FORMER WA Nationals MP Tony Crook has returned fire at his one-time federal political colleague Barnaby Joyce, questioning his judgment and agreeing he should step down from the party’s leadership to take responsibility for “mistakes he has made” which have generated “enormous pressure”.
As the civil war within the conservative rural party reaches fever pitch, Mr Crook was inadvertently dragged into the ongoing controversy involving recent revelations of Mr Joyce’s affair with his former political staffer Vikki Campion, which has attracted ongoing political scrutiny and unwanted national media attention for the Coalition government.
It came after WA Nationals leader Mia Davies issued a strongly worded statement saying she’d contacted Mr Joyce to say he no longer had her party’s support to continue as the federal Nationals leader, citing “damage” to the party’s brand.
“Mr Joyce’s actions have caused pain for his family but it is the ongoing damage Mr Joyce is causing the Nationals organisation that is of greatest concern to me as WA leader,” she said.
“The Nationals brand across regional Western Australia has suffered as a result of Mr Joyce’s actions and he has become a distraction at both Federal and State level.
“My parliamentary colleagues and I have urged Mr Joyce to consider his position as leader in the best interests of the federal party and state branches.
“It is the view of the parliamentary National Party of Western Australia that Mr Joyce’s position as federal leader is no longer tenable.”
But in his return statement to Ms Davies, Mr Joyce took a swipe at Mr Crook - who represented the vast WA rural seat of O’Connor from 2010 to 2013 during the hung parliament - accusing him of hardly attending any party room meetings, after he moved over to the federal Nationals from the crossbenches, where he initially sat as an independent during the first half of his one and only term.
Mr Joyce said he acknowledged the concerns expressed by Ms Davies on recent matters but “it should also be said that you don’t have a federal member of parliament in the National Party of Australia, your last member spending their time almost exclusively as an independent and only once or twice coming to National Party room meetings”.
“I also note, you are not in a coalition in Western Australia and the WA Nats pride themselves on their ferocious independence,” Mr Joyce said.
“Therefore I find it surprising that a federal issue has so much momentum in the West when people in the east in the National Party have in the majority a different view – and to be quite frank, vastly more skin in the game.
“I am happy to discuss in person if you so wish – I note you have my new number.”
But Mr Crook – who resigned ahead of the 2013 federal election due to family priorities, despite believing he could retain O’Connor – hit back at his one-time federal colleague, Mr Joyce.
“Understandably Barnaby is under enormous pressure from mistakes he has made and I question his judgement,” he said.
“I enjoyed an excellent working relationship with the Nationals on the east coast but agree with Mia Davies that Barnaby should stand down in the interests of his party and the federal government.
“After 18 months on the crossbench my position became untenable and once again with the full support of the WA Nats, I joined the federal party room.
“I recall that there was considerable fanfare on that day and given that the parliament sat for more than 30 weeks after this time, I can assure Mr Joyce that I attended the party room more than once or twice.”
Mr Crook said he was “bitterly disappointed” on two fronts at Mr Joyce’s comments in saying he found it ‘surprising that a federal issue has so much momentum in the West when the people in the east in the National Party, have in the majority a different view - and to be quite frank, vastly more skin in the game’.
“One, whether he or we like it or not, he’s our Deputy Prime Minister and secondly, it further reinforces the divide we feel here in WA and the reason I was prepared to stand up against the norm,” Mr Crook said.
Mr Crook was the last WA Nationals member to represent the party in federal parliament, after he won the seat of O’Connor off the Liberals long-serving member Wilson Tuckey in 2010.
He initially sat on the crossbenches in the hung parliament alongside rural independents Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott who held the balance of power in the Gillard Labor government, before joining the federal Nationals at a time when Warren Truss was party leader and had spent time convincing him to join the Coalition’s ranks.
Mr Crook said the WA Nationals were, “certainly different from our eastern states colleagues and proud of it”.
He said Mr Truss and other federal Nationals “didn’t particularly like” what the WA Nationals did after the 2010 election, in sitting on the crossbenches rather than siding with their federal colleagues.
But he said “they understood it because they knew darn well we were standing up for our state and they respected what we were trying to achieve”.
However, Mr Crook declined to say who he believed should become the federal leader, if Mr Joyce was to step down or be voted out next week when the party room reconvenes again, saying “that’s their business”.
“We took a definitive stance in 2010, WA was being ripped off, particularly in the area of GST - and continues to be so - and if elected I stated very clearly prior to the election that I would sit on the crossbench to try leverage a better deal for WA,” he said.
“I did so with the full support of the WA Nats.
“I was fully prepared to support Colin Barnett, Brendon Grylls and Eric Ripper on the biggest issue WA has with the Commonwealth, unfair GST share, as I now fully support Mark McGowan in his endeavours for GST reform.
“To this day, only the WA Nats have been prepared to have their voice counted on the floor of the federal parliament on this issue.
“Finally, I resigned from the federal parliament because of the pressure it was putting on my family, particularly my wife, and as much as I enjoyed the job, I value my family above all else.”
Mr Joyce also caused recent unrest in the WA Nationals camp when he failed to support their core campaign policy at last year’s state election, which proposed a new fee of $5 per tonne on iron ore for mining companies, to try to earn over $7 billion in four years to address the state’s mounting debt.
But federal Nationals President Larry Anthony moved to try to pour cold water on his party’s escalating infighting by saying the federal leadership was determined by elected federal representatives and none of the current 21 members were from WA.
Mr Anthony told Fairfax Media the WA Nationals have always been “fiercely independent”.
“That's their prerogative - but ultimately the decision on the leadership of the federal party rests with elected officials,” he said.
“And they're (the 21 federal Nationals) from Victoria, NSW, Queensland and the NT.”
In backing his embattled leader, Queensland Nationals Senator and northern Australia and Resources Minister Matt Canavan said the WA Nationals were “entitled to her opinion” regarding the party’s federal leadership but he did not agree with it.
“I respect Mia - she's done a good job over in Western Australia,” he said.
“She's of course entitled to her opinion and it's one I can understand but I think the interest of the National Party and regional Australia is still served by Barnaby staying there to fight for regional areas.
“It's my assessment the vast majority of my colleagues want to see Barnaby there and want to see him fight for regional Australia.”
Shorten questions leadership of Liberals and Nationals
Asked about Mr Joyce’s future and his leadership tenure, Opposition leader Bill Shorten took aim at the Prime Minister for failing to act on the matters earlier.
“Malcolm Turnbull is proving to be one of the weakest Prime Ministers in living memory,” he said.
“He should have dealt with this Barnaby Joyce conflict of interest a long time ago.
“He's clearly known more than he's let on for a period of months - only belatedly started to throw the book at Barnaby Joyce.
“But what's the point of giving someone a telling off if you can’t discipline them?
“How on earth do we get to a situation in Australia where the Prime Minister, who has clearly lost confidence in the Deputy Prime Minister, can't sack his Deputy Prime Minister?
“And the Deputy Prime Minister clearly thinks that his boss is inept.
“You don't have to take my word for it - that's what Barnaby Joyce said.
“So we have got the two most senior people in Australia at each other.
“One day, Malcolm Turnbull drops a bucket of shame on Barnaby Joyce, the next day, Barnaby Joyce declares that his boss is inept, and then the third day, they say, ‘oh, no, we all really like each other’.”
Mr Shorten said Mr Joyce’s “private life is his private life” but wasn’t a “victim” if he had in fact utilised Commonwealth resources for purposes, other than his job.
“I do feel for his him as a human being and I feel for his family and I feel for everyone in that,” he said.
“But we all know that the government and the Prime Minister have a Ministerial Code and apparently you can drive a Mack truck through it.
“I just think the last two weeks has got to be a low point and I just hope the rest of the year gets better for Australian politics.
“But it won't get better until Mr Turnbull stands up.
“Mr Turnbull is shamefully weak, he needs to deal with his rogue Deputy Prime Minister and he needs to do it now.
“I think just about everybody in the National Party has been telling journalists they're prepared to be leader.
“The problem is you can't pretend to be a leader if you won't act on the matter.
“I think the Coalition, from Mr Turnbull to the National Party, it's got a lot of wannabe leaders - there's just not one single real leader in the whole bunch of them.”
Mr Joyce had denied any wrongdoing over the use of taxpayer funds regarding matters relating to Ms Campion’s employment in his ministerial office or other subsequent roles within the party’s ranks.
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