Australia ‘I've landed on a snake': Nationals reshuffle fails to heal old wounds

10:18  28 june  2021
10:18  28 june  2021 Source:   smh.com.au

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Bruised Nationals MPs are warning it will take some time to mend the bitter divisions within the party following Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce's ousting of Michael McCormack and his allies from the ministry.

CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA - JUNE 23: Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce during Question Time in the House of Representatives at Parliament House on June 23, 2021 in Canberra, Australia. Barnaby Joyce has deposed former Nationals leader Michael McCormack during a spill called on Monday by Senator Matt Canavan, with Joyce re-elected as leader of The Nationals in a leadership contest with at least 12 votes in the 21-member partyroom. (Photo by Sam Mooy/Getty Images) © 2021 Getty Images

Mr Joyce's decision to dump both Victorian MP Darren Chester and Queenslander Keith Pitt from cabinet and elevate two of his backers, Bridget McKenzie and Andrew Gee, mirrored a similar reshuffle in December 2017, which many Nationals believe started three years of animosity within the party room.

Mr Chester told reporters in Sale on Monday the conversation he had with Mr Joyce on Sunday was "so incoherent" that he "couldn't actually explain what he was even saying to me".

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"So people of Australia, brace yourself, there will be more conversations like that," he said.

"Now we didn't have harsh words at all, it was just a matter of fact conversation. He was sacking me. I didn't agree with him, and I got on with the walk I was having with my dog."

Mr Chester said he had been "screwed over" by the National Party twice in the past three years.

He said he while he did not enjoy a personal relationship with Mr Joyce, he promises a "pragmatic business relationship".

Mr Joyce said on Monday the changes to the frontbench were not about rewarding allies but revitalising the leadership group and it was simply the normal cut-and-thrust of modern politics.

Mr Pitt, who has kept his water and resources responsibilities but been dumped from cabinet, struggled to hide his frustration Monday morning. In the fallout from last Monday's leadership spill, Mr Pitt had not revealed whether he had stayed loyal to Mr McCormack or switched to Mr Joyce.

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There was a growing assumption within the 21-member party room in the following days that either Mr Pitt or deputy leader David Littleproud were among those who had voted for Mr Joyce, which had boosted the now deputy Prime Minister's numbers since the failed spill of February 2020.

"I'm disappointed, that's true. In the game of snakes and ladders I've landed on a snake, a very short one," Mr Pitt told Sky News on Monday morning.

The MP for Hinkler, which takes in the central Queensland city of Bundaberg, said he was disappointed to lose the Northern Australia portfolio, with the special envoy position handed to Nationals senator Susan McDonald.

But he rejected criticisms the demotion of resources was a slight against the sector.

"Those are decisions for the leader. My job is to represent the sector, to the best of my ability is what I've always done," he said.

The treatment of Mr Pitt on Sunday has again fuelled the suspicion it was in fact Mr Littleproud who switched to Mr Joyce, potentially with a loose succession agreement when the Nationals leader is ready to relinquish the position in the future.

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He has repeatedly refused to declare who he voted for, saying last week it would not be "respectful to the current leader nor the previous leader".

Mr Joyce had been urged by some Coalition colleagues not to swing the axe if the party is to heal from years of internal bickering, which eventually led to the MP for New England regaining the top job.

Several say they believed Mr Joyce had missed an important opportunity to help heal old wounds which stem from Mr Joyce's resignation in early 2018 amid revelations of an extra-marital affair with his staffer and several unproven allegations of sexual harassment, which he denies.

But Mr Joyce told Nine's Today program on Monday his decisions were "not a case of rewarding".

"We know the game of politics," Mr Joyce said.

"Any person who signs up for politics understands how it works. As a person who spent over three years on the backbench, I make no excuses for that."

He defended promoting Senator McKenzie to cabinet 15 months after she was forced to resign amid the sports rorts scandal.

The Victorian senator was a key backer of Mr Joyce and in recent months has been outspoken about Prime Minister Scott Morrison's slow creep towards adopting a target of net zero emissions by 2050 without the National Party's consent.

Mr Joyce said promoting women was an important consideration for him over the past week.

"Michelle Landry staying there is important and [Susan] McDonald is important," he said.

"[There are] incredible, capable people who remain on the backbench - Matt Canavan [is] one of the smartest people in politics in Canberra. You sign up for it with broad shoulders and you deal with."

Mr Chester apologised to regional Australians for the way the party conducted itself last week.

"In the middle of a global pandemic, as we're recovering from bushfires, from drought, from storms, we spent the whole week talking about ourselves again," Mr Chester told ABC TV.

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