In this extended version of Anything But, an interview series published on The Brief, Julia Baird and federal Minister for Agriculture Barnaby Joyce discuss Vegemite, dropping the f-bomb, and (not) smoking cigarettes.
A little mentioned fact about Barnaby Joyce is that he is the only practicing accountant in the ranks of the Coalition. He has a mind that calculates probabilities – and has a visceral loathing for pokie machines – and is one of the most outspoken politicians in Canberra. And this is a core contradiction of our Agriculture Minister (and deputy leader of the National Party) – he has a mathematically trained brain, but is driven by his gut, or passions – of which there are many. I spoke to him about “Anything But” work, politics and male members of the royal family for #thebrief.
Instead, we discussed the psychological insights of football, the power of dawn, and his inability to pull women as a teenager because of one athletic skill he never possessed.
Now, you’ve had a really stressful day, a tough day in Parliament, you go home – do you have a comfort food?
Ah, yeah, I think it’s very simple. I like hot toast with the Vegemite and the butter melting together on it, with a cup of tea. That’s my sign of “switch off”, when you go to sit down in front of the telly, and you’re thinking, “I’ll have a beer”, and then someone says no, just have a cuppa tea and a piece of toast, and that’s my switch off. I like really stupid, mindless game shows before the news. Because once the news starts I switch back to the ABC and watch the ABC News and the 7.30 Report. But for me, they’re a continuation of work, so, you know, the blood pressure kicks back in a bit for that. QI is one of the programs where I’ll sit back and relax.
So it’s not rubbish? You’re still using your brain a little bit.
Yeah, well, Deal or No Deal is kind of rubbish, but I like it. It’s just, I’m an accountant and in accountancy you do statistics and you look on the probabilities of what they’re likely to get and it just amazes me that people, no matter what, avoid the mathematical probability of a win and go for the most extraordinary odds. And almost overwhelmingly get it wrong.
I’ll tell you something that annoys me. Poker machines, slot machines annoy me. Because the numbers are just completely and utterly against you. It’s a psychological trap, you have an addiction like if you were smoking or drinking or an eating disorder. As an accountant who, when I finished, had 550 clients, I never met one person, one person over 15-18 years’ experience, who made their money as a gambler.
What about those things that they target kids with, and the claw, you have to align the claw, and it’s supposed to go down and pick up the stuffed animal, and it never does. That’s the same thing, surely?
Well that’s the first poker machine for kiddies, and you get them at your local RSL club or your local surf club. And even if you do win it, I mean, who the hell wants another soft toy?
Right. Have you ever had a particular thought strike you like a bolt of lightning?
Yeah, and I’ll tell you where you get them. And you get them, you’re a fit person, you get them when you’re going for a swim, maybe if you’re doing laps in a pool or if you’re out on a bike, and all of a sudden something, I don’t know what happens, but maybe it’s that the blood starts going through the active parts of the brain, and all of a sudden an issue comes to light.
When you’re on the land you get them when you’re doing monotonous, repetitive jobs. When you’ve trained your brain to switch off from the general stimuli that are around it’s amazing what thoughts can come into it. And that’s very dangerous in politics, because then you sometimes get possessed by it, and you think “this is something I’ve got to drive for” or try and achieve, and you build on it. You build on it maybe in a form of Fantasia, you think “if that happened, this would happen, and that would happen, and the world would be a better place”, and hooray, hooray, hooray.
Can you think of one thought in particular?
I’m sort of living it a bit at the moment. I was always fascinated with dams. If you build dams you create hydroelectricity, you create this, you create that, and then it has the capacity to lift people out of poverty, and that creates industry, and it moves industry into a certain area, and that gives the capacity for people to take that next step. And then you have dreams for your local town and your local area, of things that you would wish to happen, for a whole range of reasons. I could go on and on about the sort of things that you can get when you have an overactive mind. I find it essential at night to read a book, because you’ve got to find that trigger to turn the old brain off, and I find that reading a book turns it off.
Is there something that continues to surprise you, even though you’ve seen it many times?
Dawn? When you get up in the morning. There’s three things, you wake up in the morning, and you think, “I’m tired, I’ll stay in bed”, and you think “no, I’ll get up”, and just sort of seeing the day open around you. And I don’t want to sound like fluffy and romantic and rubbishy, because I’m not that type of person. But I do get a sense of, that’s kind of special. And especially around the hills we see fog and you hear different birds and I think that sort of takes you away.
I’m more inclined by nature that they’re the sort of things to take my breath away. I can read more about a certain tree and think about how that tree works, and the little nuclear reactors splitting atoms to create carbon and to create oxygen, and doing it through photosynthesis. And it’s all happening in that little piece of grass just in front of your nose, there it is, as you lie on the grass looking at it.
When was the last moment you experienced something resembling bliss?
[laughs] I don’t know how you answer that.
Well, this is public radio, Barnaby.
I’m going to tell you something that’s exactly bliss. The kiddies had better all have gone to bed. I think you experience bliss every night around half past 10 when you fall asleep. You know when you get that feeling, that sense of, it’s almost like a little endorphin kicks in, a chemical goes off in your brain, and that relaxation just sort of pours over your body, and you think, “I’m going out, here it goes, I’m about to fall asleep”.
Yes, that moment. It’s almost like they’ve pulled the plug out, and you just…
And where does that come from? I reckon there’s a little man inside your brain, and he’s got his hand on a plug, and he just pulls the plug out, and all this stuff just runs through your veins and out you go.
Do you have problems falling asleep?
Oh yeah. If you get worked up, public life is a funny thing, people want to know what it’s like. It’s very much like going back to boarding school, and you can imagine what boarding school would be like if you haven’t been there. It’s a lot of, in close proximity with a heap of people with a heap of egos, all working one against the other, and doing what politics has been like since politics was invented and around.
But what happens is if someone gets under your blanket, like a burr under your blanket, and starts working on you, then you start reliving how you would deal with that situation. And motives of malice, and motives for revenge. You generally are driven by the bad things, not the good things. And then you’re trying to sort this thing out in your head, and of course you can’t.
Do you ever get angry with yourself?
Yeah absolutely, all the time. This won’t surprise you, especially about things I’ve said. I’ll think “oh gosh, I could have put that in a better way”, or “I shouldn’t have put that in any way”, or “I shouldn’t have said that”. Sometimes you just think, “ah, wow, why’d I say that? Why’d I do that?”. But that’s, I suppose, who I am. But really, you can’t sort of take words back. You know, stupid things. Even stupid things like if you are with someone and you’re relaxing and you use a profanity. And you go “why did I do that? Why did I drop the f-bomb into that? What made that happen?”. And you think “oh well, anyway, gone now. Deal with it”.
What do you think is the most underrated characteristic?
I’ll tell you one that always annoys me. Because I’m from the country, and because people – it suits their purpose in their metaphor to see me as the hayseed, because that works in the National Party from the country. But the actual fact is I’m an accountant, and that’s what I’ve trained at, and that’s what I had a business at, and I had 550 accountancy clients. My biggest client paid me over $150,000 a year, so I had a rough idea what I was doing with money. I understood business. And sometimes I’d say things, I’d see the Australian position as a client, and I remember back in 2009, I kept them. I traced what I thought our debt would be, and where it’d be. If we didn’t get on top of it. I watched it go from 60 billion to 100 billion, I saw the trajectory it was on. I know this client, this client’s out of control. If we don’t turn it around, we’re in real strife. So you talk about candour, I candidly went to the front door and said “we’re going to go broke”. And for want of a better word, I got sacked for it. And that was the end of my term as the Shadow Finance Minister. The problem was that it was the truth, and it happens. I looked at my graph of where I thought it would be, and the only problem I had is I slightly underestimated where we are now. Not overestimated it. That’s a frustration. Sometimes I’d love to get the prickles, when someone says “you don’t know what you’re talking about”, to say “well, I’m a Fellow of the CPAs, I’ve probably got a vastly better idea than you”.
Now, some people can be quite superstitious with clothing, they have something they wear to give them luck when they’re giving a speech. Might be a tie, might be a pair of underpants. Do you have a favourite item of clothing?
When I played football I had an unlucky jumper. Not so much for luck as unluck. There was a time in a serious game, the grand final was on, I hadn’t got into the first grade side for that final, and another guy wanted to borrow my jumper for it. And I told him, I said “mate, it’s an unlucky jumper”, and he said “that’s a load of rubbish”. He put it on, got in and got injured, and he had to come off, but I went on to replace him. So, lucky for some. So after playing the whole season in first grade, I ended up playing the grand final too. I don’t know what it is, I’ve still got it in the cupboard, and I go, “I don’t think I’ll wear that one, it’s unlucky”.
You can give it to other people – “Feeling chilly today?”
“Bill Shorten, would you like to wear this jumper?”
Is there an athletic skill that you wish you possessed?
You go to big swimming holes in the country. And some of the guys could really strut their stuff by doing multiple somersaults off ropes. The best I could do was a backflip off this sort of rock. I don’t think it quite hit the high marks. I landed on my feet, but some dude would go and swing off a rope and do a triple somersault in the water. After that all the chicks were his, you’re just there minding the space.
What’s your guilty pleasure?
If I’ve gone for a run, and this sounds completely oxymoronic, and as for the rules of paradox, if I go for a run or have done something of exertion, and I’m sitting down with a few guys, I’ll have a beer and a cigarette. That’s bad, isn’t it.
Little bit of a contradiction, going for a run, having a cigarette.
I don’t know what it is. You asked for an honest answer, I gave it to you. It’s one of the worst things I used to do after a game of footy, I’d sit down in the change-room and have a cigarette. And why? I don’t know. Because it tasted good. I don’t know, you shouldn’t do it. And I’m saying to the kids who are listening, don’t do this. It’s not right.
You’ve spoken about playing football when you were younger. Do you think you bring any of that psychology into Parliament?
Ah, yeah. I don’t profess to be some great. I played university football. I suppose you can judge people, there’s people who play a big game until they get on the field, and then they flop. And then there are other people who, you can really judge a person’s character I think in a contact sport, as to whether they’re truly courageous, have the real bravery, or whether they’re not. And there’s nothing more annoying, and there’s nothing more disgraceful than a person who talks themselves up, and pumps up their own balloon, and then you find out that they’re a complete flop when they get out on the paddock. Especially if it’s a statement of character, you see something that resembles cowardice on the field.
About taking risks…
Yeah, it’s not that they were always right, it’s that they took risks for which the consequences could have been – and in some instances was – their career. These people did things because they believed it was right. Not because it was advantageous to them. In a funny way, it’s one of the things I admire about Tony Abbott. He has some quirks, there is no doubt about it, but I feel that he’s a person of political courage. I feel that he’s a person, given the right reason, like everyone understands this, he’d go all in. Say, “right, here are all the chips on the table, let’s go”. And if you don’t have that capacity, then you’re just one of the other numbers. There’d be a very short space in the history books about you.