NSW NATIONALS Parkes MP Mark Coulton has thrown his weight behind Michael McCormack for the party’s leadership declaring his state colleague is the “early favourite”.
Mr McCormack is currently the Veterans Affairs Minister and was narrowly behind Mr Joyce for the votes needed to win a ballot, when Barnaby Joyce replaced Warren Truss as leader in 2016, but ultimately declined to challenge.
However, with Mr Joyce today declaring he would resign the party’s leadership at a party room meeting at 8am on Monday in Canberra, the Riverina MP is once again in the spotlight, to take over as head of the embattled rural party and also become Deputy Prime Minister.
Mr Coulton said he was “sad” that it had “came to this” in terms of Mr Joyce’s resignation today, after several weeks of intense media pressure following revelations of the New England MP’s affair with a female staff member.
“Barnaby has been a very strong leader for the Nats but more importantly for the people in regional Australia,” Mr Coulton said.
“But I believe he’s made the best decision considering the circumstances and I’m very pleased that he’s actually made it.”
Asked if the Nationals would need to hold a vote to determine the new leader, or a discussion could take place amongst the federal members to choose the best candidate and avoid any contest, Mr Coulton said “We are a very democratic lot – anyone can put their hand up”.
“But I’m very supportive of Michael McCormack,” he said of the leadership vacancy.
“I’ve known Michael since before we were both elected; he’s been a very solid performer; he’s very straight down the line; and I think someone with his strength of character is needed to lead us through this next section.
“At this early stage I don’t know if anyone has officially put their hand up but conversations will be had over the weekend.
“I’m obviously hoping Michael will get there but it’s a bit early to say.
“Barnaby has always been in the mix up until 2pm (time of his media conference where resignation was announced publicly).
“At this stage I’d say Michael would be the early favourite but we’ve still got a couple of days to go yet.”
Online bookmakers have installed Mr McCormack as a clear favourite at $1.44 to replace Mr Joyce, with Dr David Gillespie next in line at $4.50.
Mr Coulton said it was too soon to write-off Mr Joyce’s political career and he could still return to the leadership, one day, after a break – but in light of recent events a “circuit breaker” was needed.
“Barnaby is made of stern stuff and I think for a lot of reasons he’ll want to gather his life back together again but he’s got too much talent at his age to walk away from public life,” he said.
“What happens from here on will be up to him but I think he’s made the right decision in stepping back, at the moment.
“I’ve had a lot of people contacting me supporting Barnaby - probably disappointed about the circumstances that have (confronted him) - but very supportive and very grateful for the job that he’s done.
“He’s been a strong voice for them and he’s got an enormous lot of political capital and personal capital in the bush and stepping down will give him a circuit breaker and a much better chance to regroup and battle on in the public life.”
Mr Coulton said “I’m incredibly sad that it’s come to this with Barnaby” but the people he represents have “a lot to be thankful for” for his leadership and work for the Nationals.
He said Mr Joyce had helped him to secure money for the Western NSW Cancer Centre due to his “strong support in the ministry” and had also been good for farmers.
“He’s been very solid in getting the inland rail up; the Agriculture White Paper means there are silos in paddocks now and every paddock in my electorate has a silver tank on the hill because of the tax concessions Barnaby got in it, on water,” he said.
“The farmers have done particularly well under Barnaby’s leadership and I hope he gets a chance to regroup, get his personal life back in order then go again from there.”
NSW Nationals Senator John “Wacka” Williams did not endorse any particular candidate for the leadership vacancy but said Mr Joyce’s replacement had “very big boots to fill”
“Barnaby Joyce has done a great job and achieved so much for regional Australia and I’m sure many, many people will miss him and those who don’t like him will be glad to see him gone,” he said.
“Who is going to fill the position?
“That’ll be decided on Monday morning at a party room meeting of the Nationals.
“In the media they’re talking Darren Chester, David Gillespie, Michael McCormack of course and David Littleproud – but it’s up to those to come forward and put their hand up and go to a vote.
“Perhaps there may only be one nomination - I’ve not been involved in any discussion - that’s up to the people who are coming forward who may like to do the job.”
Reports say Victorian MP and former Transport Minister Darren Chester will not run for the leadership but will back Mr McCormack and for Victorian Senator Bridget McKenzie to remain deputy leader.
In the running
Veterans' Affairs Minister Michael McCormack - MP for Riverina, 52
As speculation about Mr Joyce's future raged in the past two weeks, Mr McCormack was viewed as a possible future leader and a geographic compromise between the Queensland and NSW branches.
The former newspaper editor was elected to Parliament in 2010 and has previously served as small business minister, overseeing the late stages of the 2016 census.
An occasional Elvis impersonator, he grew up on family farms at Marrar and Brucedale and is passionate about cricket, horse racing and ANZAC history.
Mr McCormack angered some supporters this week when he clumsily failed to back Mr Joyce eight times in a Sky News interview.
Agriculture and Water Resources Minister David Littleproud - MP for Maranoa, 41
A first-term MP elevated to cabinet in Mr Joyce's messy December reshuffle, Mr Littleproud is considered a Barnaby loyalist by his colleagues.
The son of former Queensland state environment and education minister, Brian Littleproud, the Maranoa MP is a former agribusiness banker and small-business owner, born and raised in Chinchilla.
Last year Mr Littleproud said he was "obviously surprised" at his sudden elevation to cabinet, taking over responsibility for the contested Murray Darling Basin plan and Mr Joyce's former portfolio.
A bitter rivalry remains between Mr Littleproud and Queensland independent MP Bob Katter, dating back to tensions with his father in the party's Queensland branch.
Assistant Minister for Children and Families David Gillespie - MP for Lyne, 60
A trained gastroenterologist, Dr Gillespie is viewed as an outside chance but said on Friday he could put his hand up to replace Mr Joyce.
Born in Canberra and educated at Mr Joyce's alma mater Saint Ignatius' College, Riverview, the former assistant health minister was elected to Parliament in 2013 after the retirement of high profile independent MP Rob Oakeshott.
Dr Gillespie will face the High Court over his ownership of a small suburban shopping complex in Port Macquarie which includes an Australia Post outlet, a potential breach of section 44 of the constitution.
Owned with his wife through their company Goldenboot, the shop is leased to a woman who is an Australia Post licensee. The couple own 18 properties in total.
Fairfax Media reported last week Dr Gillespie had sold the property.
Mr Joyce's resignation will see changes to the Nationals' frontbench. If Bridget McKenzie, a Victorian senator, remains as deputy she would also retain a position in cabinet.
A replacement will also be required for the transport and infrastructure portfolio which could be Mr McCormack and then a replacement may be needed for his current portfolio which could go to Mark Coulton, the current Deputy Speaker in the House of Representatives or pave the way for a return to the ministry for Queensland MP Keith Pitt who was dumped form his Assistant Trade portfolio, in the December re-shuffle.
A meeting is due on Monday at 8am, to ensure MPs and the party's five Senators are available for a fully constituted party room meeting.
Nationals sources are hopeful an election could be avoided, with 11 votes of the 21 members needed to win by any candidate, by holding discussions to choose the best and most suitable replacement.
The next Nationals leader would also need to discuss and reach agreed terms on a new Coalition agreement with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and repair the relationship between the two governing parties, after it ruptured recently when Mr Joyce described the Liberal leader as “inept”.
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