Senator Barnaby JoyceBARNABY Joyce’s Liberal critics claim that when he gets the ball during MPs’ touch football games he never passes it. He goes for the run. In other words, they see Joyce – who this week broke the normal rules of frontbench solidarity to mount a massive attack on the government’s green light for the Chinese-led purchase of Cubbie Station – as not a ”team player”.

But there is another thing some notice about Joyce, who is his party’s Senate leader and opposition spokesman on regional development, local government and water. He’s close to Tony Abbott. The high-profile National spends a lot of time in the leader’s office. Politically, Abbott and Joyce have more in common than one might think, and they do seem to look out for one another.

In 2010, after Joyce had got into trouble as finance spokesman, Abbott persuaded him to switch jobs with limited fuss. In the past few days, Abbott was again leaning on the outspoken National, this time to pull his head in on Cubbie. When Joyce locked horns with Leigh Sales on Wednesday’s 7.30, he still declared himself opposed to the sale. Later he said, ”If you don’t speak up, you’re a coward. If you do speak up, you’re a pest.” Under Abbott’s pressure, he was clearly conflicted.

Faced with Joyce’s stand, Abbott has publicly taken a softly softly approach (in contrast to his forceful private position with him). ”Barnaby is a St George local, Cubbie Station is just up the road from St George. I can understand why Barnaby and local people feel strongly about this, but in the end this is a decision for the Treasurer based on the recommendations of the Foreign Investment Review Board.”

The Coalition’s position has been to support Wayne Swan’s approval for the bid, but ask him to explain it more.

Some Liberals see Abbott’s low-key line as another example of Barnaby being allowed to get away with things others would not. More practically, it’s not in Abbott’s interest to have a public confrontation with Joyce that, if it spun out of hand, could end in his having to walk from the frontbench. It’s not in Joyce’s interest either.

The Australian Financial Review’s Laura Tingle has suggested it could actually suit Abbott ”just a little to have Joyce out there making a lot of noise about Chinese investment in prime Australian agricultural land … out in voter land, the issue is red hot”.

And in Queensland, foreign investment is an issue that Bob Katter’s Australian Party – competitor of the Nationals – could exploit.

In contrast to Abbott’s approach, shadow treasurer Joe Hockey came out swinging. ”Some people are freelancing. They do not speak for the Coalition”, he said on Tuesday. ”They don’t even speak for the National Party.”

His Liberal detractors see Joyce’s stand as ”all about Barnaby”, in particular as appealing to the party base in the seat of Maranoa, where he is set to challenge the sitting member, Bruce Scott, if the veteran National MP does not announce his retirement. In the debate over Cubbie, Scott has been supportive of the approval for the Chinese bid. Joyce is determined to get into the House of Representatives at the election; he would then be positioned to seek the Nationals leadership some years on.

But despite the critics, the Cubbie row is not simply all about Barnaby – it’s all about the Nationals. Joyce is reflecting – and has tapped into – the deep feeling among many within the party and in its constituency about the prospect of Chinese investment in broad acres.

A number of Nationals have come out publicly over Cubbie, including the party’s deputy Senate leader, Fiona Nash, who said: ”Clearly Mr Hockey has no idea what is the National Party view and he has no authority to comment on what is or is not the National Party view.” Leader Warren Truss has had to try to step carefully between the Coalition’s official position and the opinion of his followers.

If any land sale was going to agitate the Nationals it would be Cubbie. Situated in Queensland just north of the New South Wales border, the vast cotton-producing station with its huge water storage capacity is the southern hemisphere’s biggest privately owned irrigation property. What happens there is obviously important for the wider Murray-Darling Basin.

But Cubbie suffered tough times in the drought years and in 2009, with debts of more than $300 million, it went into administration. So the bid from the Chinese-dominated consortium is something of a life-saver. Clearing the way for the bid, after scrutiny by the FIRB, Swan said that if this sale went ahead, it would end a long period of uncertainty – earlier attempts to find a buyer had failed.

The bid is from Shandong RuYi and the Australian company Lempriere (the minority interest), which is part of a family-owned group with experience in managing agricultural properties. Swan said Lempriere would operate and manage the Cubbie Group. As part of the foreign investment approval, RuYi must sell down its holding from 80 per cent to no more than 51 per cent within three years.

For the Nationals, the bottom line is that however much those opposed to the approval kick up, they can do nothing. First, the Coalition policy in favour of the approval is set. Second, even if it were opposed, there is no recourse. The approval power lies with the Treasurer, not the Parliament. Joyce conceded yesterday that the only person who could stop the sale was Swan ”and I don’t think he’s going to”.

The Nationals have already had a substantial influence on opposition foreign investment policy. A recent Coalition discussion paper proposes the FIRB considers any planned foreign acquisition of agricultural land valued at $15 million or more (this limit would apply to cumulative purchases). At present the threshold is $244 million. (All bids by state-owned enterprises are already scrutinised.) Consultations are under way but this appears likely to become the opposition’s election policy.

A Coalition government would not be a threat to Chinese investment in Australia, even in agricultural land. The Liberals would dominate, and ”dry” economic thinking dominates the Liberals. But the complication of the Nationals and perhaps Abbott’s own mixed views on the issue have already led to some confused messages from the opposition, when Abbott was in Beijing and again this week. It is a difficult and unfortunate fault line within the Coalition.

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