Barnaby Joyce is staring down internal attempts to blast him out of his seat of New England, which have intensified since a controversial paid television interview on Sunday night trawling over the details of his private life.
Joyce issued a statement to several media outlets on Tuesday saying he would recontest his seat, and if he intended to depart, he would tell his local constituents first.
With Joyce’s future the subject of open speculation, the Nationals frontbencher Darren Chester said his party had “moved on” from the Joyce era, but said it was not up to him to advise Joyce or other MPs whether or not to contest the next federal election.
Chester played down reports the former leader John Anderson might be drafted to stand in New England at the next election, telling Sky News: “I don’t think John is making a comeback.”
The renewed controversy appears to have propelled Labor further in front in the national political contest, with the latest Guardian Essential poll showing the ALP ahead of the Coalition 54% to 46%. The Coalition’s primary vote dropped four points in a fortnight.
Chester said it was important to stop the focus on internal party issues. “We should be focused on the people who send us to parliament to do our jobs.
“The moment that I spend a minute or a second talking about internal party issues is a time when people switch off every other issue.”
Of Anderson’s mooted return, Chester said: “He’s highly regarded as an elder statesman of our party and I don’t see that he would intend to return to parliament.
“When he left parliament 10 years ago he made it clear he’d had his chance and had done a great job as deputy prime minister and was looking to move on and do other things in his life – I don’t think that’s changed”.
The Queensland National Ken O’Dowd said Joyce should have sorted out his complaints about Nationals colleagues, aired on Sunday night, “behind closed doors”.
“He accused five of the Nats of being scumbags. That’s not healthy for us going forward,” O’Dowd told Sky News.
O’Dowd’s comments referred to an accusation by Joyce’s partner, Vikki Campion, that unnamed people in the National party – identified only as “they” and “conservatives” – attempted to pressure her to terminate her pregnancy, advising her if she refused “they’re going to come after you”.
Chester also said he would have preferred it if those accusations had not been aired publicly on Sunday night.
The Nationals leader, Michael McCormack, said on Monday he knew nothing of the alleged conduct, saying his colleagues were “the finest people in regional Australia – I can’t emphasise that enough”.
“I know nothing about it,” he said. “I, like everyone else, only saw what I saw last night.”
Joyce took leave of absence from parliament on medical grounds as controversy over the interview with the Seven Network erupted last week.
The party whip indicated he would be away for the final sitting fortnight before the winter recess, but with speculation mounting about his future Joyce then contradicted that advice, saying he would return to Canberra in mid-June.
McCormack fuelled the public conversation about Joyce’s future in an interview with the Conversation last Wednesday, saying it would be up to the member for New England and his local branch members whether he recontested his seat at the next federal election.
“That’ll be a matter for him and that’ll be a matter for the National party in New England,” McCormack said. “That’ll be a matter for a branch to nominate him and then that’ll be a matter for the branch members in New England as to whether or not they decide if he nominates or if anybody else nominates.
“Then it becomes a preselection process as to who they think would best represent them going forward.”
On Sunday night Joyce admitted he had campaigned to hold the seat during last year’s byelection in the full knowledge he would have to stand down as leader and deputy prime minister because of developments in his private life.
In a revealing comment about his mindset as his personal travails have deepened, Joyce also conceded he hung on to the leadership of the Nationals in part out of “spite” when the controversy about his relationship with Campion sent the government into a political crisis this year.