FEDERAL National Party Leader Warren Truss is expected to assume the traditional role of acting Prime Minister in Tony Abbott’s absence over the festive period as he progressively recovers from a recent debilitating illness.
Mr Truss has suffered a major health scare in recent weeks which has fuelled intense speculation about his immediate future in the National Party’s top job.
That natural speculation has also raised questions about Nationals deputy leader Barnaby Joyce’s capacity to automatically assume the leader’s role or face a potential challenge from rising senior colleagues such as Michael McCormack, Darren Chester or Luke Hartsuyker.
Reports have speculated whether Mr Truss is fit enough to conclude his current three-year term or Mr Joyce has sufficient support to win a party room leadership vote.
Sources say Mr Joyce may not have an overwhelming party-room majority but would win any leadership ballot based on current numbers.
He defeated NSW MP John Cobb in a vote for the deputy-leadership immediately after last year’s election in a move designed to try and secure the Agriculture Minister’s role.
Party sources have declined to provide the exact numbers in that vote but stressed the contest was against Mr Cobb and not another candidate.
“It was a close vote,” one source said.
“But the interesting question now is would who would become deputy-leader, if Barnaby won?”
Mr Truss was born in 1948 and has held the Queensland seat of Wide Bay since 1990. He is widely regarded for his policy-making capacity and attention to policy detail but has also been criticised for lacking a high profile, in contrast to Mr Joyce.
Mr Truss told Fairfax Agricultural Media this week he planned to be around politics and serve rural and regional Australians and farmers, for a long time yet.
“It’s not about me and it’s not about him - it’s what’s best for the nation and what’s best for the nation is him doing that job for as long as possible”
“I don’t really want to add to speculation but it’s well known I’ve had inflammation of the bowel and the treatment has been difficult,” he said.
“I spent a week in hospital and had obviously been struggling with it for several weeks. The problem was mainly at night and I was managing my day programs okay.
“I should have sought assistance earlier but didn’t and that obviously meant that the recovery was more difficult. It wouldn’t have been easy anyhow I suspect, and it’ll take me a while to recover but I’m certainly feeling better and stronger every day and I’m confident I’ll overcome the issues and return to good health.
“Now it won’t happen overnight - I acknowledge that - but I’m very, very much better than I was and certainly still actively doing a lot of work.”
Mr Truss is also Infrastructure and Regional Development Minister and participated in the National Security Committee of cabinet meeting this week, with Mr Abbott and other senior colleagues, as the government addressed the Sydney Lindt Café siege.
Despite his health improving and workload increasing, he was reluctant to speculate on any upcoming personal decisions on his political future, beyond his immediate term.
“We’re only one year into our first term and certainly I’ve got a lot more work to do,” he said.
“I won’t be making any decisions of that nature until I’m satisfied that my agenda is done.
“Barnaby is the deputy leader now and he’s obviously a very competent person.
“He’s a person who’s deeply committed to the Nationals but in the end the choice of who succeeds me as leader will be made by the party room.
“But Barnaby as the deputy is obviously in a very strong position.”
Another factor adding to recent leadership speculation has been the recent broadcast on ABC television of a three-hour documentary series, detailing the party’s history.
A Country Road has looked closely at the style and priorities of various party leaders, from the iconic Sir John "Black Jack" McEwen, through to Doug Anthony, Ian Sinclair and modern-day leaders like Tim Fischer, John Anderson and Mr Truss.
Mr Joyce said he wanted Mr Truss to stay on as National Party leader “for as long as he possibly can”.
“I’ve said that all the way through and I think I’m more affirmed to that view having worked with him in cabinet,” he said.
“Basically the expertise he has in his head is essential to getting good decisions and those decisions also help regional Australia.
“He’s the longest serving cabinet minister in the government and therefore that experience is critical and not to be trivialised.”
Mr Joyce said he and Mr Truss had “a great working relationship because we complement each other”.
“He’s a great bloke to work with and I want to keep working with him for as long as possible,” Mr Joyce said.
“It’s not about me and it’s not about him - it’s what’s best for the nation and what’s best for the nation is him doing that job for as long as possible.”
Asked whether as deputy leader he was the natural choice to succeed Mr Truss, the New England MP said, “I’ll leave that up to my colleagues to decide”.
“I’ve always tried to be open and say that I’d throw my hat in the ring if Warren wants to retire,” he said.
“I’ve tried to be as honest and as frank as that and I don’t think anybody minds that at all.”
After news broke of Mr Truss being admitted to hospital suffering colitis late last month, National Party MPs lined up to declare support, including Michael McCormack.
Mr McCormack said Mr Truss had the full support of party members and any leadership speculation was “very premature”.
“Warren will be back,” he said.
“He’s as tough a rooster as I’ve ever come across and is always on cue with a strong measured view on whatever the topic of the day is.
“He’s like the energiser bunny because he keeps on keeping on.
“Any speculation of leadership talk is unwarranted, unfair and very, very premature.”