'He's a maverick': why New England kept the faith with Barnaby Joyce

Barnaby Joyce in Armidale
Barnaby Joyce says New Englanders perhaps saw him as ‘a problem, but their problem, not someone else’s’. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Hlcarpenter.com
Barnaby Joyce says New Englanders perhaps saw him as ‘a problem, but their problem, not someone else’s’. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Hlcarpenter.com

MP faced heavy criticism outside his seat over his conduct and track record, but locals say this lifted his support from within

Gabrielle Chan

Last modified on Sat 15 Jun 2019 01.47 EDT

It was one of the election surprises that Barnaby Joyce not only kept his seat but also increased his margin on 2016 after an unprecedented term of personal and professional turmoil.

New England retired farmers Brian and Cynthia Tomalin put it down to the fact that in smaller communities, people rarely have their political views challenged. Brian calls it his dog theory.

“As farmers we are a pretty insular lot,” he says. “We spend all day by ourselves generally with nobody to talk to but our dogs.

“And if we are lucky we will go to the pub on Friday and talk to our mates and we’ll find their dogs have got the same opinion as our dogs. The ideas never get challenged.”

New England voters gave Joyce nearly 55% of the primary vote. While that was a 1o% drop from his 2017 citizenship by-election result, it was a slight increase (2.5%) on the 2016 general election.

Andrew Coventry, of the Armidale Outdoor store, grew up in the region, as did his partner Dee, and they both voted independent. They chalk Joyce’s win down to his high visibility and the sense he was being targeted by the outside media.

“It was a bit of a surprise to us,” Coventry says. “Australians in general love an underdog. They love a local boy story. We kind of fall a little bit for that larrikin, or a villain. A lot of people up here feel he has been hardly done by by the media and maybe crucified a little bit.

“He still did the wrong thing and you can’t escape that, but a lot of people don’t like the idea of him getting badgered as much as he did.”

Rusted-on Coalition voters and swinging voters offer a similar explanation. Rob Richardson is pretty typical of conservative voters in the district. His family ran the department store in the main street of Armidale. He has also been a councillor and worked in employment services, and is now semi-retired.

He describes Joyce as “flamboyant”, an MP who attends to community needs and attracts attention to New England.

“He’s a doer. He gets things done. He is a maverick and there aren’t a lot of those left in politics these days,” Richardson says.

“I thought he was a good deputy prime minister, a big character, a big personality. He is a local fellow from Woolbrook. He’s a guy people can relate to. Mind you, there’s a lot of people who dislike him passionately.”

Retired farmers Brian and Cynthia Tomalin
Retired farmers Brian and Cynthia Tomalin say people in smaller communities rarely have their political views challenged. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Hlcarpenter.com

Asked to nominate what Joyce had done for the electorate, Richardson singles out the highly contentious decision to move the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority from Canberra to Armidale. He watched the outrage in Canberra with bemusement.

“[It was] how dare a regional city steal one of our government departments?” he says.

“To do that was remarkable, there has been controversy around that too ... He just seems to flourish on all this pressure and controversy.”

This is the conundrum between local and national politics. Outside his seat, Joyce has faced fierce criticism, for his personal conduct and for his management of the agriculture and water portfolios. Yet inside the seat, the controversy feeds much of his support.

The APVMA move has been dogged by controversy from 2016 – when Joyce announced it without cabinet approval, under pressure from a challenge from Tony Windsor – to this month when it opened its doors at 91 Beardy Street.

A sign near Tamworth
A sign near Tamworth in front of what Barnaby Joyce calls the ‘weatherboard and iron’ home.
Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Hlcarpenter.com

There was the discarded, critical cost benefit analysis, the change of the site specifications, reports that staff were filing from McDonalds to access wifi, an arson attack on the Armidale Club at 91 Beardy Street while the agriculture department was seeking site information from interested bidders, a coroner’s investigation into the fire and a subsequent suicide, police investigations and numerous attempts in parliament to get to the bottom of the process.

Meanwhile, there is still no national drought policy. Joyce presided over large and regular funding cuts to Landcare. The live export industry, which he has championed, is in tatters – an independent review blamed the former agriculture minister for chronic regulatory failure. Water management of the Murray Darling Basin has reached a critical point, not helped by the controversial water buyback agreed to under his watch, all of which had southern NSW seething and created challenges for Coalition MPs in the seats of Farrer and Mallee during the federal election.

But Joyce bats off any questions with simple solutions.

“If more water has to be allocated for socioeconomic purposes, it should be,” he says in Armidale. “Drought, once it gets to a certain point, is a national emergency.”

The former independent member for New England Tony Windsor
The former independent member for New England Tony Windsor near his farm at Werris Creek. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Hlcarpenter.com

And the choice of 91 Beardy Street for the APVMA?

“In politics you get conspiracy theories,” Joyce says. “I don’t pick the site where they put the building ...

“It’s right up there with the man landing on the moon happened in a basement in Los Angeles.”

An independent streak

After the election, New England has settled back into its rhythm. Our visit coincides with a blanket of snow in parts of the 66,000 square kilometre seat. Joyce has held it since 2013, after he moved from the Queensland Senate to make a run for the lower house to fulfil his leadership ambitions.

He contested New England after the bruising 43rd parliament in which Windsor and fellow independent Rob Oakeshott agreed to support Julia Gillard. The seat includes Woolbrook (population 185, including 18% Indigenous), the town where Joyce’s parents still farm.

His win returned New England to the National party fold, though the electorate had been practically gold-plated after Windsor represented the area at the state and federal level in two hung parliaments.

Windsor’s list of demands from the Gillard government included choosing Armidale for the first roll-out of the national broadband network, extending funding for the Chaffey dam and a Tamworth hospital upgrade, as well as broader policy work on climate change and parliamentary integrity.

But for some in New England, none of that made up for siding with the Labor government. While the area welcomed conservative independents such as Windsor and the former state independent Richard Torbay, who vanished from public life in dubious circumstances, it has been rusted-on National from the early days of federation.

Everyone we spoke to, including Windsor, agreed that his decision to side with Labor affected future independents’ chances in New England, particularly this year’s frontrunner, Adam Blakester.

Add to that Labor’s ambitious platform and Bill Shorten’s low personal support, and it was a long hike in a short campaign for a low-profile centrist independent such as Blakester, who has worked for Greenpeace and is on the board of Lock the Gate.

“A lot of people in the country didn’t particularly like Bill Shorten and they saw anything other than the Coalition as a potential Bill Shorten,” Windsor says. “Part of that would be an overhang from my involvement in the hung parliament back in 2010-13 where some people would still see an independent as possibly going to side with Labor in a hung parliament.

The town of Kentucky south of Armidale in the federal electorate of New England
The town of Kentucky south of Armidale in the federal electorate of New England. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Hlcarpenter.com

“A lot of people are tending to return to what side of the tennis court they were born on, and not look at the issues that were being represented.”

Richardson agrees. “I guess I’m a bit of a pragmatist, and out of that [Armidale] got the NBN … which Tamworth [council] didn’t take up out of sheer anger towards what Tony Windsor had done,” he says. “But I kind of think that really hurt him, there’s no doubt about it. He was in a really difficult position.”

The Tomalins agree that Windsor’s choice created a big hurdle, though they support his decision, given the alternative was a Tony Abbott government.

“If it wasn’t for Tony Windsor, Chaffey dam wouldn’t have been upgraded even though Barnaby Joyce takes the credit because it was finished after Tony left,” says Brian.

“We got a new hospital … he brought in a lot of stuff because of the deals he was able to do with government that benefited the electorate.”

Fierce attacks on Facebook

Colin Gadd, a retired principal, former Armidale councillor and perennial volunteer, describes himself as a swinging voter who has supported Windsor in the past. He had watched Joyce’s Facebook page during the election, which attracted constant attacks from people who seemed to live outside the area.

“He’s a drunkard, he’s a misogynist, he’s a thief, he’s been accused of setting fire to the Armidale Club so they could build the APVMA on it. That is absolute garbage,” Gadd says.

Adam Blakester
Adam Blakester : ‘Voters have mathematically rewarded Joyce for his conduct over the last two years.’ Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Hlcarpenter.com

“All these accusations, it’s a bit like the Nazi propaganda back in the 1930s, tell a big enough lie, tell it enough times and people believe it. The people around here, as evidenced by his vote, ignored it and voted for him anyway.”

Coventry uses the APVMA as an example of a Joyce achievement that went down well in the electorate, providing jobs that could “pay off a mortgage and a new car every five years”. When those high-profile examples are combined with single-name national recognition, he believes it works at the ballot box.

“A lot of people here wouldn’t know how to vote any other way,” he says. “They wouldn’t have thought who else or where else to put that vote. The fact that he was in the news so much probably helped him.”

The very public breakdown of their MP’s marriage, his relationship with his staffer, and their subsequent children were not mentioned by New England voters, though they still featured heavily in conversations about Joyce outside the seat.

Joyce says that while people wouldn’t give him a “gold star” for his relationships, as long as he didn’t shove it in people’s faces, voters treated it as “personal business”.

“To be frank, in some sections of the media, they overdid it, overcooked it,” he says.

The town of Kentucky near Armidale
New England voters gave Joyce nearly 55% of the primary vote. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Hlcarpenter.com

“The nature of Australians in general is if they see someone on the ground, they ask how they got there. If they see someone on the ground sticking the slipper in … they ask other questions and they have an empathy, they say that could be me and I wouldn’t like it.”

Joyce says New Englanders identify heavily with their local region rather than the state and all they want from their MP is “parochial representation”.

“They also saw me as maybe a problem, but their problem, not someone else’s and I acknowledge that. The main thing they wanted out of me was work.”

‘It doesn’t follow logic’

Blakester is appalled by Joyce’s positive swing on 2016, given his ministerial record.

“Voters have mathematically rewarded Joyce for his conduct over the last two years so it doesn’t follow logic,” he says.

The widely held view is that Joyce is good at delivering things like the APVMA but also the usual business of government such as roads, bridges and phone towers, he says.

He believes the video that surfaced during the campaign, which showed Joyce bragging to locals about sacking the agriculture department head Paul Grimes, might have actually helped the MP.

“There is a perception that he is able to deliver in a way because of his bullish nature and a view that’s what it takes, down in Canberra,” Blakester says. “You have to be a strong-willed individual to get results.”

The town of Armidale
The town of Armidale, which became the location for the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Hlcarpenter.com

Blakester’s team had surveyed more than 1,000 voters to ask about their priorities – a move Windsor thought would go down well.

“People always say, you’re not listening to us, you are not doing what we say,” Windsor says. “[Blakester] did that but he wasn’t rewarded for it. The sloganism that Joyce carries on with was rewarded, so I shake my head as much as anybody.”

Blakester is not sure whether he will run again, though his supporters are keen to continue their engagement with the seat. Independent campaigns in seats such as Indi show that continual engagement through the whole parliamentary term is essential to build support in large, very conservative electorates.

Gadd says that if someone started campaigning next week, he would watch them closely. Richardson acknowledges that Joyce appealed to the “Howard battlers” rather than the “intelligentsia”, though that support could change.

“[Joyce] would have got a lot of rusted-off voters, he got me as a rusted-on voter but I would have been a minority,” Richardson says.

“He would have got a lot of voters like Colin who, if someone else comes along and can offer great things, the majority of voters will go that way. And Barnaby knows that.”

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