A DEFIANT Barnaby Joyce has downplayed the significance of an alleged ‘crisis meeting’ between state Nationals branches last night, with WA expressing concerns about his leadership of the rural based federal political party, which is facing unprecedented threat and fall-out.
Mr Joyce has taken a week of personal leave after the first fortnight of federal parliament sitting for 2018 exploded with revelations about his controversial affair with former staff member Vikki Campion who worked in his office while he served as Agriculture and Water Resources Minister, after the 2016 federal election.
Mr Joyce has been challenged and urged to explain the use of taxpayer funds in relation to Ms Campion’s time working in his office, and that of other party members - including the rate of payment relating to her change of roles after being shifted from his office – denying any wrongdoing
Some party sources have pointed to the Nationals having not challenged a sitting leader in about 100 years as justification for Mr Joyce’s continued leadership and apparent lack of an alternative, with deputy-leader Bridget McKenzie being in the Senate.
But a persistent stream of phone calls and emails sent to individual members, expressing concerns about the party’s current direction, is maintaining pressure behind the scenes which could sway the views of party members, on the leader’s future.
“He’s damaged goods,” one source said.
It’s understood leaders of the Nationals executive divisions from Queensland, NSW, Victoria and WA held an urgent phone hook last night in conjunction with the party’s federal executive, where recent matters were addressed.
Reports say the meeting provided feedback from grassroots members about the fallout of Mr Joyce’s recent affairs, as question marks hang over his ongoing leadership amid mounting calls for his resignation.
Nationals Federal Director Ben Hindmarsh was contacted for comment on the meeting and any outcomes - but did not respond before deadline.
However, Mr Joyce spoke to Fairfax Media yesterday saying it was the party’s federally elected members who chose the leader and not the executive branches and he was “not going anywhere”.
Mr Joyce said the phone hook-up on Monday night wasn’t an official meeting of the party's executive committee and “the leader of the Nationals is decided by Nationals MPs”.
“I’ve been in heaps of fights in my political life, this is another one, in any person’s political career you aren’t created by the times in your favour, you’re tempered by the times of adversity,” he said.
“That’s how politics works - you rise to deal with it.
“I am humbled by the support in my electorate and in the community.
“People are starting to see this as a witch hunt.
“I’m not going anywhere, I never would.”
But sources within the WA Nationals have indicated serious discontent with Mr Joyce’s continued leadership, declaring conservative forces are already likely to face a significant hit at next year’s federal election, in that state.
However the effectiveness of any campaigning, to try to win Liberal held seats like O’Connor and Durack, or a Senate position, will “all but evaporate” if the federal leadership remains unchanged; given the party has suffered brand and credibility damage, in the wake of recent events, especially with female voters.
The WA Nationals and Liberals are separate parties in WA with no official agreement in place, allowing them to openly campaign against sitting members at elections.
That’s unlike the structure in Queensland where the two conservative parties are formally merged and the nomination of candidates to contest various seats is pre-determined to avoid any clash or dilution of resources.
NSW and Victoria have formal agreements in place where they negotiate various management terms, like the contests for various state and federal seats.
A similar practice is applied to the federal Coalition which allows the Nationals leader to become the Deputy Prime Minister in government and the number of elected members also determines the ministerial portfolio allocations.
The WA Nationals opened nominations for Durack and O'Connor yesterday with some speculation saying former state leader and one-time king-maker Brendon Grylls could be interested in making a political come-back and taking a tilt at Canberra, via next year’s federal poll.
But the WA Nationals hopes of defeating incumbent Liberals Rick Wilson, O’Connor and Melissa Price, Durack, may be hamstrung with Mr Joyce understood to have told them federal members won’t campaign for the party in WA as it would cause a backlash due to the federal Liberals saying they’ll n turn campaign against the Nationals, in their east coast seats.
Ahead of the federal Nationals meeting again in Canberra next Monday when Mr Joyce returns from leave and parliament reconvenes, media pressure continues to escalate around the leadership crisis.
While reports speculate and vary on whether Mr Joyce has the numbers needed in the party room to retain his leadership position, and subsequent Deputy Prime Minister and Transport and Infrastructure Minister roles, Nationals members were keeping their position and views tightly hidden.
Queensland Nationals MP Keith Pitt told ABC radio yesterday “The leadership of the Nationals party is a matter for the Nationals party room”.
“The leadership is the gift of the party room - and there is a party room meeting a week today in Canberra,” he said.
"The leadership of the Nationals party is a matter for the Nationals party room. The leadership is the gift of the party room. And there is a party room meeting a week today in Canberra." @keithjpitt remained tight lipped this morning on #BarnabyJoyce. @abcnews@abcwidebay— Eliza Goetze (@elizagoetze) February 19, 2018
NSW Nationals Riverina MP and Veteran Affairs Minister Michael McCormack has been widely tipped to become the party’s next leader and is understood to have fallen narrowly short of the numbers required to raise a spill motion on a vote to defeat Mr Joyce, when he took over from Warren Truss in 2016.
Speaking to Sky News yesterday, when asked about the latest Newspoll that said 65 per cent of voters think it's time for Mr Joyce to step aside as Nationals Leader, Mr McCormack said, “we don't decide our office-bearers by Newspolls”.
“The government doesn't govern by Newspolls,” he said.
But he declined repeated opportunities to say whether Mr Joyce should step aside.
“I'm sure that members of the National Party are listening to our constituents, as we always are,” he said.
“I'm sure that we're listening to our National Party branch members, as we always do.
“And certainly I know that the Nationals are focused on delivering.
“Barnaby is having a week off.
“I think it's time that everybody took a deep breath and talked more about the things that matter and the things that matter to Australians are jobs.”
Mr McCormack said Mr Joyce “has the support of the National Party and Barnaby Joyce is our leader”.
“Barnaby Joyce has done a very good job delivering for rural and regional Australians,” he said.
“This has, sure, been unfortunate.
“This has, sure, been a distraction, but Barnaby Joyce is the leader, there is no spill, there is no vacancy at the moment and certainly Barnaby Joyce will continue to be the leader as long as he gets the support of the National Party room.
“Barnaby Joyce at the moment has the support of the National Party – that's what matters.
“Barnaby Joyce has the support for us because he has delivered very, very well for rural and regional Australia.”
Mr McCormack said there had been reporting about “so-called meetings” in ministerial offices between the member for Hinkler, Mr Pitt, the member for Mallee Andrew Broad and himself but “no such meetings have taken place”.
“In fact, the member for Mallee visited my office last week to talk about a veterans' affairs matter and a regional development matter,” he said.
“Keith Pitt has not visited my office – repeat, not visited my office – whilst I have been the minister for veterans' affairs and no such discussion about Barnaby Joyce has taken place in my office.
“I also read, and it was repeated in many, many newspapers that there is a so-called WhatsApp group between Nationals pushing for change.
“Well, if there is, I am not part of it.”
“Barnaby Joyce is the leader of the party and…there is no challenge at the moment.”
“There are no secret meetings taking place.
“As far as I am aware, there are no clandestine WhatApps chat groups between National Party members.
“Of course I support Barnaby Joyce and if that is the takeaway from the interview, well it is a wrong take to make because of course, I support Barnaby Joyce.
“He is our leader, he has been a very good leader for the National Party – the National Party in government has delivered and has delivered the sorts of things that our people could have only dreamt of under a Labor government.”
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