Barnaby Joyce, policy whacko esquire

Despite the resumption of parliament, political debate has been muted this week; with the news dominated by a few unfortunate seconds of video footage of a Macquarie Bank worker and a legal case featuring one (or is that two?) of Australia’s favourite national songs. Such is the flippant, transitory and ultimately tabloid nature of modern news.

One intervention into the headlines worthy of debate was made by Shadow Finance Minister Barnaby Joyce. Appearing at the National Press Club for the first time as a seriously senior member of the Opposition, Joyce delivered a performance that undoubtedly left Liberal Party members across the country scratching their heads and squirming in their seats. Michelle Grattan reports on Joyce’s most questionable comments in The Age:

”We are giving $150 million to the World Bank. Fair enough. $50 million of that is to deal with the food inflationary aspects in the Third World. Well, why doesn’t Kevin Rudd deal with the food inflationary aspects in this world, you know? That would be handy,” he said.

Senator Joyce said: ”We’ve got to be cautious when we’re borrowing money from overseas to send back to overseas … because we’ve got to pay the money back.”

Putting our Macquarie Bank staffer to shame, in a matter of seconds, Tony Abbott’s right-hand man dropped a whole swag full of clunkers right there. For starters – Joyce’s rant rode roughshod over official Coalition policy on foreign aid, forcing the Opposition Leader and his Deputy to issue terse “corrections” on his behalf. It also raised serious questions about his ability to be the senior spokesperson for such a broad, sensitive policy portfolio. To compare the problems that Australia has with access to food to the problems that countries in the Third World have with access to food is quite simply, outrageous. That Joyce saw fit to raise the prospect of abandoning or reducing Australia’s small obligations to the international needy smacks of narrow, parochial self-interest, reflecting quite poorly indeed upon his character.

The Shadow Finance Minister’s financial credentials also warrant some serious questioning. Particularly in the wake of the financial crisis experienced over the last couple of years, national governments across the world have surged into debt. Some national governments are worse off than others, but what is readily apparent is that Australia’s net financial position, considering our projected ability to repay outstanding debt, is superior to just about any other nation out there. It is not strange, wrong or inadvisable for Australia to be in debt; certainly not any more the case than it is for Harvey Norman or Woolworths to borrow money, or for you or I to take out a mortgage to purchase property, at home or abroad.

Joyce seems to be suggesting that it may be inadvisable to borrow money “overseas” if the money is to be spent “overseas”, ostensibly on people who are not Australians. What sort of short-sighted, hermit kingdom mentality does that betray? What miniscule price does Joyce put on the lives of people that Australia’s aid assists, let alone Australia’s international reputation and renown as the land of the “fair go”?

Frankly, it was a Sarah Palin-esque moment, with a dash of Pauline on the side. As this year’s federal election looms large, Tony Abbott is likely going to come to rue the day that he decided that he wanted Barnaby Joyce to serve as one of his right-hand men. If, as Palin famously suggested, she can see Russia from Alaska, then this week’s events have proven (for any still in doubt) that Barnaby Joyce can really, truly, indubitably see the Third World from rural Queensland.

Evidently, if Australia is in debt, it can all rot.

ELSEWHERE: It’s hard to go past Damien Kingsbury’s surgical dissection of Joyce’s folly folly, also in The Age. To summarise:

Without any prompting, Joyce appears to have wandered off into policy whacko-land.

A wafer-thin Coalition?

Purportedly, one of the positive traits of the Liberal Party as an ideological entity is that it stands up staunchly for the individual. While the Labor Party enforces a very strict brand of collective party room discipline when it comes to parliamentary voting, the Liberal Party has traditionally been viewed as being a bit more tolerant of members who express dissenting views, either publicly or in parliament. This approach takes on an additional level of complexity when one also considers the Liberal Party’s coalition with the National Party federally, and the practically mandatory requirement within modern Australian parliamentary politics for leaders to maintain ironclad control over their own parties (or at least appear to).

Obviously, the rough ideology of the National Party overlaps to a certain extent with that of the Liberal Party, particularly on social or “moral” issues, where both parties tend strongly towards the conservative side of the political spectrum. However, it would clearly be a mistake to assume that the unity that the Coalition exhibited during the lifetime of the Howard Government was the natural state of the relationship. It now seems that the glow of power provided ostensibly by the popularity of John Howard in the role of Prime Minister was the glue that held these uncomfortable allies together. Howard also had the added benefit of being a Liberal whose views were generally conservative, and flexibly pragmatic enough to command the support of the National Party. He was not averse to engaging in acts of rank populism from time to time in order to keep his rural mates on board, even if they did not always sit comfortably with his own ideological views.

By comparison, it is also becoming ever clearer that if John Howard was a ready-made uniter as a leader of the Coalition, Malcolm Turnbull is a ready-made divider. Turnbull is a polarising figure within his own party, and he is even moreso in the context of the broader Coalition. Socially, he is to the left of the majority of the parliamentary Liberal Party, and of course the parliamentary National Party. In terms of economic views, he is to the liberal right of the entire parliamentary National Party, his views etched indelibly by his experiences in the business world and a life of urban affluence.

In trying to compete with the Rudd Government, whose party room discipline thus far has been comparable to that of the Howard Government in terms of ruthlessness, Turnbull has been trying to enforce a similar level of discipline. He is also trying hard to have things his way, as any leader would do, but problematically, his views do not align very well with those of his party or indeed his party’s coalition partner. Clearly, he can not have it both ways; something has to give, either the primacy of Turnbull’s personal ideology as leader or the party-room discipline he is trying to enforce.

Malcolm Turnbull is going to have to defuse this situation, and quickly, or else either his leadership or the federal coalition agreement with the National Party are going to be irrevocably damaged. He can not have his cake and eat it too, as he did in the private sector. He needs to compromise on his own views, or give the reins to somebody who can.

ELSEWHERE: More from Mark over at Larvatus Prodeo.