Ex-bouncer relishes a political fight

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 August, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 13 August, 2005, 12:00am

New Australian senator is proving a thorn in the side for John Howard

Forget the prime minister or the leader of the opposition. Suddenly, the most important person in Australian politics is a former nightclub bouncer, farm worker and self-employed accountant who was recently elected a senator representing the Queensland National Party.

Welcome to the wonderful world of Barnaby Joyce, who just happens to hold the balance of power in parliament's upper house.

When Australia's politicians filed back to work this week after their six-week winter break, the Liberal-National Party coalition government anticipated having control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate, or upper house, for the first time in nearly 25 years.

Certainly the figures suggested they enjoyed a one-seat majority in the upper house, enough to press through a raft of controversial legislation ranging from workplace relations to the full privatisation of Telstra, the national telecommunications giant, which is half owned by the government.

But this assumed that they had the support of Mr Joyce, who in theory is part of the coalition but in reality is a one-man political incendiary device.

Hardly had he started his first day in parliament when he had an argument with Liberal Party Senator Bill Heffernan, which reportedly almost came to blows.

Soon other politicians were branding him 'a dopey so-and-so' who should 'start to use his brain'.

Senator Joyce - affectionately known as Barnaby Circus by some members of the parliamentary press gallery - refused to respond in kind but will not be intimidated.

And on the question of Telstra his position is clear: no sale unless billions of dollars are set aside to improve rural telecoms.

If the money is not forthcoming he will simply cross the floor and vote against the sale of the national company, meaning the Howard administration would lose its one-seat majority and be unable to win approval for Telstra's privatisation.

It does not end there, either. Senator Joyce is also threatening to vote against other government-sponsored legislation, including its controversial industrial relations bill, if he does not get what he wants.

To understand the reasoning behind his thinking it is important to appreciate the role of the phone in rural Australia, particularly in the outback of Queensland, which he represents.

Senator Joyce argues that those who live in isolated areas of this vast nation have always been neglected when it comes to telecoms and he fears the situation will get worse if Telstra is fully privatised.

He is not putting a number on the amount of cash he wants put aside for the bush, but sources suggest that between A$2 billion ($12 billion) and A$5 billion would be needed to do the job properly.

Even the newly appointed chief executive of Telstra, Sol Trujillo, concedes that it would cost at least A$5 billion to modernise telecoms in rural Australia. The question is: who will pay for it?

Senator Joyce knows he has the government over a barrel and parliamentary veterans do not like it.

Liberal MP Warren Entsch described him as 'very, very inexperienced - very, very green if you like'.

Another, Wilson Tuckey, said: 'We're fed up with this bloke running around telling everyone he's going to run the country.'

For Prime Minister John Howard, who had been relishing the power afforded him by a majority in both the upper and lower houses, it is the ultimate frustration.

But Senator Joyce knows he has the electorate behind him on this one and he is in no mood to bow to his political superiors.

'If anybody was to go into the Senate and to put out that they would never, ever, consider crossing the floor, then you're basically useless, aren't you?' he said earlier this week.

Perhaps there is still a degree of innocence in him. Perhaps he may eventually be cowed. But right now, the former bouncer is relishing the fight.