What is "finance"? Does anybody really know? It’s a mysterious, nebulous concept, like "alternative music" and "feminism". This is what makes it, without doubt, the most difficult portfolio in government.
After all, most ministers have some idea, in broad terms, of what their job involves: the Defence Minister is there to oversee the armed forces and to investigate naval sex parties; the Foreign Minister is there to deal with foreigners so the rest of us don’t have to; the Communications Minister is there to ruin the internet for everyone; the Environment Minister is there to provide something sturdy for Penny Wong to rest her feet on; and so on.
But the Finance Minister? What does he do, exactly? Does he play the stockmarket? Is he in charge of providing car loans? Does he just sit around all day calculating the interest on things?
Nobody knows, least of all the current minister, Lindsay Tanner, who has decided that the role is what you make of it, which is why the Finance Minister’s role under this government is mainly to abuse the Opposition and make overt threats to public servants.
But if the Finance Minister’s job is a hard one, the shadow finance minister has it even tougher. This is pretty much the case in all shadow portfolios. The role of a shadow minister is to create a kind of parallel universe, where things are mostly the same except for minor cosmetic changes to the Budget. Even worse, you then have to get people to pay attention to the parallel universe, which is hard, because it’s boring. And then after you win the election, you’ll probably get pushed out of the portfolio anyway so Julia Gillard can have it.
So essentially, shadow ministries are well suited to people who enjoy thankless, dull tasks with no promise of future benefit. The one exception may be Health, where the shadow minister’s job is to laugh mockingly at the actual minister, who is crying quietly into a shot glass.
With all this in mind, can we cut Barnaby Joyce some slack? He has it tough. There he is in the most difficult portfolio of all, trying to "cut through" on the issues, fighting an enemy of pure fiscal malevolence. Is it any wonder he stumbles occasionally? How many of us can honestly say that, when faced with difficult tasks and awkward situations, we have not said something hilariously stupid to the entire country? I know I have. To tell the truth, I do it almost every week.
The fact is, Joyce performs a very important role in the Opposition. He is, as Tony Abbott has noted, a gifted "retail politician". This is a crucial thing to have in any opposition. If you don’t have a retail politician, why, you’re simply going to get crucified! Going into an election without a retail politician is like going into battle without some guns: madness!
What is a retail politician? Well, it’s difficult to explain to the layman, but essentially it is a politician who is on sale in individual units, at a price marked up from the wholesale cost. And that’s Barnaby Joyce all over — if there ever was a politician who you would not be surprised to see sitting on a shelf in K-Mart, it’s Barnaby. You can see why Abbott promoted him.
What’s more, Joyce is an accountant. Think on that for a moment. What is the greatest problem with the Westminster system of government? It is that ministers do not bring appropriate expertise to their roles. For example, Health Minister Nicola Roxon is not a doctor. So how can she credibly tackle health issues? Defence Minister John Faulkner is neither a soldier nor a sailor nor a fighter pilot. So what does he know? And so it continues along the frontbench: the Foreign Minister is not a foreigner, the Sport Minister is rubbish at sport, and the Arts Minister is Peter Garrett. It’s a great big Incompetence Orgy in there.
But imagine if the Finance Minister were an accountant? Who would be better? When you ask yourself, "who should I engage to handle my finances?", what’s the invariable answer? That’s right, "a crazed country bumpkin"! No, sorry, lost focus for a second there. What I meant was, "an accountant"! Finance is what accountants do. I undertook a personal survey of over 800 accountants and when asked what their deal was, over 65 per cent of respondents mentioned the word "finance" in the first ten minutes of their answer. Accountants know finance, there’s no question about it.
And so, when an accountant tells you that Australia may be unable to repay its debt, you damn well better listen. I mean, you could take the word of Joe Hockey, a lawyer, or Kevin Rudd, a diplomat/Chinese spy, about debt. Hey, why not go out on the street and ask a drunken hobo, if you just want to ignore qualifications like that?
And as for Tanner, the actual finance minister? What credentials does he bring? Apparently he used to be an "articled clerk" and a "solicitor". Now, try this. Next time your accountant says you have too much debt, feel free to reply, "Thanks for the advice, but I’m going to find out my solicitor’s opinion." You will be bankrupt within hours. And an "articled clerk"? That’s not even a thing!
No, there is nobody in Australian politics as uniquely qualified to do financey things as Barnaby Joyce. And that’s not even the only thing he brings to the table. He also has vast experience of life in rural Queensland, so he can speak to country folk on their own level, not like your average Canberra plutocrat who can’t help talking down to them, their voices dripping with arrogance, pretension, and basic literacy.
What’s more, Joyce was in the Army Reserve, so he knows what it’s like to do a reasonable impression of someone serving his country; and he once worked as a bouncer so he knows what it’s like to use unreasonable force on innocent people — all vital components of a cabinet minister’s toolkit.
That’s why Tony Abbott is standing by his man — that and the Catholic thing — because he knows that without Barnaby Joyce, the Coalition would lose a certain je ne sais quoi, a certain indefinable something that some call insanity, some call incompetence and some call brilliance. Admittedly those who call it brilliance are mostly the kind of people who spend most of their time telling other people fluoride is going to kill them, or sitting on top of poles screaming about how they’re not allowed to cut trees down. Nevertheless, there’s a constituency there and Abbott has cannily recognised this and plans to exploit it to the full. As he says, Barnaby has street cred and that’s worth a thousand years of book-learnin’.
Oh sure, he doesn’t always get the facts and figures 100 per cent correct, but he gets the feel of it. He understands that economics is all about making connections with people, about getting the lie of the land, about putting your ear to the ground. It’s about rolling up your sleeves and getting your hands dirty and letting the Budget know who’s boss. It’s about saying, "Hey, I’m in charge of finance, finance is not in charge of me." Only a street-creddy, accountancy-savvy, farm-oriented bronzed Aussie like Joyce can bring that sort of down-to-earth, up-to-speed, off-with-the-pixies approach to the solvency of the nation.
And I think Australia will be all the better for it. If nothing else, politics is never dull when Barnaby is around. Politics is never dull when snipers are around either, of course, but we can’t have everything. And Barnaby is in a way the sniper of Parliament — he lurks in the bushes and the treetops, taking aim at governmental hypocrisy and fiscal recklessness, taking his targets down one by one with his searing rhetoric, homespun country wisdom and a knowledge of economics bordering on the mammalian.
And when the Liberals are elected, as seems inevitable now that climate change has been disproven and interest rates continue rising to stratospheric levels of 4 per cent-plus, we will be all the better for having a cabinet full of ministers appointed for their appropriate skillsets. An accountant for Finance, an immigrant for Immigration, a bitter old man for Superannuation and a desperate search for something to occupy Julie Bishop — it’s the new way forward for the Liberals.
Let Australia be ruled, finally, by men and women with impeccable qualifications. If they have a certain sense of what their job entails, so much the better!
Let the Joyce era begin!
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