The moment Barnaby Joyce started losing his grip on leadership

Parties are being urged to move leftward and rightward or start searching for their souls after a bruising election, but the end of Barnaby Joyce’s leadership shows conviction only counts for so much.

David Littleproud on Monday realised a long-cherished dream of becoming Nationals leader, but said he would not take the party on an ideological turn.

“This is not about the National Party lurching left or lurching right, it’s using common sense and being in the sensible centre,” he said.

“That’s where you win elections, not chasing extremities.”

Mr Littleproud, a former agribusiness banker, was described as a more progressive alternative while the staunchest conservatives swung in for Barnaby.

The right was campaigning for a conviction politician and self-described “agrarian socialist” in the old Nationals tradition, who fought to keep compulsory unionism, sink privatisations and for more regulation of corporations.

They had split clearly, though, on climate change, the issue which exposed a problem with Mr Joyce’s leadership that proved his undoing.

In October, when the Nationals grappled with the question of whether to adopt a net-zero commitment on carbon emissions, one puzzling decision by Mr Joyce would prove especially memorable.

The Nationals were caught between their instinct to act as a minor party, standing up for the constituents they believed wore too much risk from cutting emissions, and a party of government concerned about their credibility and Australia’s place in the world.

Barnaby Joyce tried to have it both ways on climate. Photo: AAP

Mr Joyce came to the leadership months earlier promising to stand up to the Liberals in negotiations on whether to adopt the policy some feared would lead to the party being steamrolled.

But then Mr Joyce voted against the zero emissions pledge and a majority of his party room to oppose the very agreement he had reached. By doing so he added his weight as Deputy Prime Minister to the biggest threat to the unity of the party and the government.

One Nationals source said the party’s position had lost all credibility because of the message sent by disunity and party room dissent that came after Mr Joyce’s ambivalent display.

“If our net zero policy was so bad for the regions why did we get a (4.6 per cent) swing towards us in the (coal mining seat of) Hunter?,” they said. “We went in thinking we were offering something for everyone and got nothing.”

A clear sign

After winning a secret vote of MPs yesterday, Mr Littleproud moved quickly to reinforce the consensus.

“The global community asked us to sign up to net zero by 2050,” said the Queensland MP.

“Obviously you’ve got to appreciate the National Party can’t win an election by itself and this Liberal Party can’t win an election by themselves.

“They need us. We need to work together. A sensible centre is where you win elections, not chasing extremities down rabbit holes.”

By contrast Mr Joyce’s stance helped cement a perception that the contrarian streak that made him resonate with the Nationals’ base made him uninterested in compromise or stability.

On Monday MPs were expressing particular concerns about how these tendencies would play out in the current uncertain political environment and the renegotiation of a Coalition agreement with a diminished Liberal Party.

Mr Joyce had earlier flirted with not reaffirming the net-zero pledge after the election if he remained as leader.

But one National noted policy would have been set by the party room under either leader. They said a vote would have resolved to keep the commitment rather than reopen the divide between a Queensland branch concerned about mining and a Victorian organisation cheering on the rise of clean energy.

Despite suffering a 9 per cent swing in Cowper northern NSW MP Pat Conaghan, like all his colleagues, retained his seat but said internal divides had hurt the Nationals:  “Comments from people like Matt Canavan saying net-zero is dead in the water did a great deal of damage,”

Barnaby Joyce UK energy crisis

Barnaby Joyce’s leadership faced a challenge long before election day. Photo: AAP

Election pretext

Suggestions Mr Joyce might face a challenge started being aired well before polling day though the party’s election results were the pretext for his ouster.

Many thought they would do worse than retaining all seats. But MPs really voted for generational change and the upkeep of their reputation as a serious governing partner.

“This was the last acceptable chance to move,” said one MP of the automatic vacancy in party leadership that follows an election.

Research suggesting Mr Joyce dragged on the Coalition’s national vote concerned Nationals as did thoughts of how three years on the opposition benches in a combative role might aggravate those perceptions.

Earlier in his career Mr Joyce’s political style was a great advertisement for a party that traded on a reputation of standing up for its constituency.

But it made his leadership untenable once it threatened what Nationals have promised their base for a century: A seat at the table of government and a share of its spoils.

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