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Friday, 2nd July 2021

They say a week is a long time in politics and the past month has more than highlighted that assertion in the Federal arena.

In June Barnaby Joyce returned to the Deputy Prime Ministership, the Prime Minister iced a free-trade agreement with the United Kingdom, and the Federal Government has come under further scrutiny regarding the COVID vaccine rollout.

Irrespective of what one thinks of his politics, Barnaby Joyce reclaiming the second-highest political office in Canberra is one of the biggest career revivals ever seen at the Commonwealth level. Fewer than three and a half years since he was forced to resign as Leader of the National Party and head to the backbench, Joyce successfully defeated incumbent Michael McCormack in an internal ballot.

His return to Deputy PM will see a more strident National Party Room that will be less compliant with their Coalition partners. Joyce understands that his constituency is not metropolitan areas, but rather the regions where his outsider brand and uncompromising approach plays well. At a policy level, expect to see the Nationals now take a more vocal scepticism towards net-zero emissions, promote pro-coal initiatives, and fight hard for funding into regional areas ahead of the next election.

The Deputy PM has also used the subsequent reshuffle to promote key allies. Bridget McKenzie has returned from the backbench while there have also been promotions for Andrew Gee, David Gillespie, and Susan McDonald. Dumped to the backbench is outgoing Veterans’ Affairs Minister Darren Chester, while Keith Pitt retains his portfolio but will now sit outside Cabinet. A key challenge for Mr Joyce will be to navigate the fallout from any members disaffected by the reshuffle. The junior Coalition Party has a small party room and even one or two disgruntled members can be enough to destabilise a leader. While his position is safe until at least the next election, there will be strong expectations on the Deputy Prime Minister that the Nationals perform strongly in regional areas, including in key senate races.

Meanwhile, Australia has successfully finalised a free-trade agreement with traditional ally the United Kingdom. British made cars and Scotch will become cheaper in Australia, while our farmers will get greater access to the British market. It also assists the Federal Government to plug a small political problem by making it easier for UK backpackers to extend their working holiday visas thereby helping with labour shortages in regional areas. It is a significant deal that comes at a time where protectionism and more insular attitudes are on the rise around the world.

But the big political problem for the Federal Government over the short-term will remain the vaccine rollout. In the past week, numerous State Governments have plunged their populations into lockdown, with most happily pointing the finger at Canberra over the low vaccination levels. There is also a continued rift over the advice offered on the Astra Zeneca vaccine, with conflicting messaging taking place.

Whoever is to blame, the bottom-line is that it’s inconceivable to see the Federal Government rush to an election without a significant portion of the population being fully vaccinated. This issue will remain the primary concern of the Prime Minister, the Health Minister and the rest of the Government throughout the second-half of 2021.

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