ONE fundamental question underscoring any future change of National Party leadership is whether Barnaby Joyce will retain his agricultural duties or take over a traditional cabinet post that offers broader political opportunity.
As the party’s current deputy leader, Mr Joyce is viewed by most political analysts as the heir apparent to replace Warren Truss and deserving of a shot at the title.
His instant recognition with the Australian public and incredibly high media profile present opportunities for the rural-based party that money simply can’t buy.
With rare political will and courage, he also readily takes up battles on behalf of regional Australians that many others shy away from, or don’t see coming, until it’s too late.
However his ascent to the National’s throne is no lay down misere; a point that’s being illuminated ever more brightly, the longer Mr Truss keeps everyone in the dark and delays any formal retirement announcement.
Challengers are now seemingly lining up to sabotage or block any potential ascent to power for the 48-year-old former rural accountant.
Those lingering enemies include some within Barnaby Joyce’s own ranks who fear the one time maverick Senator from Queensland lacks the discipline, conformity or gravitas needed to front the junior Coalition partner and be taken seriously.
Some Liberals also oppose Mr Joyce’s leadership ambitions due to spasms of anxiety caused by imagining him appearing before the nation one day, perhaps in the not too distant future, as the acting Prime Minister.
That nervous feeling also extends to Labor ranks with senior powerbroker Penny Wong saying that if he was to become National Party leader he also becomes Deputy Prime Minister, “and this is a bloke who we all know is pretty erratic”.
“I think Barnaby has demonstrated what he is like - very entertaining - but do you really want him being the Deputy Prime Minister of the country?” she said.
A faction now commonly known as the “anyone but Barnaby camp” has seen other leadership candidates coveted and promoted as more sensible or reliable alternatives like NSW MP Michael McCormack.
Or as Barnaby may say - perhaps they’re just more sympathetic to the Liberals’ view of the world and provide softer targets for Labor and the Greens?
However, what those critics mostly have in common is a tendency to only highlight Mr Joyce’s gaffes or interpret his unique political brinkmanship as a form of madness or foolishness, especially on dry economic matters.
But regardless, as this debate rages, the farm sector must start seriously contemplating whether Mr Joyce will remain on as Agriculture and Water Resources Minister no matter who leads the National party.
With the recent addition of water policy to his cabinet responsibilities, under Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership, and long-term desire to achieve key outcomes for the farm sector, Mr Joyce has unfinished business in putting those combined powers into real practice.
In releasing the $4 billion Agricultural Competitiveness White Paper in mid-2015, he released policy objectives that aim to continue building agriculture’s tangible standing as a serious economic player, in a rapidly transforming national economy.
Agriculture’s intrinsic role in trade agreements signed by the Coalition with growing middle-class economies in nearby Asia, like China and Japan, also delivers expanding opportunity for him to boost the credibility of a portfolio once seen as a somewhat token, political gesture.
But recent history may not be on Mr Joyce’s said.
It says the National party leader is more likely to hold other portfolios that deliver greater possibilities to pork barrel - sorry, deliver funding for important regional programs - to further broaden the party’s representative base, beyond farming.
Before the iconic John McEwen’s retirement in 1971, Doug Anthony was Primary Industries Minister – but he stepped into the Trade and Industry portfolio, after taking over the then Country Party leadership.
Like Mr Anthony before him, Ian Sinclair was Primary Industries Minister from 1971 to 1972 when he held the Country Party’s deputy leadership role.
But after taking over from Mr Anthony, Mr Sinclair took on shadow ministerial roles for trade, resources, and defence when he was Nationals leader in opposition to the Hawke government, from 1984 to 1989.
Tim Fischer was National party leader from 1990 to 1999 and appointed Trade Minister after the Coalition won government in 1996, under John Howard.
Mr Fischer held that post until 1999 when he was replaced as the party’s leader by John Anderson.
Mr Anderson was the Primary Industries and Energy Minister from 1996 to 1998 before he became Transport and Regional Development Minister; a role he held onto until being replaced as leader by Mark Vaile in 2005.
Mr Vaile fulfilled several front bench roles in the Howard government including Transport and Regional Development and Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry.
He was Trade Minister in 2005 when he replaced Mr Anderson as party leader - but pressure from the AWB wheat for weapons scandal saw him swap portfolios with then deputy leader Mr Truss, to take on Transport and Regional Services.
Mr Truss took over the leadership from Mr Vaile after the Coalition’s loss to Labor at the 2007 election and is currently the Infrastructure and Regional Development Minister but he’s also held the agriculture portfolio previously, from 1999 to 2005.
Under the Coalition agreement, the Nationals will put forward their cabinet and ministry priorities to Mr Turnbull and history also shows those requests are generally accepted with little, if any, pushback.
But ultimately, any final decisions on those rules will be in the Prime Minister’s good hands.