“I LEARNT THE HARD WAY THAT IF YOU WANT TO FIGHT EVERYONE IN THE PUB, YOU’LL SOON LOSE.”
THE DEPUTY PM AND NATIONALS LEADER MAY R E PRESENT DI FFE R E NT THI NGS TO DI FFE R E NT PEOPLE — THOUGH AT HIS CORE HE REMAINS A COUNTRY KID UNAFRAID TO BATTLE FOR WHAT HE BELIEVES. AND SO IT IS, THE FORMER BOUNCER (TRUE) LANDS A FEW ON THE CHINS OF BILL SHORTEN AND TONY ABBOTT, AND OPENS UP ABOUT THE LONELINESS OF POLITICS.
Under the shadow of his Akubra there’s a glint in Barnaby Joyce’s eye. It’s the gaze of an old bull sizing up a rival – a dog of war leaning into the leash. He’s standing under lights giving GQ the thousand-yard stare of a farmer in the city. Though there’s no missing the sparkle of a dad seeing a journo chatting up his daughter. We’re hardly the first to twig that Barnaby Thomas Gerard Joyce is not to be trifled with. Since stampeding into the political bear pit in 2005 as a senator for Queensland (after being elected in 2004), gaining leadership of The Nationals in the Senate in 2008 and adding minister for agriculture and water resources in 2015, then, deputy prime minister to his portfolio of titles in 2016, Joyce has brought his bullish brand of earthy politics without fear or favour. Cartoonists often depict him as a slavering attack dog by the Prime Minister’s side. And in person, as he is in The House, Joyce, 50, has heft – looming big, fleshy and firm. A farm boy, a father of four daughters and a one-time accountant who’s still based in Tamworth in northern NSW, Joyce is also Australia’s most famous maverick politician, having crossed the floor some 28 times as a senator to side against his own party. But as Joyce calls an end to GQ’S shoot and sits down to chat, he’s less the crazybrave maverick thundering opposition to climate change, same-sex marriage, political correctness and Johnny Depp’s smuggled dogs, and more the father his 20-year-old daughter Bridgette describes to us – a man prepared to abandon his beer run at a Rolling Stones concert to scoot his large RMS to ‘Street Fighting Man’. GQ: In your maiden speech you said politicians often breed contempt. Why? Barnaby Joyce: Politicians so often get confused about who they really are. The media means people see politicians 24/7. They hear you on radio. They hear about you on Facebook. They see you on the news. They watch you on Q&A. Some even catch you on Question Time. They know you. And it all means they can smell bullshit on you. GQ: Entering Parliament, you said the peril was you’d “gain weight and lose touch”. BJ: I see new members turn up looking sleek and sharp. Then they start going to lots of functions, and talking only to people inside that big boarding school called Parliament House. The person elected starts to evolve into a person that can survive in the boarding school. And that new person is not someone the people would elect. GQ: So how do you remedy that?
BJ: Find a mechanism for staying real. I’m not brazen. I try to be authentic. I listen. If I believe in it, I say so. If I don’t believe, I say so. If I don’t know, I say nothing. I don’t bang on. Twice a day I walk down the street and talk to people. I go to the footy and give people space to talk. I go to pubs on Friday nights so people can approach me. At first they’re polite… but after a few beers, they tell you what they really think. GQ: Your reputation is as a man who’s never backward in coming forward. BJ: I learnt the hard way that if you want to fight everyone in the pub, you’ll soon lose. So these days I pick the issues I want to fight on for my constituency, for our nation. GQ: You famously sprayed your party’s front benchers recently about looking after “George and Oxford Street issues” rather than heartland concerns. BJ: On the bell curve of views, politicians are at the extremities and if we get distracted by things on the edge, we lose people in the middle. Take 18C [amendments to Australia racial discrimination laws] – certain members think ‘the world’s gonna collapse if we don’t change 18C’. No, the world will go on. The other one is gay marriage. Mate, I can assure you, on most streets of Australia, people do not give a shit about it. It’s an issue, but it’s way down the list of priorities. Where it’s dangerous is when it’s pursued to the cost of major issues and the public think, ‘These buggers don’t get us.’ GQ: You’re the fifth of six kids so you’ve fought hard to be heard from the get-go.
BJ: Our family table hosted more soliloquies than debates – but regardless of my age, I learnt very young how to hold a position. If your argument wasn’t cogent and backed up with facts, you’d get chopped down very quickly. It taught me to put some meat on the bone behind my argument before I opened my yap. Both Mum and Dad went to Sydney Uni. One of my brothers is a doctor, another is a solicitor. One brother’s a translator for the Korean futures market. Growing up with that lot, I couldn’t talk crap. GQ: Is it true that at age 10 you listed your ambition as: ‘To be Prime Minister’? BJ: Yeah. Missed it by one.
“when there are tough times, I’ve got to eat my ego, or I’ll just crawl up into a little ball and be totally ineffectual as a human being.”
GQ: Does the man still harbour the dreams of the boy? BJ: Look, when you’re young, you have all sorts of ambitions and aspirations and you don’t really understand how much work is involved to get there. Why would a Woolbrook Public school kid say that? Because deep down I never wanted to be one of those people who vents their frustrations and bitches. I wanted to change things. That’s always been part of my make-up. GQ: What fired the ambition to change things up? BJ: People who aren’t real. People who don’t know what real work is. Even today, if I’m drenching sheep or marking cattle or doing hard, physical work, it helps me reconnect with that frustration I had as an angry young man at the sunny side of the drenching race with lots of work to do, listening to politicians on the radio and getting angry. GQ: They say leaders are either born or made. Which applies to you? BJ: A bit of both. I’ve also been lucky. Right place, right time. I’ve always believed that passion can be developed but charisma… you either have it or you don’t. GQ: Unlike many politicians, you lived in the ‘real’ world prior to running for office – working as a labourer, a bouncer and an accountant before you finally won a senate seat in 2004, aged 37. Is that grounding vital for a life in politics? BJ: Fair dinkum it was. I started working, seriously working, at 10 or 11. If you live on the land that’s how it is – you do a lot of manual work, farm labouring to menial, basic jobs. And not for money. If I put my hand out for some pocket money or some sort of payday, my parents would say: ‘Well, aren’t we paying for your boarding school fees, mate?’ GQ: Was your stint in the army reserve from 1994–1999 part of doing your duty?
BJ: My family have always been in the services. Both grandfathers were serving members. My father’s father landed at Gallipoli the first day and left on the last. He got a DCM, one below a Victoria Cross, for bravery under fire on the Western Front, and a military OBE, too. Between the wars he was a bodyguard for Edward VIII. And then he chased the Japanese all around the Pacific and up to Guadalcanal in WWII. So compared to him, a man who’s been in a real two-way shooting gallery, mine was the most minor service. It was really just guilt that made me join up. I thought, ‘I’d better do something.’ GQ: Do you feel fear?
BJ: I’m not foolish, I don’t live without it, but I do seem to manage fear pretty well. GQ: Any near-death experiences growing up a farm kid?
BJ: Heaps. As a kid I’d get asthma attacks when nobody was able to hear me in the house. Got kicked in the head by a horse once… perforated my spleen in a footy game and ended up in intensive care… a few car crashes I was lucky to walk away from. GQ: Before the army stint you were a bouncer. How did that come about? BJ: It was in Armidale. I was at uni and needed some money. One day a mate of mine said, ‘Look, the fella that runs the floor at the Wicklow Hotel is sick and we need somebody to come in tomorrow.’ I did all right that first night, so they asked me back. GQ: When you say ‘did all right’, does that mean you proved yourself a hard man? BJ: I don’t want to crow about it, but yeah. I was playing first-grade footy at the time and I’ve always known how to look after myself. Most of the time I ‘bounced’ by talking. I’d say, ‘Mate, I don’t want the hassle. I wanna go home tonight and so do you. So I’m gonna walk around the other side and when I come back you’re gonna be invisible.’ GQ: Is it a tactic that works in Parliament?
BJ: No, but it does help fine-tune your skills for working out who can really hurt you and who’s a bluff. And it sharpened my contempt for people who throw their ego around. I still find myself sizing rivals up and thinking, ‘You’re not that thick a wheel, mate.’ In politics, that sort of bravado usually comes from people who’ve never done a hard day’s work in their life. The Wicklow taught me that if they said that anywhere other than Parliament, someone would be handing them their teeth back on a plate. GQ: Didn’t someone hand you your teeth back on plate, too? BJ: I have 28 stitches in my head from those days. And yes, I got my front teeth removed by a bloke called Craig Morgan.
GQ: You remember his name? BJ: When someone removes your front teeth, you remember their name. GQ: Is that sort of righteous anger still a big driving force for your ego?
BJ: That sort of ego – as in an unquestioning belief in yourself – can be dangerous. But you’ve certainly got to have self-belief or you’d never get out of bed in the morning. As a politician, I’ve got to have the drive and capacity to take on a serious task and see it through. And when there are tough times, I’ve got to eat that little self-belief pill called ego, or I’ll just crawl up into a little ball and be totally ineffectual as a human being. GQ: And when you pop those self-belief pills, what do they fire you up for? BJ: Two things. The first is ‘challenges’. I mean, one-on-one combat. I’ve thrived on that since my footy days. Secondly, ‘policy’. I don’t ever want the day to come where it’s all over and I’ve got a bit left in the tank. I want to say, ‘We did that. We achieved this. How did it happen? Because I fought for it. Because I got us going. I fired the joint up.’ GQ: Your 2016 election battle against Tony Windsor sure had you fired up. BJ: People like to see two people who can really scrap. But heavyweights are judged not by their minor fights but their big ones. So, when we talk about ego, that [battle for New England] was my ego personified. GQ: You became the first in history to win back seats in the Senate and House of Reps. BJ: The first of those heavyweight fights was against a certain red-headed lady [Pauline Hanson], and the Greens, and the Democrats, and the Labor party. And no one gave us a snowflake’s chance. Even John Howard campaigned against me. But we won it. And the next time I stepped into the ring was against a bloke with a 23 per cent margin
and a million-dollar campaign and the [NSW] Teachers Federation, the Maritime Union [of Australia] and Getup! against us. GQ: And now you’re the Prime Minister second-in-command. How’s that going? BJ: Malcolm and I get along. I genuinely thought we wouldn’t, but we genuinely do. GQ: Why didn’t you think you’d get on?
BJ: Because we’d had a huge blue in the past over the carbon tax. And… GQ: … And it got personal?
BJ: Oh, hell yeah! GQ: How so?
BJ: Oh, god – furious argument. Absolutely furious. Shouting, screaming, the whole lot. GQ: Whose teeth ended up on the plate?
BJ: Well, other people kept a cap on it by getting me out of the room. Bundling me out like I used to do folks at the Wicklow. So after that, it was raw but now we respect each other. We work well together. He completely trusts my confidence and I trust his. GQ: So it took a ‘You. Me. Carpark. Now’ dust-up to cement a friendship? BJ: No one ever got to the top of any game by accident. People get to the top by reason of talent, by drive, by learning from their mistakes, by persistence. GQ: So is Malcolm a close friend today?
BJ: No. We’ve both got a job to do. We’re both leaders of our political parties and that comes with boundaries. At times, those parties have different agendas. But we respect each other and work closely together, and we’re friendly… but we’re not close. GQ: What are your responsibilities to Malcolm as his deputy?
BJ: The role of any deputy, in any job, is to look after the leader. And to be a sounding board so they can work through ideas in their own head, to listen and help work through issues because to run the country is a huge honour, but peoples’ lives are on the line. So, for Malcolm and me, that means a lot of honest conversations, one-on-one, over a cup of tea or a glass of wine where he’ll say, ‘Barny, what’s your view?’ and I’ll say, ‘Well Mal, I think you’re right on this but wrong on that… so how are we going to play it?’ GQ: Are you at the top now? Or would you like to go one step further? BJ: No, that’s it. I’m deputy PM. I’ve been acting PM. I’m quite happy with that. Our goal in the National Party is always to be the power behind the throne. PM’S a title. What you can do and what you do is totally different. Me? I’ll take effect over title any day. GQ: Looking back on 20 years in politics, what mark do you give yourself? BJ: I s’pose eight and a half. Maybe that makes me sound full of myself, but I know how bloody hard I’ve worked. A pollie who scores themselves six or less is pretty useless.
GQ: And if you had to hang your Akubra on your three biggest successes so far? BJ: Change of foreign investment guidelines. It’s gone from $252m down to $15m, and now we have better control over who owns our nation. Dams and inland rail, major infrastructure that was never going to happen until we drove them through. Country of origin labelling – again, people said it would never happen, it’s there. These are major changes in policy, most of them made successful against the tide. GQ: You’re still fired up – so much so a lady watching Question Time recently rang 000 worried about your health. BJ: Yeah, some dear old girl saw me ranting all red in the face and was genuinely worried about me. But a lot of that’s theatre. Parliament is an adversarial chamber and that’s how it works. You’ve gotta remember that a lot of the time I can’t hear myself speak – they’re all screaming at me, trying to get under my skin and make me look like a fool. GQ: What three words best describe you?
BJ: Warm. Driven. And … a little bit lonely. GQ: Lonely?
BJ: Yes – as you go up the tree in politics, your circle of friends become less and less. GQ: Who’s your closest friend in Canberra – and we mean personal friend, not ally.
BJ: I dunno. Canberra’s full of acquaintances… [minister for resources and Northern Australia] Matthew Canavan was my chief of staff before he was in politics, so he’s seen me at my best and worst and knows me well. Wacka [NSW National Party senator John Williams] and I go back a fair way. [Independent senator] Nick Xenophon is another I like and trust. If I talk politics to Nick, I’m absolutely certain it stays in the vault. GQ: And your greatest enemy?
BJ: Right now, Bill Shorten. I’ve got no
personal animosity against him. He’s got his job to do and I’ve got mine, but I don’t rate him highly. Any person there that long should have a clear vision. It mightn’t be what I want but I should be able to understand it. But what does Bill want? What’s his great vision for our nation? You tell me… GQ: Would there be anyone in Labor that you like?
BJ: Oh yeah. [Shadow minister for housing and homelessness and shadow minister for skills and apprenticeships] Dougie Cameron is a crazy, left, lunatic unionist but if you told him where you hid your keys, he wouldn’t tell anybody. [Member for Chifley] Ed Husic is on the way up. He seems real. [Member for Fowler] Chris Hayes is a good, smart politician, always increases his margin no matter the seat and each time there’s a factional brawl and they try to kick him out, he survives. These blokes are completely the opposite of me in politics, but I respect them. GQ: What about the deputy leader of the opposition, Tanya Plibersek? BJ: Tanya’s off with the fairies. Her policy settings are not thought out. She doesn’t get her facts right. She comes unstuck on questions. And I don’t know what her vision is – especially for my people, regional people. GQ: Anthony Albanese?
BJ: Albo would be a threat. He would talk to my people. GQ: And do you think Tony Abbott still talks to your people? BJ: No. He’s talking to himself I think… and he’s got to stop. GQ: Do you ever talk to yourself?
BJ: Maybe when I’m recharging. A few days every year I sneak away by myself. I just tell everybody I’m doing something else and then bugger off bushwalking. I jump in rivers and stare up at the sky and think about what’s it’s all about. n
“I’ve got no personal animosity against bill shorten, but I don’t rate him. Any person there that long should have a clear vision.”