Barnaby Joyce has unloaded on his Liberal colleagues in Canberra, saying constant infighting is driving disaffected voters to One Nation, and branding a renewed internal debate about marriage equality as divisive and unhelpful.
The deputy prime minister and Nationals leader told Guardian Australia that many voters were now of the view that the government was a “philosophers’ club” rather than a group of people concerned with improving living standards and jobs.
Joyce said a renewed debate within the Coalition about marriage equality would aggravate voters even more, and the government needed to stick by its policy of putting the legalisation of same-sex marriage to a plebiscite.
He said voters would be furious if they were not given a say on an issue that remained divisive in some communities.
Asked whether a decision by the Liberal party to move to a conscience vote position in this parliament would blow up the Coalition agreement between himself and the prime minister, Joyce said: “I have no idea. It just frustrates me.”
Last week, the veteran Nationals senator John Williams publicly warned the Liberals against moving away from the plebiscite, saying it was part of the Coalition agreement between Joyce and Malcolm Turnbull.
The Liberal senator Dean Smith has signalled he will bring forward a new marriage equality bill once federal parliament resumes after the winter break, which will trigger a renewed party-room debate about the Coalition’s position on the issue.
Several Liberal MPs want the party to offer a conscience vote on marriage equality given that the plebiscite has been rejected by the parliament.
Joyce will address the Liberal National party convention in Queensland this weekend, and the deputy prime minister is preoccupied with a looming election in the state.
That will be a key test of One Nation’s political support in Queensland – a state with several federal marginal seats, and which will determine the outcome of the next federal election.
Joyce is furious about the lack of discipline within the Liberal party in Canberra, and suggests the current war of words between Tony Abbott and Turnbull will hurt the LNP’s chances in Queensland.
“Any internal war is unhelpful,” he said in an interview with Guardian Australia. “The message going back to punterville is ‘it’s like a philosophers’ club down there’.”
“You are arguing about Menzies’ view on conservatism, you are having a debate about international agreements and renewable energy targets which, I in Smith Street Jonesville, don’t get, and now, the last thing needed to solve all this is talking about changing the definition of marriage.
“[The Liberal party] needs to concentrate on things that actually matter.
“In north Queensland, they have 20% unemployment. You know the only thing they want to hear? How you are going to get them a job. You know what they want to hear in regional areas? How you are going to invest in infrastructure, like inland rail.”
He said people in regional areas were watching the antics in Canberra with incomprehension. “They look at political candidates and say ‘have you ever actually lived, mate? Do you know what it’s like to not have any money in your wallet? Do you know what it’s like to think, shit, i want a life with dignity and I’m on the pension, and I can’t actually afford food, so how do I do this and keep my dignity in this town?’”
Joyce said that raising the legalisation of same-sex marriage in that “febrile” climate was like a red rag to a bull.
“[Voters] become hypersensitive about bullshit arguments,” he said. “They find it really aggravating. If we start another debate on gay marriage, they are going to get really aggravated.”
The federal government would drive disaffected voters to One Nation if it didn’t focus on practical issues, and if it continued to give the voters the impression it was a debating club rather than a government, Joyce said.
“The more you talk about issues which have nothing to do with people’s lives, the more One Nation’s vote will go up, and not by reason of One Nation’s policies.”
He said the same-sex marriage debate was dangerous in this context because “the fact you are talking about an issue that has nothing to do with their lives will lose you votes”.
“People wonder why One Nation is becoming so powerful, they think, ‘isn’t this crazy’ – but you did it.”