Prominent rural women have warned the National party not to restore Barnaby Joyce to the leadership, saying there are “skeletons” that could return to haunt the party.
As leader Michael McCormack declared there was “no vacancy” for his position, Joyce confirmed he would nominate as leader if a spill was called, pointing to his former achievements in the role and declaring “now is the time to do it”.
“If there’s a spill … I’ll put my hand up,” Joyce told Channel Seven’s Sunrise program.
“I have done the job before – every seat we have got is one I won [at] the previous election before the one we just had.”
But the founding member of Australian Women in Agriculture, Alana Johnson, said the rehabilitation of the former deputy prime minister would send the wrong signal to regional communities, and particularly women.
Johnson said that following the resignation of Bridget McKenzie – the country’s first female agriculture minister – the party needed to reassure voters it would restore “values-based decision making” in the portfolio.
“The National party certainly need to be cognisant of the fact that they better get back in line with values that people in rural and regional areas hold close, and that is honesty, a fair-go and transparency, and acting on behalf of the public and the general good,” Johnson told Guardian Australia.
“Whoever they appoint needs to hold those sorts of values at the forefront, and in deciding who that should be, I think people’s track records need to be taken into account, and certainly Barnaby does not have a good track record in terms of being driven by the values that people are looking for.”
Catherine Marriott, who made allegations of sexual harassment against Joyce after news of his affair with a political staffer emerged in 2018, urged the party not to “bugger this up” by returning to Joyce as leader.
Sue Middleton, from the Foundation for Regional and Rural Renewal, backed Marriott’s call, urging the party to “move forward”.
“The past is not a place you want to go,” she said on Twitter. “There are too many skeletons and they are rattling.”
The NSW Nationals investigated a sexual harassment complaint from Marriott about Joyce’s behaviour, but an eight-month investigation was unable to reach a conclusion.
Joyce repeatedly rejected the complaint as “spurious and defamatory”, but has also said he was “fully aware of the night mentioned”.
McCormack insisted he maintained the support of his colleagues, while acknowledging that Joyce was probably “ready to be the leader of the party should there be a spill called”.
“But there has been no spill called, there is no vacancy for the leadership position.
“I have the overwhelming majority support in the party room and of course I’m going to continue as the Nationals party leader as my colleagues want and, I think, as regional Australians expect,” he said.
“I have delivered for rural and regional Australia.”
The Victorian Nationals MP Darren Chester said McCormack had the “overwhelming support” of the party room and was doing a good job “delivering for regional Australians”.
“What’s damaging is any second, minute, hour, day the National party talks about itself and doesn’t talk about the issues affecting regional Australians,” Chester told the ABC.
The party will meet on Tuesday to decide who will replace McKenzie as deputy leader, with a handful of Nationals MPs expecting to have a tilt at the position, including the NSW MP David Gillespie and the drought minister, David Littleproud.
Gillespie said he would “put some spine back” into the Nationals leadership team and criticised McCormack’s leadership style.
“He needs to do more than the bush-regional media. When you’re in a leadership position you’ve got to do the national stuff as well,” Gillespie said.
Chester and his fellow Victorian MP Damian Drum have ruled out running for the position, as has the Queensland senator Matthew Canavan, who is expected to be appointed party leader in the Senate.
Canavan, a close of ally of Joyce’s, said he would not be the MP to call a spill of the leader’s position, pledging loyalty to McCormack.
Other MPs also downplayed the potential for the leadership position to be spilled.