating both from the University of New England and the school of hard knocks, and has owned his own business. He comes across as a real country bloke - which he is - but there is a good brain and management astuteness there as well.
5. He and Natalie have raised a beautiful family
Barnaby's family are salt-of-the-earth, ‘next door’ people; the kind that build communities. You need that quality in leaders because they make decisions that consider the people.
Barnaby’s main challenge will be making sure the federal National Party gets its act together, capitalises on the strength of its new leadership and wins key marginal seats at the next election - where it has a real chance.
In the mid-term, I think Barnaby will moderate some of the more extreme voices in his diverse party. I believe he has the brawn to do it while keeping everyone happy - just like John “Black Jack” McEwen did.
Michael Kauter is founder and principal counsel at Strategic Political Counsel. He was a senior political adviser in both the Abbott and Howard governments, and in 2013 was deputy federal campaign director for the National Party.