Darren Chester says he can’t explain why Barnaby Joyce sacked him because the Deputy Prime Minister was “incoherent” when he rang on Sunday to tell him he was being dumped from cabinet to the backbench.
There were no harsh words, Chester said on Monday – just a “matter-of-fact conversation. He was sacking me. I didn’t agree with him, and I got on with the walk I was having with my dog.”
“I wouldn’t normally comment on private conversations, but I’m gonna say the conversation I had with Barnaby was so incoherent yesterday, I couldn’t actually explain what he was even saying to me.
"So people of Australia, brace yourself, there will be more conversations like that.”
For Chester, a moderate and a strong supporter of ousted leader Michael McCormack, who has lost the portfolios of veterans’ affairs and defence personnel, there must have been a strong feeling of déjà vu. He’s been here before with Joyce.
As he put it bluntly on Monday, “I’ve been screwed over by the National Party twice in the last three years”.
Or more precisely, by Joyce.
In December 2017, Chester was sacked in a reshuffle from the post of infrastructure and transport. Joyce, who was deputy prime minister to Malcolm Turnbull, took the portfolio himself.
It was reported one factor was Chester’s support for fellow Victorian Bridget McKenzie for deputy leader of the party. She beat Joyce’s candidate, Matt Canavan. Chester argued the Nationals needed a different sort of face.
That time, Chester was offered a very junior role, which he declined. This time, there was no offer.
And, in a bitter irony, his sacking now opened a place for McKenzie – who was forced to resign last year in the sports rorts affair – to return to cabinet.
Chester noted Joyce on Sunday had said “I was a competent minister – well he can explain why a competent minister is no longer in his job”.
As for the future, “the relationship I’ll have with Barnaby Joyce going forward will be completely and utterly business-like.
"I have no personal relationship with Barnaby, I don’t seek a personal relationship with Barnaby. It’ll be completely pragmatic. I will go to him with projects on behalf of Gippslanders, if I don’t get my fair share for Gippsland you’ll hear about it.”
Another loser in the reshuffle, resources and water minister Keith Pitt, who has been pushed from cabinet to the outer ministry, was restrained. “I just do the job I’m given to the best of my ability,” he said on Monday.
The mining sector has every cause to be surprised at being relegated, given Joyce is very close to it.
But the cabinet spot of Pitt, a McCormack vote, was needed to reward Andrew Gee, who went across to Joyce (and gets Chester’s portfolios). And there was also muttering about an old grudge against Pitt, lingering from Joyce’s first challenge.
Pitt on Monday put out a statement reporting Australia’s resource and energy exports are forecast to be a record $310 billion in 2020-21, rising in 2021-22 to $334 billion.
Commenting on the figures, the CEO of the Minerals Council of Australia Tania Constable pointedly said the industry “looks forward to the return of resources to cabinet”.
Michelle Grattan does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
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