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Political profile: Michael McCormack – Australia’s new Deputy Prime Minister, by Tim Mantiri

Former Canadian Prime Minister and statesman Pierre Trudeau once remarked that “the essential ingredient of politics is timing” - a dictum with which new Nationals leader and Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack would surely agree.

Having lost the ballot for deputy leader of the Nationals to Bridget McKenzie in early December and then watched on as Barnaby Joyce enjoyed an emphatic victory in the New England by-election, which ought to have secured Joyce’s leadership, McCormack would have hardly believed that in just over two months’ time he would be taking up the reigns of the Nationals and subsequently the second most powerful position in the land.

McCormack will have little time to celebrate however, with the Joyce scandal disrupting the Government’s messaging and putting it firmly on the back foot early on in a crucial year for Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

And while not to everybody’s taste, in Barnaby Joyce the Nationals had an effective retail politician and straight shooter in which regional Australians could trust to represent their views and concerns in Canberra.

In this sense McCormack will certainly have big R.M. Williams boots to fill. But despite his comparatively lower profile and differing style to his predecessor, there is enough in his past to suggest that he has the right balance of convictions, skills and temperament to be successful in the role.

As the ever-forthright Nationals Senator John ‘Wacka’ Williams remarked before McCormack took up the leadership, “even though he’s a thorough gentleman, he’ll need a bit of mongrel in him, and he’s already shown he’s got it”.

Humble beginnings (not without controversy)

The son of a dryland farmer and hailing from the town of Marrar in the Riverina region of New South Wales, McCormack is proud of his regional roots. He unequivocally told Parliament in his first speech as Nationals leader: “I’m from Marrar, a little village of 368 people…Mr Speaker, how good is it that our nation can have a Deputy Prime Minister from a little village like Marrar?”

After finishing high school, McCormack had his start as a journalism cadet with The Daily Advertiser newspaper in Wagga Wagga in 1981. He rose through the ranks to become the paper’s editor at 27 making him the youngest-ever editor of a daily newspaper in Australia at the time.

It was in this role that McCormack perhaps drew the most controversy of his career after he penned an editorial in 1992 that had the headline “Sordid homo­sexuality — it’s becoming more entrenched”. The editorial hit out at the lifestyle of the gay community and accused them of causing “the greatest medical dilemma known to man - AIDS”.

McCormack has since apologised and renounced this position multiple times, saying that he had since “grown and learned not only to tolerate but to accept all people, regardless of their sexual orientation, or any other trait or feature which makes each of us different and unique.” A position he seems to genuinely hold as he voted in favour of same-sex marriage last year after a majority of voters in his seat turned out a ‘yes’ vote in the postal survey.

Entering politics

McCormack’s first involvement in politics came in 1999 when joined the Nationals at the urging of former Riverina MP and mentor Kay Hull who recalled “I’ve known him for 30 odd years and I pinpointed Michael and got him to join with the Nationals. I told him I’m not going to be a member for Riverina for a long-time, I’m not a career politician. I told him ‘I think you can be a leader of the Nationals one day’ and urged him to come on board with me”.

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McCormack worked as campaign manager for Hull in three Federal elections before replacing her as the Nationals’ candidate for the seat in 2010. Hull describes her successor as “an enormously hard worker” and “a National through and through”. Traits that seem self-evident as he convincingly won a three-way tussle against both Liberal and Labor parties in that 2010 election and has since turned Riverina into one of the safest coalition seats in the country.

In his parliamentary career, he has a solid if unremarkable record in his various roles in the junior ministry which included spells as Assistant Defence Minister, Small Business Minister, Assistant to the Deputy Prime Minister and most recently Minister for Veterans Affairs. He may have even risen through the ranks sooner if not for former leader Barnaby Joyce’s tendency to promote loyalists to key ministerial positions. Which is not to say that Joyce and McCormack did not get along, but their differing styles and temperaments did not make for a close relationship.

Rural advocate

While McCormack may not have the bush maverick reputation that endeared his predecessor to his rural base, the new Nationals leader is no shrinking violet when it comes to his views on regional issues and interests that from time to time clash with that of his Liberal colleagues. As shown by his willingness to cross the floor in 2012 to vote on water rights for his Riverina constituents, as well as his decision to block the then treasurer Joe Hockey’s attempt to approve a $3.4 billion foreign takeover of GrainCorp in 2013.

Closer to home in his electorate, McCormack has been a champion of the Murray-Darling Basin community and the need for a healthy river system. His causes are those of rural and regional Australians looking out for more services, from hospitals and roads to the NBN.

In his time in parliament McCormack has also shown himself to be a pragmatist.

When former Prime Minister Tony Abbott awarded Prince Philip a special Australian knighthood in 2015, reviving an abandoned imperial honours system and sparking controversy over the odd symbolism of an award going to an already heavily-titled Prince Phillip, McCormack spoke out against the decision, urging the then Prime Minister to visit country pubs to see what Australians really thought.

At the time he remarked, “it is out of touch, and out of touch with modern Australian thinking. We’ve got a good story to tell but these sorts of decisions that are made...it just sets you on the back foot. It’s not going to affect my life, your life or anyone’s life.”

Challenges ahead

Looking ahead, McCormack has several big challenges as the Coalition government enters its final year before an election.

As leader of the Nationals, McCormack has the significant task of reunifying his party after the turbulence caused by the fallout from Joyce’s personal crisis, which is widely perceived to have damaged the Nationals brand and strained its relationship with its Coalition partner.

McCormack would be one of the best-placed Nationals MP to go about repairing this relationship. As a strong supporter of the Coalition, he was spotted campaigning at several voting booths in the recent Bennelong by election in a Liberal blue campaign shirt, almost unheard of for a Nationals minister.

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Furthermore, McCormack may also prove to be the man to walk the fine balance of the conservative and more moderate elements in his party. While a known conservative, McCormack is well liked among the moderate Nationals in parliament and is known to take an open-minded approach to policy.

While lacking the straight-talking charisma of Barnaby Joyce, the record of Joyce’s predecessor Warren Truss showed that you need not be a high-profile retail politician to succeed as Nationals Leader. Indeed, as Truss showed, being able to manage relationships, personalities and policy differences in the Coalition and in his own party made for a largely successful and effective leadership.

He may not have envisaged being in this position so soon but his elevation as a result of fortunate timing and unfortunate circumstances represents an opportunity for him and the Nationals to put the disruptive Joyce saga behind them and refocus on delivering a fairer share for regional and rural Australians.