By COLIN BETTLES
NATIONAL Party leader Warren Truss was absent from a media announcement in Canberra today launching the Coalition’s new regional policy development agenda but that didn’t halt continued questioning about his future.
Instead, the Deputy Prime Minister and Infrastructure and Regional Development Minister’s assistant - Michael McCormack - fended-off questioning including whether he’d leapfrog current deputy, Barnaby Joyce, for the top job, if and when Mr Truss retired.
Mr McCormack said Mr Truss was unable to attend the media announcement due to a federal cabinet meeting today, taking priority.
The Riverina MP also rejected a suggestion the new regional policy initiative announcement was an opportunity - provided by Mr Truss - to boost his media profile, in view of any leadership challenge.
The National Party’s federal members will meet in Canberra next Monday, ahead of parliament starting the following day for the first time in 2016, with leadership speculation intensifying.
Talk has suggested Mr Truss may step down in March, having been National party leader since 2007 and represented his Queensland seat of Wide Bay since 1990.
At today’s media conference, Victorian Nationals Senator Bridget McKenzie denied the ongoing leadership speculation, linked to Mr Truss’s future, was becoming frustrating
“As far as I’m concerned it’s exactly that – speculation,” she said.
“Media speculating on media, speculating on media.
“Until Warren Truss tells the party room that he’s resigning, he’s my leader and he has my full support.”
Asked whether Mr Truss should bring forward his retirement announcement to provide greater certainty, Mr McCormack said if and when the current leader made a decision, he would put his Wide Bay constituents “first and foremost”.
“He (Mr Truss) will also do it with the interests of the National Party and he’ll also do it as Warren would - and it might sound glib but it’s the honest truth, because this is how Warren Truss thinks - he will do it with the nation’s best interests at heart.
“The last person Warren Truss will think about is Warren Truss.
“That’s how he’s always led our party; that’s how he’ll continue to lead our party; and he’s given nothing away and he has the full support of his 20 colleagues in the party room.”
Mr McCormack was also forced to address questions about his potential plans, to be a candidate for the party’s leadership.
He said Mr Truss had not indicated he was retiring “any time soon” and all 21 party members were “fully supportive” of the current leadership.
“There’s no party in Australia which shows more loyalty to its leader than the National Party,” he said.
“My intentions are to work hard as Warren Truss’s assistant minister.
“My intentions are to continue to work hard on behalf of the people of the Riverina who elect me and if and when Warren Truss decides to retire, then we’ll see what happens then.”
But Mr McCormack was coy on saying whether he supported Mr Joyce as a potential leader saying “we will wait and see”.
He said Mr Joyce was “doing a fine job” in his current role as Agriculture and Water Resources Minister and “an exemplary job” as the party’s deputy-leader.
“There’s absolutely no ring to be throwing any hat into at the moment and until that time comes then I’m just going to be continuing to do my job,” Mr McCormack said.
“And certainly, this new regional development policy is going to take a lot of work and a lot of visits right around Australia and that’s my focus at the moment.
“The National party is one party which actually doesn’t ever naval gaze.”
Mr McCormack said he understood discussions were now taking place between Mr Truss and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull about the rural-focussed party potentially receiving a fourth cabinet minister’s position.
“I believe it should happen and that would give Regional Australia an even greater voice in the cabinet process and that’s important,” he said.
Last week, Mr Truss repeatedly rejected questions about whether he was committed to spending another full term in the federal parliament.
“I've made a number of comments on that over the past few days and I have nothing further to add,” he said.
“I have been endorsed as the candidate for Wide Bay by my party and I am enjoying the work that I'm doing.
“Now one day I'll retire that's just simply inevitable and some of those projects won't be finished.
“But I certainly am fully occupied at the present time doing the work that I want to do.”