Tony Abbott’s role model in developing his style as Opposition Leader was Barnstorming Barnaby Joyce. But this week something changed between the two men. It was an important moment for Australia.
It was Barnaby Joyce who led in developing what’s become the Abbott trademark – the angry, populist, fear-mongering attack on the carbon tax.
Even when Malcolm Turnbull was still Liberal leader, even when Tony Abbott was advising his colleagues just to wave carbon pricing through, Joyce was giving furious stump speeches railing against the “great big new tax” and warning darkly of $100 lamb roasts.
Abbott decided to jump aboard the Barnaby wagon. He rode it all the way to the leader’s job. He rode it to a near-win in the 2010 election. And he rode it to a crushing and persistent poll lead over the government.
Abbott took off his hat to the National Party senator for Queensland: “I think that Barnaby is a uniquely gifted retail politician,” he said as he took the leadership and invited Barnaby onto his frontbench.
But this week Joyce led a new populist attack against the government, and, this time, Abbott refused to follow.
Barnaby, almost single-handed, generated a big wave of controversy over the Gillard government’s approval of a foreign buyout of Cubbie Station, a huge, thirsty, cotton farm in Queensland and the biggest farming property in Australia. He called it a “bloody disgrace” that sold out the national interest.
His point of objection? That the foreign company that dominates the buying consortium was once a state-owned entity and while it had been “nominally privatised” it was still a “state-connected” enterprise.
The decision by the Treasurer, Wayne Swan, to give conditional approval was a “farce” because it gave another nation’s government the right of sovereign ownership “over a piece of our sovereign soil”.
You can see the populist potential of this. It strikes all the old themes struck reliably by populists going back to the 18th century: selling off the farm, Chinese invasion, loss of sovereignty, foreign interference.
The story became one of the biggest in the media this week. It was the fifth most-discussed political story with a total of 6819 reports or mentions in print, on air and online, according to Sentia Media, formerly Media Monitors. It’s a particularly hot topic outside the capital cities.
It might have seemed tempting to an Opposition Leader looking for a new wagon to ride. The carbon-attack wagon has lost momentum as the reality of the tax is nowhere near the advertised Armageddon. The asylum-seeker wagon is growing a bit sluggish too now that it is co-owned by Labor and the Coalition.
But it turned out that Abbott had reached the limit of his range as a populist fear-monger. This time, the master led but the apprentice refused to follow.
Abbott and his Treasury spokesman, Joe Hockey, complained about the timing of Swan’s announcement, made late on a Friday afternoon, the traditional time for companies reporting bad news or governments trying to minimise coverage. The late Friday announcement is known as time to “put out your garbage”.
But not the substance. Abbott yesterday: “We have a very strong policy on foreign investment. We support foreign investment. It has to be in the national interest and there is a process for determining whether the national interest is in fact being advanced.
“It goes before the Foreign Investment Review Board, then it goes to the Treasurer. The Treasurer often will impose conditions on the sale and that is exactly what happened in this particular case.”
Cubbie Station, which produces 10 per cent of the national cotton crop on a small inland sea’s worth of water from the Murray-Darling system and is worked by 170 staff, has been in serious financial strife, in voluntary administration for three years, with reported debts of $320 million, and unable to find a buyer.
A Chinese-Australian consortium has bid a reported sum of something under $300 million. The Australian investor, with 20 per cent of the equity, is Lempriere, a century-and-a-half old family-owned textile business.
The Chinese investor, with the other 80 per cent, is Shandong RuYi Scientific & Technological Group. In turn, it’s owned by a consortium of Japanese and Chinese investors. It has stated assets of $430 million and 30,000 employees across three continents. Despite Joyce’s furious hints and imputations, it is not state-owned or state-controlled.
Swan said that commercial negotiations could proceed on a number of strict conditions. One is that the Chinese partner, RuYi, must sell down its equity to 51 per cent over three years. Others are that the property is managed by the Australian partner; that half the board is Australian; and that the existing staff are allowed to stay on with their current levels of benefits. Further, the cotton must be marketed at arms-length.
The Liberals’ deputy leader, Julie Bishop, remarked: “Having the certainty of the injection of funds into the station to secure its profitability and secure its jobs is better than having it in administration. It’s good for the region and good for the nation.”
The Brisbane Courier-Mail agreed: “The alternative, as recognised by the sensible members of the Nationals, that the cotton farm would be closed, 170 jobs would be lost and the water allocations sold off. Where is the local – or national – interest in that?”
The paper took aim at Joyce as not one of the sensible Nationals: “It would be disappointing if Senator Joyce was playing politics with real investment and real jobs for Queensland.”
Joyce playing politics? But of course he is. Joyce is in the career cul-de-sac known as the Senate. He is an ambitious politician and wants to move to the House.
Once there, he would like to take the leadership of the National Party and, assuming the Coalition wins the next election, Barnaby would become deputy prime minister.
But to get there, he needs a seat, and the one he covets is his local Queensland seat of Maranoa. This seat, which covers a land area larger than France, also happens to be home to Cubbie Station.
The problem for Joyce is that the seat is currently occupied by Bruce Scott, age 67. Scott is what the Courier-Mail would call a “sensible” National. He supports the Chinese-Japanese-Australian bid for Cubbie.
So by positioning against the sale, Joyce is also positioning against his own National Party colleague and the man in the seat that he covets.
Abbott knows all about the power of the economic nationalists and xenophobes of Queensland populism. It was Abbott who led the Liberal Party demolition of Pauline Hanson. Her One Nation party opened a dangerous division in the conservative voter base.
Under the right conditions, that division opens up like a gaping wound, red and angry, like Barnaby Joyce himself mid-tirade. And that is exactly the danger that Joyce poses. The Joyce campaign, unchecked, has the potential to split the Coalition and revisit the 1987 Joh-for-Canberra campaign.
That campaign of Queensland populism led by the premier, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, divided the Coalition vote and destroyed John Howard’s federal election campaign.
That’s exactly why Abbott checked the Joyce campaign. Abbott shut him down and Joe Hockey asserted his authority on Coalition economic policy to support the Foreign Investment Review Board framework. He said the Coalition naysayers were “freelancing” and did not represent Coalition policy.
During his interview on the ABC’s 7.30 on Wednesday, Leigh Sales asked Joyce whether he’d spoken with Abbott or Hockey in the previous 24 hours?
Sales: And what was said?
Joyce: That’s none of your business.
It’s perfectly clear what was said. Joyce has since limited his criticism to attacking the way Swan announced his decision, not the substance of the decision itself or the framework for foreign investment. Both Labor and the Coalition have working groups looking at improving the transparency and management of the foreign investment regime, looking to tweak it rather than tear it up.
But we can now be reasonably confident that rational policy in the national interest will remain a bipartisan commitment, in this area, at least. Which is just as well.
Australia has deep dependence on foreign investment, trade and immigration, and always has. We need always to be alert to how best to manage these central supports to our prosperity and social wellbeing, and always vigilant against threats to their health.
Australia is about to give birth to the Asian Century white paper in the next few weeks, written by the former Treasury secretary Ken Henry and the ANU’s Peter Drysdale. Barnaby Joyce is set to be the witch at the christening, muttering dark imprecations and curses at the happy event.
But because Tony Abbott has outgrown Barnaby Joyce, choosing a rational policy over a populist one, Australia should be able to embrace the event in the national interest.
Peter Hartcher is the political editor.
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.