Prominent rural advocates have become increasingly vocal over a potential return of Barnaby Joyce to the National party leadership as the prospect of a concerted independent push in rural areas gains momentum after the Wentworth byelection.
A nascent political movement, Anyone But Nats, has started to run advertising across northern NSW ahead of the 2019 state and federal elections. It has been funded by the IT businessman, Charles Tym, whose family has donated $20,000 to fund 400 advertising spots across regional television stations.
Tym, who donated to Tony Abbott’s 2013 election campaign, describes himself as a “rank novice” in politics who was formerly a “mad Liberal party voter” but now is supporting candidates who are against coal seam gas and want progress on climate change.
“It was climate change that tipped me over and Abbott in particular. He’s done everything over the last few years to stymie progress on climate change and the Nats won’t stand up for their constituents and stand up for what they want because they are in the thrall of mining companies,” Tym told Guardian Australia.
“The National party turn their backs when a lot of rural people are very concerned about climate change and they are doing deals on water and it’s just not good enough.”
Tym is working with the former Barwon independent candidate Rohan Boehm, an agricultural consultant, to run candidate forums throughout northern NSW. He said there was a mood for change in rural Australia and they were targeting women and younger voters on climate change.
“A lot of people are angry and two groups in particular, women and young people voting for the first time or second time,” he said.
“Climate change was a major issue in the Wentworth byelection but no one would engage with it. For example, Barwon could be a clean-energy powerhouse. I have friends with 20 windmills that give a good income stream which means in a drought the property does not wind up being degraded.”
At the same time, prominent rural women have joined the push against the return of Joyce to the top job. The women are all connected through rural advocacy and are alumni of the Rural Women’s Award and the Australian Rural Leadership Program (ARLP).
Over the past week, Catherine Marriott, the woman who made allegations of sexual harassment against Joyce, has been urging the National party to stick by the current leader Michael McCormack.
She has taken to Twitter with a series of comments urging the party to stand by McCormack, whom she described as “the only leader respected by government and the people”.
Marriott, a former Western Australian rural woman of the year and animal nutritionist, reminded the party that “Joyce was one of the only politicians to try and stop the free cervical cancer vaccine for women, saying it will make us more promiscuous…it’s proven to save 100% of lives.”
Marriott has been joined by fellow WA rural women’s award winner and businesswoman Sue Middleton to warn the Nationals on Twitter to “find your moral compass” and not go back to the past.
Middleton quoted a profile of the National Farmers’ Federation president, Fiona Simson, saying women were walking away from the National party.
“Fiona Simson in todays Oz on why she left the national party ‘i hate hypocrisy’. Add to that sexual harassment of rural women leaders, and its clear why women are walking away from the political party that should have their back”, she said on Twitter.
In a statement to Guardian Australia, McCormack said the party needed to show it had learned from recent lessons to restore “faith and integrity” in politics.
“Regional Australians want secure and stable leadership which listens to their specific needs, understands their unique differences and delivers for them,” McCormack said.
“That’s what The Nationals stand for and is what my leadership is providing for all regional Australians, not just our strong women.
“The Nationals now have an opportunity to show we have learned from recent lessons and listened to our voters, by standing united and fighting together.”
McCormack said independents and minor parties would come and go over time and “make a lot of noise from the sidelines” but the National party had a proven track record.
In an obvious statement of support, the NFF chose Marriott as master of ceremonies at last week’s annual congress with a theme of Diversify. With her presence on stage, Joyce as a former agriculture minister did not appear at the premier event on the rural calendar.
The chief executive officer of the WA rural women’s RRR Network, Jackie Jarvis, a former policy advisor to the WA Labor agriculture minister, was also critical of the idea of Joyce returning to the leadership.
“It’s no secret I don’t vote Nats, but I live & work every day with former #RustedOn females Nats voters. They are pissed off with Barnaby for a range of reasons reflective of his poor moral compass,” Jarvis said on Twitter.
The push comes a week before a Perth event, #USTOO, to highlight “Australia’s crusade against sexual harassment”. Marriott will join journalist and activist Tracey Spicer and ANU academic Skye Saunders to discuss sexual harassment and raise money for victims.
“I will be sharing my experience, but more importantly, why it needs more attention and what my learnings have been through the process. I’m going to share with others the benefits of being authentic and honest with yourself and finding courage to stand up,” Marriott said.
Joyce has consistently denied the allegations and an eight-month internal NSW National party investigation was unable to reach a determination. Marriott’s name was leaked to the press soon after she made the confidential allegations to the NSW National party.
Joyce stepped down from the leadership after Marriott’s allegations and the fallout over his affair with his former staffer and now partner, Vikki Campion.
Eight months after he stepped down, Joyce has become increasingly vocal and last week said he would take the leadership if it was offered to him, while denying he was actively campaigning against McCormack.
At the same time, the Capricornia MP, Michelle Landry – on one of the smallest margins in the parliament – predicted that Joyce would be “back at some stage” though now was not the time.
There remains a cohort in the party room who think Joyce could make a difference at the next federal election, particularly in crucial states like Queensland. His replacement, Michael McCormack, is seen as lacking profile to register with voters.
In the past week, Joyce has been seeking the public spotlight, criticising Scott Morrison’s suggestion to move the Israel embassy and the prime minister’s appointment of Malcolm Turnbull to lead an Australian delegation for an oceans conference in Bali.
The Indi MP, Cathy McGowan, this week warned she could withdraw supportfrom the Coalition minority government if the Nationals changed their leader, though she didn’t mention Joyce by name.
Joyce attacked McGowan for her comments, using her local newspaper The Border Mail to accuse her of being “two different people”.
“Cathy my door is always open if you wish to discuss anything with me that could be of such weight that you would make a public statement like you did about me, please feel free to see me first,” Joyce said.
“Alternatively please desist with the gushy charade that is part of the disingenuous patter that your partake in every other time we meet”.
At the same time, deputy Nationals leader Bridget McKenzie has plans to move her office from Bendigo to Wodonga, in McGowan’s seat, setting up a potential contest at the next election.