In a surreal turn of events, Barnaby’s back and the grotesquery of Australian politics is laid bare | Katharine Murphy

By Katharine Murphy

On days like this, I always get a text from one of my most treasured journalistic mentors. The text reads: “Find the words.”

Finding the words is not generally onerous; it is the job.

But how do you find the words to document the constantly refreshing permanent presenteeism of the Abbott/Truss, Turnbull/Truss, Turnbull/Joyce, Turnbull/McCormack, Morrison/McCormack and now Morrison/Joyce governments?

How do you tell readers, yes, sure, our region has saddled up to reaching net zero emissions within a few decades, science and economics being what they are – but in Canberra, climate change has been weaponised again, entirely opportunistically – a bit of transient cover for deposing another Australian political leader?

How do you begin to describe the surreal set of circumstances in Monday’s question time, when Michael McCormack, having just been comprehensively Barnstormed – having been blasted out of a job by a chaos merchant – wasn’t permitted to vacate the field to lament his fate in private.

McCormack had to persist with answering questions as deputy prime minister for the entire session because the governor general wasn’t in Canberra to swear in Barnaby Joyce. For the record, the vanquished Nationals leader tap danced loyally at the dispatch box with a quality you might fear is extinct in the 2600 postcode; a quality we might call grace.

Persisting with my struggle to find the words, how do you tell the Australian people, slogging through a pandemic, that the Nationals have reverted to default derangement at their expense, plotting and stampeding like a herd of bulls? All while Scott Morrison was sequestered in the Lodge for a question time quarantine dumb-show, reduced to spectating via a flat screen in the House of Representatives chamber, like a transient bystander, or a person ringing in the Eurovision votes.

How on earth do you convey the grotesquery of Australian politics?

I suppose you start writing, and hope for the best. So let’s do that.

In case you missed it, Barnaby (who, like Beyonce, is iconic enough to only need one name) is back, after a three-year, entirely obvious guerrilla campaign to snatch his old job back.

Barnaby is back because McCormack, who tried to survive as Nationals leader by being a poor man’s Barnaby (railing incoherently about goats cheese and Adam Bandt being a traitor) was entirely unconvincing in that role, because he’s nothing at all like Barnaby.

McCormack’s a bloke from Wagga Wagga who used to edit a regional newspaper who ended up leading the Nationals almost accidentally in the aftermath of Barnaby exploding in full public view.

Because of those suboptimal circumstances, and because accepting personal responsibility is an oppressive burden many contemporary politicians struggle with, McCormack inherited a political party where the members loathed one another to a point of paralysis.

It’s hard to rise to the occasion in those brutal circumstances, and the consensus was McCormack fell up and failed to rise.

So, on Monday, the real Barnaby replaced the man from Wagga Wagga pretending to be Barnaby and his acolytes and allies clapped heartily and declared King Barnaby would save all the central Queensland seats (that probably weren’t really at risk). The people who think Barnaby is, at best unpredictable, and at worst, destructive, rocked quietly in a corner and wondered how it had come to this.

Monday’s eventual landing point – Barnaby in a parliamentary courtyard declaring victory and pronouncing himself a changed man – was spun by various protagonists working the parliamentary press gallery. (Short version(s): this is triumph/demise/who knows, fingers crossed eh?)

Just before we move on to the why and the what (the important parts) it must be noted for posterity that when they hit the courtyard Joyce, David Littleproud and Bridget McKenzie formed the most memorable leadership spill triptych since Mathias Cormann, Mitch Fifield and Michaelia Cash came in funereal spirit to bury Malcolm Turnbull back in 2018 – remember that? As Turnbull is fond of saying, what a time to be alive.

Ok. Let’s move now to the why. Simple. Things came to a head on Monday for a couple of reasons. Joyce wanted the job and he needed to move during a narrow window while the party room numbers were favourable to him.

Also, the people who wanted change felt the party needed to switch leaders now – the last sitting week before the winter break – because even though Scott Morrison says constantly the government will run full term and he won’t call an election until next year, next to no one really believes that. So the feeling was now or never.

It could have been never, but in the end it was now.

Now the what, as in what does all this mean?

It really does depend. It depends whether or not Barnaby really is a changed man – and by that, I mean whether he has finally grown up, or whether he remains ruled by his impulses.

The Nationals party room is a diverse and deeply divided group – the same diverse and deeply divided group that pecked large chunks out of McCormack most days in broad daylight.

Does Joyce, who has always been, by disposition, a solo act, a minor cult of personality, have the skill set to manage internal diversity and difference, beginning with an epiphany that he’s not the only person in the room?

I guess we’ll see.

Persisting with what. Much is being made about Joyce, the friend of fossil fuels, killing off any prospect Morrison had of convincing Australian voters the Coalition has inched past its insanity on climate policy.

During the period of Egregious Exile, Barnaby has been on a coal crusade, and has also been dabbling in Trumpesque foreign policy isolationism – “we must have baseload power to repel the hordes who want our stuff” #YouKnowItMakesSense.

So, perhaps net zero by 2050 (such as it was, and it really wasn’t very much, truth told) is dead, buried and cremated.

But it’s not yet clear to me whether or not Barnaby will persist with the Doctor Denial routine, or whether the Nationals, with the King of New England restored, rightfully, to his castle, are just preparing to do what Nationals do: name their price.