Veterans’ Affairs Minister Michael McCormack is firming as the favourite to be the new Nationals leader and deputy prime minister, as the party desperately tries to put the Barnaby Joyce saga behind it.
- Nationals MPs and senators will meet on Monday to elect a new leader
- Michael McCormack is tipped to win the job and repair relations between the Liberal and National parties
- Mr McCormack has the backing of Nationals MPs Darren Chester and Mark Coulton
Yesterday Mr Joyce bowed to a barrage of negative headlines and unrelenting internal pressure, quitting as leader of the Nationals.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, speaking from the United States last night, said Mr Joyce had made the right decision and said he looked forward to working with his successor.
“This is a personal matter for Mr Joyce, he has got to deal with some personal issues and a complaint. I believe he has made the right judgement in resigning,” he said.
Nationals MPs and senators will now meet on Monday to elect a new leader, and some are tipping Mr McCormack will win the job.
His supporters claim Mr McCormack would be able to repair the bonds between the Liberal Party and the Nationals, which have been badly frayed during the debate about Mr Joyce’s future.
Mr Turnbull has denied suggestions that the Nationals and the Liberal Party were at loggerheads.
“There are no issues between the National and Liberal Party. The alliance between the National and Liberal Party is very strong,” Mr Turnbull said.
But many Nationals have been infuriated that some Liberals have been working to white-ant Mr Joyce by backgrounding the media — sometimes venomously.
Mr McCormack put out a statement after Mr Joyce’s announcement, confirming he will contest the leadership.
He touted his ministerial experience, and emphasised the importance of the Coalition partnership.
“We have been the most successful partnership in Australian political history. We are a strong team and we know together we can achieve great outcomes for our nation,” Mr McCormack said.
Nationals MPs Darren Chester and Mark Coulton have already publicly backed Mr McCormack.
Mr Coulton said Mr McCormack was “a very solid person, a man of great character, and I think he is the person we need at the moment to lead us away from who we are”.
Mr Chester said the Veterans’ Affairs Minister was “the most experienced House of Representatives minister we have in the Parliament right now”.
“I think for the sake of the party we need to unite behind one candidate, have a consensus candidate we can all agree on — I think Michael is the guy who can do that for us,” he told Radio National.
That prospect looks unlikely at the moment. Some Nationals predict Agriculture Minister David Littleproud could throw his hat in the ring as well — although he has not publicly shown his hand.
And Assistant Health Minister David Gillespie has declared he will run in Monday’s ballot.
Dr Gillespie said he was a “straight-shooter” and he was backing himself to win the job.
“I get on with everyone, collegial, team player, I’m a safe pair of hands. I know how to do the job of being a minister. I get on well with Coalition colleagues,” he told the ABC’s 7.30.
But some Nationals say Dr Gillespie’s leadership pitch is complicated by the constitutional question mark which still hovers over his election.
Darren Chester praised Dr Gillespie, but agreed the constitutional challenge presented an “element of risk” to the Nationals.
Voters sick of ‘political soap opera’
Whoever wins on Monday, there is widespread and overwhelming relief in Coalition ranks that Mr Joyce has finally decided to go to the backbench.
Liberal MPs — even those hostile to Mr Turnbull — say Mr Joyce’s position was untenable after his relationship with the Prime Minister broke down spectacularly last week.
The Federal Nationals president Larry Anthony paid tribute to Mr Joyce but said his decision to quit drew a “line in the sand”, giving the party an opportunity to move on from the controversy.
Nationals are concerned the whole saga has done enormous damage to their brand.
Mr Chester said voters were sick of “politics as a soap opera”.
“We can do better, I’m sure,” he said.
“I apologise to the Australian people that they have had to go through this pretty tawdry period.”
Queensland National Llew O’Brien said Mr Joyce’s departure was “not a happy day” for the party.
But he played down suggestions the controversy would repel social conservatives and women from the party.
“I think women as much as men understand it’s not a happy time, and it’s a difficult time,” Mr O’Brien said.
“[But] I don’t accept that women are just going to automatically take a position that they don’t like the National Party because the leader had a marriage breakdown.”