opinion

Canberra’s booze problem and why Barnaby Joyce’s latest scandal shouldn’t be a career-ender

Headshot of Sarah Blake
Sarah Blake
The Nightly
For a little while there Barnaby was one of our most famous international figures. 
For a little while there Barnaby was one of our most famous international figures.  Credit: AAP

Barnaby Joyce is such a big and unique character that for a little while there he was one of our most famous international figures.

It’s a long way from Margot Robbie taking over the world as Barbie, but back in 2015, when the then-Agriculture Minister expressed murderous intentions towards Johnny Depp’s quarantine-busting Yorkshire terriers Pistol and Boo, Barnaby not only made Australian headlines but sparked an international media frenzy.

So much so that in a previous role, when I interviewed US comedian John Oliver over consecutive Januaries to promote his talk show, Last Week Tonight, Barnaby was our first topic of conversation. The first icebreaker was the dogs, and a year later, his relationship with staffer Vikki Campion, whose pregnancy with her former boss’s baby in 2018 was making more front pages.

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What’s happened this time is that Barnaby has been filmed looking ridiculous, mumbling incoherently and using some choice swear words after falling off a planter box late on a Canberra night during a sitting week after attending at least two boozy functions – one of them held by the Australian Hotels’ Association.

The former Nationals leader and the honourable Member for New England was filmed by a not so kind-hearted passerby, who sold the footage to tabloid website the Daily Mail, and Barnaby has spent the week ducking a growing deluge of criticism and even some calls to resign.

Barnaby Joyce is seen lying on the side of the road in Braddon, Canberra
Barnaby Joyce has spent the week ducking a growing deluge of criticism after footage of him lying on a footpath emerged. Credit: Daily Mail/Daily Mail

Blaming his shabby conduct on the effect of mixing painkillers and alcohol, Barnaby apologised in an interview on Sunrise and obviously hoped to put it behind him.

It’s not going so well, with his Nationals leader successor and factional enemy David Littleproud urging him to “take some time” away from his job and be with his family, and Opposition Leader Peter Dutton voicing the same concern. Both had earlier stated he had their full support.

Part of the blowback is symptomatic of generational attitudes.

It’s not just that young Australians don’t automatically embrace quintessential larrikins and aren’t willing to excuse the same bad “off-duty” behaviour their parents and grandparents perhaps forgave: Barnaby’s puce complexion has for some younger voters come to embody the Coalition’s fight against progressive climate policy, which for many is the only issue that matters.

However, we are a democracy. And Barnaby is nothing short of adored in large parts of New England, which he’s convincingly held since 2013 despite – or perhaps because of – his repeated stuff-ups. While Canberra’s elite may like to look down on his uncouth buffoonery, he has proven an effective and wildly popular local member who has been described as Australia’s best “retail politician”.

Colin Boyce announced as LNP Candidate to replace Ken O'Dowd at next Federal Election.
Barnaby Joyce has been described as Australia’s best “retail politician”. Credit: Supplied

Since his run-in with the planter box, there’s been some predictable agitating for his head from the Greens but Prime Minister Anthony Albanese hasn’t fully sunk the boot in. Labor backbencher Tania Lawrence did call on him to resign, saying it was “embarrassing for every member of this parliament, because we are examples to our community, young and old”.

But my view is that we have to take at face value Barnaby’s explanation that he was on painkillers and had foolishly mixed them with alcohol. He wasn’t at work when he was filmed keeled over and it’s hard not to agree with his wife Vikki that it was kind of disgusting someone took the time to film him but not to check on his welfare.

Bob Hawke held the world record beer skol when he was a Rhodes scholar.
Bob Hawke held the world record beer skol when he was a Rhodes scholar. Credit: DAN HIMBRECHTS/AAPIMAGE

Australia’s leaders of course have a long history of winning not just headlines but acclaim and even adoration for their drinking prowess – from Bob Hawke’s world record beer skull when he was a Rhodes Scholar to Anthony Albanese being cheered by the crowd at a Gang of Youths Concert shortly after he won the 2022 election.

But while it’s easy to cringe at ‘Barnaby the oaf’, another big focus of news this week – the return to the courts of matters related to the alleged rape of parliamentary staffer Brittany Higgins after a night of heavy drinking in Canberra with workmates – casts the issue of alcohol in the halls of power into a more serious light.

Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins, who led an inquiry into workplace culture at parliament amid the fallout from the Higgins affair, has described alcohol at work events as one of the significant risk factors for women to experience workplace harassment. She also described the “work hard, play hard” culture complete with after-work drinks as dangerous to women.

But while Jenkins laid much of the blame with alcohol, Labor’s then spokesperson for women Tanya Plibersek got it right in when she said while alcohol can be “an exacerbating factor” in workplace discrimination and harassment it’s not what causes it.

“The root cause of bad behaviour is gender inequality, inequality in power relationships, the feeling that many staff have that they could be dismissed at the whim of their employer,” Ms Plibersek said in the wake of the Jenkins review release in December 2021.

War Memorial Canberra
Barnaby Joyce and wife Vikki Campion. Credit: News Corp Australia

Change is happening at Parliament House to make it a more inclusive work environment and a cross-party parliamentary committee has been working on a new draft code of conduct. However, this will reportedly not include a ban on drinking rather an emphasis on responsible consumption.

It remains to be seen whether such moves will have an impact on the notoriously loose nightlife of Canberra’s pollies and lobbyists during sitting weeks.

But while this is yet another embarrassing schemozzle for a man who’s never far from a scandal, it shouldn’t end Barnaby’s career and, on the evidence before us at this stage, it probably won’t.

We should leave him to sort it out, given that nobody — except Barnaby himself — was hurt in the filming of this mockumentary.

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