Nationals leader Michael McCormack has seen off a challenge from Barnaby Joyce but now faces the formidable task of trying to bring together a fractured party that lost two cabinet ministers this week.
The result will be a deep relief to Prime Minister Scott Morrison. He stood to be a big loser if forced to partner with Joyce, who promised a more assertive approach and would have pressed for concessions when re-negotiating a Coalition agreement.
The Nationals do not release the results of their ballots, which inevitably leads to speculation – and mischief-making – about the numbers. Some media sources claimed the numbers were lineball but McKenzie backers declared that rubbish. Only the whip, Damian Drum, and a scrutineer, Perin Davey, had access to the ballot papers.
The party elected Water Resources Minister David Littleproud as deputy. He replaced Bridget McKenzie who was forced to resign at the weekend after the sports rorts affair.
McCormack’s reshuffle will now have to be substantial because Matt Canavan, who has been resources minister, quit cabinet to campaign for Joyce. A tight-lipped McCormack made it clear he would not be reinstating Canavan.
McCormack told a news conference he did not expect another challenge from Joyce.
“I’ve been endorsed as leader. I was endorsed as leader when we came back here after the May election last year, I was endorsed as leader when he stood down in 2018. That’s three times in less than two years. I think that is enough to warrant me leading the party going forward.”
But Joyce is unlikely to give up his ambition, and having a restive Canavan on the backbench will be unhelpful for McCormack. McCormack must also battle the public perception that he is a bland and weak leader.
Authors: Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra