Splitsville for Barney and Dr Grimes

The National Party deputy-leader is suffering a hangover from his own political relationship traumas

BARNABY Joyce has often likened an image of the Labor-Green alliance in the last parliament to a marriage ceremony that caused heartache for ordinary Australians.

“We all remember the photos - Julia Gillard and Bob Brown wearing corsages in their lapels and signing what looked a lot like a marriage registry, Wayne Swan and Christine Milne looking on as approving members of the bridal party,” he said in late 2011 when the hung parliament was hitting a chaotic peak.

Now that he's Agriculture Minister in the Abbott Coalition government, the National Party deputy-leader is suffering a hangover from his own political relationship traumas.

While the Labor-Greens connection remains somewhat constant and cosy in the federal Senate, Mr Joyce has endured an ugly separation from his Department Secretary Dr Paul Grimes in recent weeks.

News of the breakup on Friday, March 13, prompted one senior Liberal MP to suggest Mr Joyce was possibly running out of people within the government to fall out with.

This saga - exacerbated by an ill-conceived pairing borne out of political spite - won’t fill the front pages of the Australian Women's Weekly for months on end, like Tom and Nicole’s disastrous split.

Nor will any broken hearts require mending in the capitulation of this unromantic and incongruous collaboration.

In reality, the unlikely pairing was doomed from the start after Mr Joyce and Dr Grimes were forced to bond when Prime Minister Tony Abbott's office issued a controversial decree immediately after the 2013 federal election.

The then Agriculture Department head Andrew Metcalfe was hastily sacked as petty political retribution for issues dating back to his time as Immigration Department Secretary.

But after only nine months in the top agriculture job, Mr Metcalfe had earned widespread respect from farm stakeholders and around Parliament House in Canberra.

Those who understood the department’s policy focus - increasing farmgate viability - were enamoured by his strong start.

However, the end came with the subsequent public service reshuffle, which saw Dr Grimes foisted onto the new minister.

The move was akin to serving roast beef at a vegan banquet - it was never going to be palatable.

Dr Grimes is highly regarded as a public servant, but in essence his process-driven, risk-averse bureaucratic style and economist background grated on the minister’s desire to implement an impatient but visionary farm agenda.

Cast out from his former home as head of the Environment Department, Dr Grimes failed to accede to the unconventional minister’s accelerating demands, regardless of the fine print.

Some of that microscopic, economic detail could well be unveiled in the final version of the Agricultural Competitiveness White Paper, due to be released imminently.

Another layer of discomfort that enshrined the lacklustre communion was Mr Joyce’s perception that he’d been lumped with a bureaucratic babysitter by Liberal heavyweights fearsome of the risks associated with his potentially forceful farm agenda, at the expense of environmental ideology.

Mr Joyce was aggrieved at being told he had to learn to live with Dr Grimes, despite their obvious differences, while also being denied the services of his first choice of Secretary, Mr Metcalfe.

In addition, he only learned of Mr Metcalfe’s departure after the event from the man himself, in a callous move by the new government, which probably means the staunch National MP’s trust in Mr Abbott’s office may never have fully recovered.

Mr Joyce also wanted a super ministry that combined Water - a role he held in opposition - and Agriculture, to help strengthen the focus on farm productivity outcomes and boost the nation’s economic output.

But again he was denied his first preference by overbearing Liberal forces.

Ultimately, it was Mr Abbott who had to authorise Dr Grimes’ sacking, saying he became aware of “issues” between the department head and Mminister which perhaps he’d had a hand in initiating.

Frustrations could again be detected in Mr Joyce’s comment last week, saying he wanted to ensure Dr Grime’s replacement had the capacity and skill set that “is basically rooted in agriculture, grounded in agriculture and focused on agriculture”.

Canberra insiders are also saying the highly publicised political issues, raised repeatedly by Shadow Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon, around Hansard changes and Freedom of Information (FOI) requests, which enshrined Dr Grime’s well-publicised departure, have generated some political and media intrigue and may carry some minor concerns and changes around FOI and Hansard processes.

But the 'Hansard-gate' episode which started last October has largely expedited the end to the failed affiliation of minister and secretary, and doesn’t quite meet the requirements of a genuine political scandal.

In hindsight, it may have been more successful to set Bob Brown up on a blind date with Gina Rinehart than to pair Mr Joyce and Dr Grimes.

Even after Dr Grimes’ sacking the pair failed to agree, with Mr Joyce saying his department head had “stepped down” while Dr Grimes said he’d been “terminated”.

But Dr Grimes’ email confirming his departure to department staff outlined what mostly needed to be said.

“I have agreed that the minister would be better supported at this time by a new secretary with a different background and set of policy skills,” he wrote on March 13.

Colin Bettles

Colin Bettles

is the national political writer for Fairfax Agricultural Media
Canberra CommentFairfax Agricultural Media Canberra correspondent Colin Bettles tackles the big national rural and agricultural issues which will impact regional and rural Australians.


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