The Eden-Monaro byelection has become the telenovela nobody saw coming. Andrew Constance was in, then out. But first John Barilaro was in, then out.
Constance dealt with his about-face in a statement that apologised for being inexplicable but gave little insight into why he was here today and gone tomorrow.
Barilaro bowed out torching the joint. Andrew Clennell from Sky News unearthed texts on Tuesday from Barilaro to the federal National leader Michael McCormack, where the New South Wales Nationals leader berated his federal colleague for failing to back his candidacy in the contest.
Perhaps Barilaro might stage the second coming. The word is not. But stranger things have happened.
In any case, regardless of what anyone’s next brilliant manoeuvre is, I think we can agree that McCormack failing to throw rose petals in the path of a potential leadership rival was not the biggest issue facing Australia on Tuesday. I think we can be confident that a bunch of people once again disappeared up their own fundamentals at taxpayer expense.
When I saw the Sky News story, I was sitting in a press conference where Scott Morrison was trying to have a serious conversation about how we might pivot out of Covid-19 lockdowns. That being a serious issue, worthy of time and attention.
And yet here was this trivial backbiting – yet another blow in the rolling revenge farce that is the contemporary National party. Perhaps the Nationals could add a tagline to party branding: 24/7 purveyors of loathing and petty intrigue.
Seriously. Who can forget the first day of federal parliament for 2020, which was meant to be a day of sober reflection on the catastrophic summer of bushfires, and instead became a short, not-very-gripping saga about whether Barnaby Joyce could somehow crash his way back into the party leadership?
Spoiler alert: just a crash, no crash through.
And here we were again on Tuesday, with “Barra’s” text meltdown and the inexorable Kremlinology about what this leaked middle digit meant for an already riven federal Nationals party room.
I mean these people really are the pits. It makes me angry, because while everybody is hating on one another and wondering how they can take each other out, the biggest losers are the people of regional Australia.
Given their collective self-obsession and general uselessness, the National party should have been smashed at the last federal election. Somehow they weren’t, and they’ve rewarded their supporters by becoming little more than a fight club with the world’s most boring protagonists.
Yes I’m angry. I really am. This makes me angry because I grew up in regional Australia at a time when the National party stitched itself into the social fabric of communities; where the youth wing of the party was proficient at signing up the next generation of Nationals voters and contributors because there was a sense of something to contribute to.
There was a set of shared values to promulgate. Now, I look at a political party that fails its constituents on so many levels and doesn’t even seem to notice it is failing – except when it has bouts of periodic panic about independents or fringe micro-parties storming its strongholds.
The country has endured an agonising drought, which is being fuelled by climate change, and yet many Nationals seem themselves as spruikers for the mining interests that hasten the global climate catastrophe, and then they wonder why their constituents are alienated and angry. Perhaps the incomprehension is the disorientation that ensues from repeatedly punching yourself in the head?
I’m not sure how things roll in “Barra” country, because I’m a fair distance from Macquarie Street – which really does feel a mercy – but at the federal level, the Nationals have allowed themselves to become consumed by cults of personality instead of asking itself bigger questions, like who are we, what do we stand for, should we occupy the political territory we have always occupied, or should we look whether or not the facts have changed?
If there is any productive introspection going on inside this political movement beyond “I hate that bastard because he didn’t give me what I want”, these folks keep it remarkably well hidden.
So all the best to “Barra” if in the final plot twist in the telenovela he emerges from the bin fire of Coalition relations to contest the Eden-Monaro byelection.
But his political movement will be little more than a ghost ship piloting itself to oblivion until it finds the wit to think of something other than itself.
Katharine Murphy is Guardian Australia’s political editor