NEW Deputy Prime Minister and Nationals leader Michael McCormack won’t try to “out-Barnaby Barnaby” but he’ll be a strong leader with his own unique character, says colleague Mark Coulton.
Mr McCormack was elevated to the leadership following Barnaby Joyce’s controversial resignation last week, with the new leader also taking over the former’s portfolio of Infrastructure and Transport.
A range of scenarios are currently being considered to finalise cabinet and ministry positions within the government, in the wake of Mr Joyce’s departure following weeks of relentless media an political scrutiny over matters he’s described as “private”.
Mr McCormack will continue holding the Veterans Affairs Ministry position until the new posts are finalised with David Littleproud expected to continue as Agriculture and Water Resources Minister.
But after the Riverina MP was appointed leader by his 20 colleagues at Monday’s party room meeting in Canberra, despite a challenge from vocal Queensland MP George Christensen, Mr Coulton gave the new Deputy Prime Minister a glowing endorsement with credentials he says will also serve farm policy well.
“Michael McCormack is certinaly well known in the areas where he’s had portfolio responsibilities like small business and across his electorate,” he said.
“Michael hasn’t been one that’s courted the Canberra press gallery but is well known in his area.
“He’s hard working and determined and he’s probably a bit more reserved in his personality comparted to Barnaby who was a unique character and that style certainly helped Barnaby carry his message.
“But Michael won’t try to out-Barnaby Barnaby.
“He’ll be his own person and will have his own particular style and I’m sure once people get to know him throughout the regions and throughout Australia they’ll know their new Deputy Prime Minister is a man of great character and commitment and his work ethic is second to none.
“I’ve known him since before he was elected…and everything Michael does is precise and he pays great attention to detail and that’ll include on policy.”
Mr Coulton said the new leader would have a different style of communication to Mr Joyce but their thoughts on where the nation should be going will be “very, very similar” in terms of policy and economic ideals.
“They both obviously see small business as the nation’s engine room and both have a great commitment to the people who live in country towns,” he said.
“Michael’s electorate is very similar to mine with lots of small country towns and economic activity from farming and agriculture and he understands, as Barnaby did, those people are aspirational and need to have a voice as well.
“I don’t think we’ll see much of a change in terms of policy.”
Former Nationals deputy-leader Fiona Nash said she expected there to be “no daylight” between Mr McCormack and Mr Joyce’s police views on areas such as the $10 billion inland rail project.
“No one is Barnaby; no one will ever be Barnaby; and anyone who comes after Barnaby is going to be different to Barnaby,” she said.
“I’ve been around for quite a while in politics and seen a lot of people come and go in politics and nobody is a leader that no one will ever be a leader like Barnaby.
“He’s a great mate of mine and we’ve worked very, very well together, and most people across the country realise he’s one out of the box, when it comes to political leaders.
“Michael will be different to Barnaby and they have different styles and they’re different people but the one thing they have in common is putting the people in regional Australia first and making sure, in the Nationals, we do everything we can do make their lives better so on that point, they’ll be exactly the same.
“When it comes to things like regional infrastructure, like the inland rail and making sure we can deliver more regional doctors into the bush and making sure we get out there and get the telecommunications right, there won’t be any daylight between them, and all of that work will continue.”
One of Mr McCormack’s first major tasks will be trying to unify his party and work with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull after the relationship with the senior Coalition partners ruptured during recent controversies surrounding Mr Joyce’s fight to retain the leadership, amid backlash from a number of controversial matters.
Ms Nash all of her ex-colleagues in the Nationals party room very well had to put the interest of the voters first and support the new leader.
“I know all of them put regional Australia first and there’s no doubt it has been a very difficult time over the past six months,” she said.
“If somebody said last July that in February, Barnaby won’t be leader and I won’t be deputy leader, you probably couldn’t fathom that would be the case but that’s politics; you can’t always predict what’s around the next corner.
“But I think all of my ex colleagues realise that the important thing is the people the Nationals represent have to come first and for them to come first, the Nationals need to be united so they can continue delivering for people living in the regions.”
At his media conference last Friday where he revealed he’d be resigning, Mr Joyce said he “wouldn’t snipe” but also stated he was writing a book.
Ms Nash said the new leader was “very smart and very clever” and would have a calming influence on her former party room’s direction.
“Michael is great with people and he will realise, we’ve been through a very difficult time, and apart from working for his electorate and continuing to delivering for regional people, bringing the party room with him will be something he’ll be absolutely focussed on,” she said.
“I’m sure they’ll put the difficult, recent times behind us and get on and focus on the people we represent.
“They want us to talk about them and not us, in the Nationals, and I think that’s exactly what those ex colleagues of mine in the party room will do.”
Mr Coulton said he expected Mr Littleproud to retain the agriculture portfolio and had been doing a “good job” since taking it over in December.
But he warned the Murray Darling Basin Plan was on “”very shaky ground” following recent political activity and Mr McCormack would also need to show leadership and focus, in that policy area to “get it back on track”.
“Michael has been very outspoken on the Basin Plan and if you recall he crossed the floor in 2012 (to vote against it),” he said.
“His electorate has changed a little bit since then but he’s got a very good understanding of the politics of water having represented the Murrumbidgee irrigation area for some time.
“Water is a very difficult issue but why we’re having so much trouble now is we’re having people playing politics with water but they have not one iota of a clue as to what they’re talking about.
“(The Greens) are talking complete garbage that’s irrelevant just to score political points and David Littleproud and Michael McCromack face a challenge to get the conversation back on track to talking about technical issues with the plan and understanding we need a balance.
“What we’ve see is the green movement wanting to get everything their way, without any real concept.
“There’s a few challenges but Michael will be a good strong leader and will have a few immediate challenges like sorting out the portfolio positions and drawing the line with Malcolm Turnbull on how the new relationship will work.
“It’s the most important relationship in the country but Michael and Malcolm I expect will manage it quite well.”
Former NSW Liberal Senator Bill Heffernan had his moments with Mr McCormack over the years - but they’ve been in screaming agreement on policy issues like blocking the $3.4 billion sale to GrainCorp in 2013 to US multinational food giant Archer Daniels Midland.
While Mr McCormack voted with Bob Katter, Alby Schultz and Sharman Stone for a disallowance motion that he moved on the Basin Plan in 2012 Mr Heffernan, a Junee livestock and grain farmer and one of the most outspoken members of federal parliament on farm water policy, abstained from the senate vote for the historic legislation.,
Mr Heffernan said Mr McCormack’s elevation to the leadership as “a feather in the cap of Wagga”.
“Michael is a local boy raised on a farm. He has raised his own family in Wagga,” he said.
“He is following the great example shown by (former Nationals leader and member for Farrer) Tim Fischer.”