AS I approached the polling station at the Tenterfield Memorial Hall on by-election day in December 2017, I suspected Barnaby Joyce would put in an early appearance.
If Mr Joyce was going to cover New England glad-handing and holding babies, finishing in triumph at Tamworth, he’d have to start early in this town at the far reaches of the electorate that had recently been stripped of its sitting member.
Despite being a local boy, Mr Joyce had been found by the High Court to be a dual citizen of New Zealand and dumped from parliament under the clear terms of our Constitution.
I was at Tenterfield to hand out how-to-vote cards for CountryMinded candidate Peter Mailler, and as I tied a couple of Pete’s signs onto the picket fence, Mr Joyce arrived to greet his ‘Barney Army’ in their yellow National Party shirts.
He settled his nerves by introducing himself to the competition. As he approached me, I was struck by his height. On television he never seems to carry his 1.85 metres, but he stood on eye level with me. I saw his elbow draw back and his hand flatten into a shape akin to an axe, signalling in a manly show that a handshake was expected.
“I’m Barnaby,” he announced.
I’ve long believed in the importance of meeting politicians, particularly those who represent us. Having recently moved from the South East Queensland electorate of Bowman, I’d spent years challenging sitting Liberal MP Andrew Laming about his inexplicable fence-sitting on marriage equality.
Barnaby Joyce and I have more in common that he realises. I’m slightly taller, he’s a bit older. We were both born in the New England region, me at Inverell and he at Tamworth. Our fathers were both graziers. We were both dual citizens of New Zealand by birth, until he revoked his in order to stand for election again.
The similarities seemed enough for him to feel safe with me, until I opened my mouth.
“If you win the seat today, and you’re back in parliament in time, how will you vote on marriage equality?” I asked, since the opportunity was unlikely to come again, and the people of New England had recently returned a result of 52 per cent in favour of allowing same-sex couples equal access to the Marriage Act.
Barnaby looked at his feet (I realised then why he often appears shorter), rolled his eyes, winced, and proceed to huff and puff.
“Look, I always said I’d never vote against the will of the people,” he said, scuffing his feet together like a schoolboy.
“That’s good to know,” I said. “Thanks,” I added. Then, the clincher: “What about religious exemptions?”
I didn’t see Barnaby signal to his security guard. All of a sudden a blob of a boy stood in my face, but I kept addressing Barnaby, who’d moved out of the brief common ground we’d created.
“I’m your constituent, Mr Joyce,” I said, even though technically at that point he wasn’t our MP. “I’m allowed to ask you questions, I believe?”
With a distinct look of fear, Barnaby retreated up the pathway to stand with the yellow T-shirts, before he and his crew swept south across the electorate he’d go on to win back that day.
New England voters were almost universally slammed on social media for backing Joyce, but we were acutely aware that progressives expected us to topple the Turnbull Government. The voters of Bennelong had the same experience just one week later.
Not all of us voted for Barnaby, of course. Just shy of 40,000 voters picked someone else or voted informally.
He might have won in a landslide, but in running away from scrutiny, Barnaby Joyce was heading inevitably towards defeat.
As it turned out, Barnaby abstained from the final vote that brought about marriage equality in Australia’s House of Representatives on December 7.
I should have noticed him telegraph his intention to betray LGBTIQ. Despite being a major architect of the divisive public vote on human rights, Barnaby Joyce, ‘family man’ was never going to get his fingerprints on a policy that made his marriage equal to ours. His immature blather to me had been code for abstention.
Yet the rumour about his extramarital affair and the pregnancy of his new partner had done the rounds at the polling station and the district on the ubiquitous Bush Telegraph. I witnessed the fallout when comments deemed defamatory were removed from Facebook threads under stories published by my former employer, Fairfax Regional Media. Commenters were unafraid to detail what they’d heard about Barnaby’s trashing of his own family values, and angry the local media was inexplicably protecting him. One comment labelled Barnaby a “sooky chook” if he needed such protection.
What was more concerning about the local pre-election vibe was the struggle other candidates had getting cut-through for their messaging. Sixteen alternatives threw their hats in the ring and despite being a more natural Greens voter, I decided to back the grain farmer from Boggabilla who was clear about his support for marriage equality. In places where the Greens don’t usually register high numbers of primary votes on election day, I have often voted strategically this way.
I’d met Pete years before while sub-editing his columns for FarmOnline, and knew him to be a progressive thinker. I also knew he stood for holding the Nationals to account after years of taking the country vote for granted. After Tony Windsor endorsed him, I took it on myself to contact several national political journalists in case they were writing stories about Barnaby’s competition. The trouble is, most of them weren’t.
And Barnaby was thumbing his nose at all of us by avoiding public forums, a decision that provided fertile ground for gossip.
A pub fracas with another local posing questions to him at Graman was reported. Mr Joyce had not been in the mood for providing answers, not even to his constituents when delivered in person. Instead, he claimed he was being stalked.
A sooky chook indeed.
Out of place
Barnaby had expert social media support during the by-election campaign. One of the most intriguing examples was the video of his visit to Bingara cemetery where his great-grandfather is buried.
Here, in the heart of Kamilaroi Country, he whined about being called into question for possible allegiance to a foreign nation, using a relative he’d never known as evidence. Clearly, he exuded, he was a hard-done-by Aussie to his bootstraps and all this talk about dual citizenship was bull-dust.
What really struck me in that clip was how very out of place Barnaby Joyce appears in this electorate.
Held for eight decades by the Nationals (many of those under their old Country Party permutation), New England could be considered their heartland and not the Kamilaroi’s, if only it weren’t so very different on the ground for those of us looking closely.
After forty years living in other regions both in Australia and overseas, in October 2017 I returned to live at Deepwater, a stone’s throw from the place of my birth and the region my parents farmed outside Delungra, on the way to Bingara.
My ancestors have lived in and around Inverell for as long as Barnaby’s, and I have a different take on the experience.
Ever since I was a child I have known of my mother’s connection to New Zealand. I’ll never forget seeing her cry as she revisited for the first time since she was a baby, on descent into Christchurch as we passed over the west coast of the South Island.
She told me when I was a child about the Myall Creek Massacre of 1838, which took place just a few kilometres from our farm. The crimes of settlers against Kamilaroi rang strongly throughout Bingara and Delungra families, and led to one of the country’s most enduring reconciliation projects, the annual Myall Creek Massacre memorial.
The day Richard and I moved into our new home, I drove the hire truck back to Glen Innes at dusk and saw the hundreds of wind turbines on the ridges. Since then, we’ve seen them in all directions, often situated with solar farms in upland valleys and ranges. Employment in renewables often tops the search engine results for jobs in the New England region, and plenty of farmers and greenies are allied in their desire to lock the gate against CSG exploration and mining.
In 2001, for the first time since 1922, the seat was won by independent candidate Tony Windsor, who was re-elected three times. Windsor’s incumbency broke the notion that the seat needs to be held by a deeply conservative National Party pollie in order for locals to be happy.
At the regional Farmers and Producers Market started at Tenterfield in late 2017, we’ve enjoyed working alongside African immigrants, also commonly sighted on the streets of Armidale. The resettlement program at nearby Mingoola has been an example of how refugee assistance can be mutually beneficial for remote Australian communities.
It seems out of character, but Barnaby has led the way.
Clearly, he is capable of being progressive when it suits him. It’s just one of many paradoxes about the man who once had a home base at Tamworth, but now seems to belong nowhere.
Lately, I’ve encountered a few people who are shocked to hear that Barnaby Joyce comes from the New England region and not Queensland, where he entered politics as a senator in 2005.
Politically, he seems a more natural fit for the state that produced Joh Bjelke-Petersen. It’s not surprising, since the NSW New England region and Queensland’s Darling Downs are often blended into a kind of “border country”.
As kids at Delungra Public School we knew enough of Sir Joh to make up songs about this amusing old politician with a lyrical name. We used Queensland vernacular (“port” instead of “school bag” being just one example) and Brisbane was geographically closer than Sydney.
Queensland Nationals certainly claim New England. At Tenterfield polling station on by-election day Senator Matt Canavan and Toowoomba MP Trevor Watts put in hours handing out for Barnaby and posing for selfies with fans.
But where the pro-mining, ‘family values’ man who won’t countenance the Uluru Statement sits in the community of his birth, which is getting on with renewables investment, reconciliation and social progression regardless of him, is the question.
It’s firmly rural, New England, but it’s definitely not Sir Joh country. Quirindi-born Tony Windsor knows it. Pete Mailler knows it too. The Kamilaroi know it and I suspect even Sir Joh came to realise it. I doubt Barnaby Joyce has ever given it any thought whatsoever.
© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.