IT was 9.01am on November 14, 2013, when Barnaby Joyce – the newly elected Member for New England – rose to his feet in Federal Parliament and gave an eloquent speech about why he was there and what he was hoping to achieve.
He had spent the previous eight years as a Senator representing Queensland and was an old political hand, so he started talking about saints.
“Politics is represented by good people on both sides of the chamber,” Joyce said, but “these people are not required to be saints”.
“If you are looking for saints you are looking in the wrong building, because you will have little luck around here. Politicians are not here to save your soul; they are here to look after your country,” he said, in words that would come back to haunt him a little more than four years later.
Barnaby Joyce slots neatly into the role of larrikin political leader of a type that has featured in Australian politics for more than a century. He has a brain, he can talk tough, he doesn’t turn a hair at becoming a global laughing stock over a Hollywood actor’s fluffy dogs, and he revels in being the politically incorrect bloke in the room.
But a larrikin– defined as a person with “apparent disregard for convention” – can come to grief in a conservative political party like the Nationals, where tradition, stability and the championing of family as bedrock of the nation can struggle to accommodate a leader straying too far from the perceived straight and narrow.
There are aspects of the Joyce scandal that should remain private. But Barnaby Joyce campaigned to win his seat while strongly denying limited media questions about his marriage and the rumoured affair with a young staffer. In a conservative seat where nearly half the population voted against same sex marriage, and where Joyce strongly opposed same sex marriage because he believed marriage was between a man and a woman, his affair was not just a private matter, particularly after his younger partner became pregnant.
In his maiden speech Joyce said the most important thing for a politician was to “always stay in touch with those whose beliefs gave you the chance to represent them” and to the families who “patiently deal with” the job that has “taken you away from them”.
Joyce’s trouble is that he disrespected voters and his family. His party’s trouble is whether it’s willing to stand up for the principles it says it holds dear.