Barnaby Joyce is the sort of bloke who will happily have a smoke and a beer with anyone, a terrific natural politician, often frank and usually entertaining. He’s an ideal local MP. But as Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources, he is a man elevated above his level of competence.

Joyce sees himself as the champion of a downtrodden group: regional and rural Australians. It would be tempting to say that he appeals to the same mindset as Donald Trump, but he usually behaves with a decency that Trump doesn’t possess.

He does, however, possess a Trumpian lack of interest in good policy. He wants to Make Regional Australia Great Again, without having any real idea how to do it.

This isn’t a matter of right versus left. Labor has put plenty of duds and worse into parliaments over the years, but Joyce is Deputy Prime Minister. Nor is it a matter of city versus country; parts of regional Australia have very real and very large problems that need smart solutions. Joyce’s problem is his instinct to grasp at not-so-smart solutions.

A few examples:

  • Joyce is degrading the capacity of the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) by moving it from Canberra to Armidale, a New South Wales country town that happens to be inside Joyce’s own electorate. As I’ve written previously for The CEO Magazine, independent assessment says the move would be a net economic negative for the nation. And key personnel are leaving APVMA in droves.
  • Joyce reportedly threatened to quit the government in 2013 unless the government banned Graincorp shareholders from selling their shares to US-based Archer Daniels Midland. The reasons for that decision were so thin as to leave little doubt that it was entirely political: many farmers had a gut-level dislike for the sale to one of those terrible foreigners, Joyce led the Nationals’ charge against it, and Liberal members of the Coalition surrendered. Graincorp shareholders – people with the demonstrated willingness to invest in Australian agriculture ventures if their cash was freed up – had to either stay with Graincorp or take a lot less for their stock.
  • Soon after becoming a minister, Joyce fell out with his departmental head, the very well-regarded Paul Grimes. At the heart of that still-mysterious dispute were alterations to the official record of claims made by Joyce in Parliament. In a letter to Joyce, Grimes wrote that he could not see how to resolve “matters relating to integrity” – Joyce’s integrity, though Grimes seems to have been too proper to put it that way. Shortly afterwards, Grimes was removed from his post; Joyce ploughed on.
  • In a recording obtained by the ABC last week, Joyce brushed off an ABC report that suggested massive breaches of the Murray–Darling agreement, the cornerstone of eastern Australian water policy. The agreement sets out how much each state will take out of the Murray–Darling river system; the ABC report suggests NSW officials allowed irrigators to take more than their agreed share. Officially, Joyce said the program “raised serious concerns” – though his face suggested the answer had been extracted by torture. Unofficially, his reaction was to explain to a pub gathering a few days later that the National Party had ensured that water policy went back into Joyce’s agriculture ministry “so we can look after you” and that the ABC report was simply “about them trying to take water off you”.

This reaction to the water rights scandal is pure Joyce, committed to his people but with no sense of the greater national need – in this case, the need to share out limited water between four states, including parched SA. Joyce took aim at “the Greenies”, but in truth water rights disputes predate the Green movement by hundreds of years.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, no doubt also conscious of SA voters’ loathing of upstream water thieves, has now slapped down Joyce by ordering a federal review of water law compliance. He can’t apply much more discipline, because as head of the National Party Joyce enjoys a certain level of protection.

Nevertheless, independent SA senator Nick Xenophon is suggesting power over national water policy should be siphoned out of Joyce’s portfolio. Coalition politics makes this very unlikely. But it would be a sensible step – to rein in a minister who has never quite found his way beyond the role of endearing local member.


Feature image courtesy of: Apply and Pear Australia Ltd