'He speaks for us': why Tamworth is oozing sympathy for Barnaby Joyce

'He speaks for us': why Tamworth is oozing sympathy for Barnaby Joyce

To most people of New England, the former deputy prime minister is seen as a victim of a system they feel alienated from.

Don Baker trims Barnaby Joyce’s hair every now and then. When he’s not doing men’s cuts in his barber shop just off Peel Street in Tamworth, he’s a professional shooter. Baker’s business card says kangaroo harvester.

Baker has a poster in his shop window spruiking the Shooters party, which has been busy hoovering up rural disaffection in the New South Wales bush. Taking in the obvious prompts, the propaganda in the window, the trophies on the wall, I ask Baker whether he’s disappointed the Shooters are an apparent no-show in the New England by-election. “Yeah, a little bit,” he says.

But Joyce is someone he can get behind. “He’s all for guns too, isn’t he?” Baker says, half statement, half question.

I’m not sure how seriously into firearms Joyce is, but it seems impolite to demur, surrounded by all the taxidermy – the snake, the parrot, the wild pig. “I don’t mind the bloke,” Baker says. “He speaks his mind. A lot of politicians don’t”.

A little further along Peel Street, there’s a small business with a very different vibe. Sue Ellis owns a women’s shoe shop called Heeled. While Baker’s shop is crammed with hunting trophies, the Ellis emporium is high heels and accessories.

Ellis is irritated at the byelection, and the dual citizenship controversy that precipitated it. “He was born here,” the shop owner says. “Why are we even talking about this?”

Ellis’s sister, Lyn Ranclaud, is in the shop today, helping out. “Look, if we go back far enough, no one was born here, apart from the Aborigines,” Ranclaud says. “It’s just a waste of money.”

Ranclaud lowers her voice. Customers are browsing around the shop. “I feel sorry for Jim and Marie, Barnaby’s mother and father, because Jim’s not well. All this is taking a very big toll on Jim. They are very upset, and I feel sorry for Jim, because of him, this has all happened.”

Ellis chastises her sister for being indiscreet, motioning at my digital recorder. It’s OK, I reassure her, this isn’t exactly spilling deep vault family secrets. We all know Joyce went to the high court because of the New Zealand citizenship he picked up from his father by descent. It’s entirely unsurprising that the deputy prime minister’s elderly parents would be upset.

I change the subject, directing my question to Ellis. Does she think Joyce is heading for a thumping victory? This is pretty much the national take on New England – that this contest isn’t much of a contest.

Ellis shakes her head. She isn’t sure.

Ranclaud cuts in. “I wouldn’t vote for Tony Windsor anyhow,” she says, with lip curled in distaste. He sister frowns again. “He’s not standing,” Ellis counsels. She continues as if she hasn’t been interrupted.

“I don’t know what will happen,” she says. “People sometimes do strange things. Anyway, this whole thing is just a storm in a teacup. Just get it over with. Stop wasting our money and get out and do what you are being paid to do, instead of all the backstabbing.” Ellis doesn’t know why a dual citizenship should create all this fuss when a man is born in the Tamworth base hospital.

Out at the Nemingha pub, which is a sleepy neighbourhood watering hole on the southern fringe of town – except on a Thursday night, when it boasts topless barmaids – a group of men have gathered for a sundowner after work.

One is convinced the citizenship dramas have been cooked up by Labor’s Senate leader, Penny Wong. Wong, he declares, is a “lesbian and a vegetarian”. I point out that I know Wong eats meat, so his intel in this instance isn’t entirely on the money. He seems perplexed by this news, and uncertain whether I’m pulling his leg.

The group at Nemingah see Joyce’s travails as a stitch-up, some pointless intrigue connected to the political nonsense from Canberra they try to tune out of. In this version of events, the deputy prime minister is the victim of a crook system.

I ask the group whether they think Joyce should have checked his family background, given all political candidates are required to do so before contesting. It’s just a basic administrative check. Not that complicated. They shrug, unconvinced.

A couple of these men went to the University of New England, and roomed at St Albert’s College, a residential college on the campus, where Joyce lived in the late 1980s and early 1990s. These blokes are younger than the candidate, they know him only as the politician who shakes their hands at the saleyards, or down on Peel Street. He’s not an intimate, or a mate, but they feel he is one of them.

For these men, that’s the point. Joyce is their representative, from the local clans, who somehow rose to be the deputy prime minister of Australia. So who cares about the constitution? Who can be bothered with that in the real world? They are irritated not with Joyce, but with what they see as arcane process. Joyce’s good old boy credentials are good enough in the bar at Nemingah.

Further south again, at Duri, a group of farmers have gathered in the wheat paddocks for a crop judging in the late afternoon sun, with Joyce the guest of honour. The farmers hang back while he ponders wheat samples. Later in the week, he’s shearing sheep. Whip-cracking and bareback horseriding can’t be far off.

This group is disappointed with Malcolm Turnbull and the Liberals. They think the government is seriously underwhelming, but they don’t blame the local member, despite the fact he is a linchpin in the Canberra operation.

Joyce does the job, speaks the language of the locals, and he has clout inside the government. This is important to these men. They seem to think their insider is outsider enough to be acceptable.

I tell them in the normal circumstances of a by-election if voters don’t like the incumbent government, they tend to give it a whacking. One of the farmers laughs, and predicts Joyce in December will do better than he did at the 2016 election.

Read full article here >>>

Original published 4 November 2017 in The Guardian