The answer to the aforementioned question could easily be answered using anywhere from two words to a sentence – the answers ranging from ‘not much’ to ‘the new Deputy PM should not scare us much’. However, as is standard with political analysis, a few hundred words rather than simply a handful of words is necessary.
Barnaby Joyce, after 11 years in the federal parliament, was elevated to the role of National Party leader and therefore Deputy Prime Minister after the long-awaited resignation announcement by the incumbent, Warren Truss.
Since well before Pistol and Boo were smuggled into the country, the Deputy PM elect has been a polarising figure. The mere prospect of the knockabout Australian larrikin rising to the rank of stand-in Prime Minister frightened the living daylights out of the loud and opinionated.
It is impossible to ignore the fact that Mr Joyce is a bit of a rogue, and that both his mouth and his mind get him into a little bit of strife from time to time. However, it is equally relevant to note that this will not be exacerbated by the loftier rank in government he will now occupy.
A thorough understanding of how the cabinet process and government actually works should give cause for more optimism than is currently on display. Decisions by ministers are, usually, put to cabinet for discussion at least. Other policy ideas go to the partyroom for debate. Both fora can give rise to altered, even rejected policies.
To look at the impact Deputy Prime Minister Joyce will have on the political process, we must also consider those times when he will, for a time, be Acting Prime Minister. In this area there is also little need for concern.
Barnaby Joyce will only assume this role when Prime Minister Turnbull is away on holidays or on an overseas visit. Holidays and overseas visits are usually short, and the former tends to be at times when political decision-making takes a break, along with most of our politicians.
The far greater concern is the ideological direction of the entire Coalition, which is not quite as far right as Barnaby Joyce, but still worryingly socially conservative. The Deputy PM-elect is but one cog in this driving force.
Every so often a show comes along that breaks the mould. Excuse the cooking related pun but that is exactly what the show Kitchen Cabinet, hosted by Annabel Crabb and aired on ABC2 actually does. It takes your regular political interview and turns it on its head. It moves the political discourse away from the rough and tumble of our institutions and places it in the home’s, temporary or otherwise, of some of our political players. Far from just bringing out some of the personal stories of our politicians, the show, with its second season about to start, exposes the ingredients of the party politics cake.
Kitchen Cabinet will return to television screens next Wednesday, October 10th and promises to unearth some more individual truths from our politicians which will shed an important light on just how varied opinions can be within any given political party. There will of course be some who do not reveal as much or anything compared to other guests on the show, but for the most part individual thought processes will be discovered.
Failing that, the show will be responsible again for unearthing or at least bringing to a wider audience, stories about our politicians, their lives, what makes them tick as people. This has a lot to do with the relaxed location, the home or the flat or house in Canberra. What emerges, even from our media savvy politicians is at the very least is a much more relaxed and at ease communication style closer to a dinner chat than a political interview, when in reality it is still a political discussion.
What the broader viewing public often fail to see with our politicians is that behind party politics, which relies on falling into line behind a party-room decision, there are individuals, putting forward slightly different points of view.
Those views are of course discussed and debated, sometimes at length, behind closed doors, occasionally spilling out into public view through leaks from MP’s or journalists in the right place at the right time. Occasionally, individual views will spout forth out of the mouths of politicians directly in the media spotlight in public- think Barnaby Joyce as a most prescient example.
But for the most part, our politicians stick to “party discipline” and don’t reveal their position or at least won’t put a name to it, instead being referred to as ‘a disgruntled MP’ or ‘an inside source’.
From the advertisements for the show, we can already see that Bronwyn Bishop, long-time Liberal Party MP reveals she would not have brought in the controversial WorkChoices. What other stories of individual argument will we discover through the work of Annabel Crabb? Barnaby Joyce we know too, will also be a guest on the show and surely the serial “freelancer” will not disappoint.
In a way these candid discussions also show the lengths that politicians will go to, what they will put up with in order to wield political power for as long as possible. Politicians will, almost without fault, accept party decisions. That is just as much about accepting and maintaining political power as it is about accepting the collective decision of a political machine that has discussed and debated an issue in an exhaustive manner.
Of course, save for the likes of Barnaby Joyce, we will not see frank and open discussions about current policy debates and that’s to be expected as the collective need for unity trumps almost all other views.
However, we can learn what individual members of parliament might think about a policy issue from the historical tidbits they offer up. We can reasonably, but not always accurately do so by linking a previous policy stance to an ideology and then extrapolate that to present issues. However, that can be blurred by the increasingly common practice of populism which has been known to overtake ideological linkages in recent years.
Kitchen Cabinet is certainly different and through that uniqueness will be illuminating as we seek to understand the politics of our nation and our individual parliamentary representatives. It might also help us to realise that just like us, surprisingly, our politicians are human.
They say that politics is unpredictable and of late you could not disagree more with that statement, especially when talking about the Question Time strategy employed particularly by the Tony Abbott led Opposition, but also the plan of attack of the Gillard Government. But that all seemed to change for at least yesterdays hour or so of Question Time where the usual focus of the Coalition was turfed out for the most part and the issue of importing overseas workers for a mining project took centre stage in the political debate during Question Time in Canberrra.
This issue came to the fore because of the leadership tensions which it apparently stoked and will likely fizzle out as a story fairly quickly and as a major point of attack for the Coalition who will probably return to the usual suspects of topics if not today, then tomorrow or maybe later this week.
The Coalition may continue to attempt making some political mileage out of the leadership issue tomorrow in relation to the deal struck between Gina Rinehart and the ALP Government, but it will almost certainly be less of a focus than it was during Question Time today.
What seems more likely is a return to the script which has been performed to within an inch of its life and that is the Coalition returning to focus on the carbon tax which will play front and centre of the political strategy and be the major election issue that the Liberal and National Party will fight on during the (presumably) 2013 election campaign.
There might also be somewhat of a focus on the Craig Thomson/HSU debate which despite not being particularly evident yesterday, except for during Senate Estimates still bubbles along as an unresolved issue for the government even though they have ditched the Member for Dobell from the caucus. Pretty much every avenue of parliamentary attack and then some around this issue has been utilised.
The Murray-Darling Basin Plan which is currently being debated in Canberra may also be a subject of parliamentary debate in the House of Representatives, though this is much more likely to occur in the Senate and come from Nationals Senator Barnaby Joyce.
The government will likely again focus on the economy with the post-budget message still needing to be sold to the groups targetted in the fiscal statement just weeks ago.
The ALP will also focus the use of the Dorothy Dixer on the Household Assistance Package which will provide compensation for the carbon price which will commence in just over a month on the 1st of July, with initial payments hitting the accounts of pensioners already this week ahead of the introduction of the controversial policy.
It could also be legitimately expected that the Labor Party focus their questions too on a wider range of issues with one or two questions possible about the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and other issues not canvassed by the Opposition in which the government thinks they can get a good message out on.
Whatever tomorrow holds, you can be certain that it will be the start of a return to business as usual after some ever so brief respite from the one issue politics that has seemed to dominate political discourse in Australia in recent years and accelerated under this minority government.
All the Question Time action begins at 2pm though you will be forgiven if you decide it’s best to give it a miss.