Barnaby, bullets and blow-ins: the race that has left Joyce challengers fuming

Barnaby, bullets and blow-ins: the race that has left Joyce challengers fuming


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Peter Mailler, CountryMinded candidate for New England, who is running against Barnaby Joyce. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Peter Mailler, CountryMinded candidate for New England, who is running against Barnaby Joyce. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

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Pete Mailler is blunt about his objective: to give Barnaby Joyce hell.

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Pete Mailler is blunt about his objective: to give Barnaby Joyce hell.

Mr Mailler, a farmer from Boggabilla just outside the boundary of Mr Joyce's former NSW seat of New England, is one of the 16 other candidates trying to make permanent what is widely expected to be just a brief hiatus for Mr Joyce from the deputy prime minister's office courtesy of his citizenship tangles.

The Nationals leader, Mr Mailler says, is far too comfortable.

"He needs to know if he does not do his job, he'll be thrown out … If we can't erode his margin, he will be emboldened to keep going the way he has, selling regional people short," he said.

Nationals candidate for New England Barnaby Joyce. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Nationals candidate for New England Barnaby Joyce. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

But in interviews with voters on the main street of New England regional centre Tamworth this week, two things become clear. Many voters are just annoyed by the citizenship issue and are damned if they're going to lose what they regard as their true-blue Australian member because of it. Second, however underwhelmed people are by the Turnbull government, rusted-on Nationals supporters are still firmly behind the party leader - giving a street-level touch to the increasing divergence between the party and its senior partners the Liberals.

"He's one of us," one passing woman called out to journalists waiting outside Mr Joyce's campaign office on Friday.

Even regular Labor voter Anne Williams, 59, branded the byelection "a waste of money, a waste of time, a waste of everything". She summed up the view of many locals in calling it "a formality" and said she'd probably vote for Mr Joyce because he didn't deserve to lose the seat.

Mr Joyce has played a low-risk campaign, even as wider forces were causing havoc within the Coalition – notably Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's backdown on a banking royal commission forced by renegade Nationals who answer to Mr Joyce, and the call on Friday for Mr Turnbull to step down by NSW Nationals leader John Barilaro.

Locals are freely swapping unflattering stories about Mr Joyce's personal life and Mr Joyce said his campaign had been menaced by death threats and stalkers. A bullet was sent to his former electorate office and a second - though police say unrelated - bullet was left at a school that was to be used as a polling station.

"We're now starting to see in Australia serious threats rather than just pretend threats," Mr Joyce said on Friday afternoon.

He added: "Obviously Twitter and social media has spent a lot of time just being completely defamatory. But all in all what I find incredibly humbling is the people of New England can see through all of this."

To the anger of other candidates, Mr Joyce dodged two town hall-style community forums. Although he's travelled the electorate and held 32 gatherings, he's avoided giving the other candidates a platform as well as any sticky mud thrown about his personal life, save for one unseemly confrontation in a pub in which he reportedly knocked another man's hat off.

Mr Mailler was infuriated by the Joyce campaign's "sanctimonious" dismissal of other candidates as "blow-ins" – they include a Liberal defector from Perth and a Sydney IT entrepreneur called Meow Meow – as a basis for not holding public debates.

"There are real, local people with genuine concerns," he said. "If he's the best candidate, why wouldn't he front up with the others and prove it?"

It has also angered voters such as Hether MiLane, who was selling cherries on the side of the New England Highway on Thursday. She had hoped to grill Mr Joyce on her concerns such as climate change.

"He doesn't have to turn up, doesn't have to talk to the community. The complacency and arrogance, to say that he represents the people he won't even listen to, is a joke," she said.

Voters such as Ms MiLane – progressive farmers concerned about issues such as the environment – are the kinds who kept independent Tony Windsor in the seat for more than a decade.

And they are the people Mr Mailler's CountryMinded party are aiming for with what he calls "socially progressive but economically responsible" policies. He is running on investment in renewable energy, the development of a local medicinal cannabis industry and a regional branding initiative to promote local agriculture businesses.

Mr Joyce has a beer while meeting with Nationals colleagues Michelle Landry, Bridget McKenzie, David Littleproud and Andrew Broad at the Aero Club at the Tamworth Airport on Friday. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Mr Joyce has a beer while meeting with Nationals colleagues Michelle Landry, Bridget McKenzie, David Littleproud and Andrew Broad at the Aero Club at the Tamworth Airport on Friday. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Yet even critics of Mr Joyce say there just doesn't seem to be a second candidate in the race. The Labor candidate David Ewings, an Armidale local, has conspicuously not received a campaign visit from Opposition Leader Bill Shorten. Ms MiLane has no time for Mr Joyce yet doesn't feel any of the other candidates have the necessary political clout and is dispirited that it will feel merely like a protest vote.

If Mr Joyce wins handsomely as he is expected to do, it will be a feat for psephologists to ponder. Government candidates usually go backwards in byelections and with the government trailing badly in national polls, he should get a caning.

But Jenny and Myron Novelly sum up the solid Joyce supporters. Both are close to retirement, she having been in banking, he in poultry production. They have children and grandchildren in the area.

Of the government and Canberra, Mrs Novelly said: "I'm very disillusioned. They are in it for short-term goals … I don't think the culture is a productive culture."

Her husband adds: "I don't think one side is better than the other."

Yet they are adamant that Mr Joyce has been good for New England. Fairfax Media spoke to more than a dozen people like the Novellys – Nationals supporters who see Mr Joyce as one of them rather than one of the Canberra lot.

It might explain why Mr Joyce has largely avoided the national press and national issues. With relations between the Coalition partners frayed and with the government still facing a perilous week of Parliament, that won't be an option when Mr Joyce returns to the melee, potentially as soon as Wednesday.

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