Barnaby Joyce Acting Prime Minister runs the country from Tamworth | Feature

BUSH BOY: Barnaby Joyce in his electorate office. Photo: Peter Hardin 110717PHF022
BUSH BOY: Barnaby Joyce in his electorate office. Photo: Peter Hardin 110717PHF022

In a modest office in the main street of Tamworth, Barnaby Joyce, Acting Prime Minister of Australia, runs the country.

Donned in a woollen jumper and surrounded by artworks of the Australian outback, he’s a world away from the marble halls of Canberra’s parliament house.

With Malcolm Turnbull out of the country for the week, Mr Joyce steps into the top job at difficult time both domestically, with the Tony Abbott-led infighting among the Liberals, and internationally, with North Korea putting western nations on red alert.

But despite all this, Barnaby Joyce still finds time to get back to the bush.

In other first world nations, it would be unheard of for their leader to set up camp in a regional city of 50,000.

But Mr Joyce says it just goes to show the true nature of Australia and its people – “egalitarian, easygoing, low-key, but hardworking”.

“It’s who we are as a nation,” Mr Joyce says.

“I think it’s really important to the nature of how our nation works. We can show the highest office of the land can be operated from – and to be quite honest – a pretty meagre office in Tamworth.

“If you got someone from another nation and said, ‘this is the Acting Prime Minister’s office’,” he says, gesturing around his New England electoral office, “they would say, ‘No it’s not’.

“I suppose I work on that metaphor with the car a bit as well,” Mr Joyce says, referring to a video he posted on social media, where he jokes the Prime Ministerial limousine “must be getting a wash”, which is why he’s travelling through his electorate in a rented Nissan Altima.

“People might think I roll around in the bulletproof C1 limo – nope, rental car from Thrifty,” he says, laughing.

“That’s what I love about Australia – I’m not covered in tinsel and we don’t carry on, we don’t make a fuss.”

While there is some handshaking and baby-kissing, the role is far from symbolic – when North Korea successfully tested an intercontinental ballistic missile, which has the range to strike northern Australia, Mr Joyce was in Canberra getting briefed on the threat by the nation’s top military experts.

“If someone has to make the call right now, then it’s me.”

Being the Acting Prime Minister has one thing in common with a footy referee (no, the answer’s not ‘nobody likes them’). If you didn’t notice they were there, they’ve had a good game.

“Malcolm and I get along very well, and you always want it to be smooth sailing. You want to make sure there is no major disturbance by reason of you doing the job.”

Despite the pressures of running a country – something he’s already quite familiar with given his usual role of Deputy Prime Minister – Mr Joyce says the hardest thing to get used to is the constant presence of the Australia Federal Police bodyguards.

BIG CALLS: Barnaby Joyce has become accustomed to tough decisions - but not the bodyguards. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

BIG CALLS: Barnaby Joyce has become accustomed to tough decisions - but not the bodyguards. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

“It’s difficult: you can’t do anything without telling anyone, you can’t go to the shop without telling anyone, they have to know where you are every minute of the day.

“Here’s a classic example – I go for a run every now and again. Last night I went for a run in Glen Innes, the only difference this time was two blokes ran with me, with a car at the front and a car at the back.

“Even when I go to K-Mart or to buy groceries, they’re with me. When I go to mass, they’re at the back of the church.”

While there are 101 things flying through the mind of the Acting Prime Minister, delivering back to his electorate is always hanging around the top of the list.

“I do want to deliver back to my electorate. It was where I was born, it was where I grew up.”

The New England could be waiting “hundreds of years” for another chance to wield this level of influence, Mr Joyce says, and it’s an opportunity he refuses to waste.

“To be quite frank, it won’t happen again – you’re not going to get the Deputy Prime Minister, the Water Minister and the Agriculture Minister in one fell swoop, who is also the Member for New England,” he says.

“This is a golden opportunity that we’ve got, and we’ve got to make the most of it. I’m no fool, I know how politics works: it’s up the stairs and out the window.

“I’ve got myself as close to the centre of government so I could get the most back for my people. I think people recognise that for all my sins, faults and failings – and I’ve got a heap of them – I work as hard as I possibly can.”

In between his Prime Ministerial duties, Mr Joyce has found time to make two major announcements in his electorate: launching the tender process for the new Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) building in Armidale and turning the sod at the White Rock wind farm near Glen Innes, marking the start of the $600 million project. 

“These things don’t happen by accident.

“By reason of policy and discussing things with environment ministers, and bit and pieces, we’re going to invest a billion dollars in this little town [Glen Innes] – a billion dollars, that does not just happen by chance.

“APVMA to Armidale – no one else could have done that. They’ve been fighting me up hill, down hill, on the front page of the Canberra Times, virtually for weeks on end. But I won, and that’s going to bring hundreds of jobs to Armidale. No one else can do it – but you can if you’re the Deputy Prime Minister of Australia.

“As a 10-year-old kid you have this crazy dream of being the Prime Minister. Well, when you think about it, you got to Acting Prime Minister, so you went alright.”