On the streets of Tamworth, Barnaby's blues stoke deep divide

Zoe Cooper and Robyn Douglas. Photo: Peter Hardin
Zoe Cooper and Robyn Douglas. Photo: Peter Hardin

Tamworth is a town divided. Politically, at least. The man they reinstalled with a thumping 73.6 per cent of the vote just three months ago is hanging by a thread in Canberra, and on the streets back home, some constituents are starting to experience buyer's remorse.

For the most part, those who have always loved Barnaby Joyce still love Barnaby Joyce. A good chunk of his supporters say they'd heard the rumours before the byelection, and many are now so angered by the media's incursion into his private life they refuse to talk about the matter at all - not even to affirm their loyalty. One man threatens to get physical.

But others, especially women, aren't happy.

"I’ve sort of lost a little bit of faith in Barnaby now, and I think most people have," says Liz Tusa, a 57-year-old restaurateur who has served the Deputy Prime Minister dinner - and voted for him.

Tamworth restaurant owner Liz Tusa says she's lost faith in Barnaby Joyce.  Photo: Peter Hardin

Tamworth restaurant owner Liz Tusa says she's lost faith in Barnaby Joyce. Photo: Peter Hardin

"He’s a member of Parliament so you expect a little better, I guess. People in that position really need to watch what they’re doing and what they’re saying, and act appropriately."

Tusa's prescription is a healthy dose of time off for Mr Joyce to "sort himself out". Others, like 31-year-old pharmacist Anna Barwick, say if they were in his position they would quit entirely.

"You have to live with the choices you make," she says while wheeling her young children down central Peel Street on Tuesday. "I think he needs to have a really hard look at his life and the impact it's going to have on how he's being perceived."

You couldn't call it white hot anger - more a slowly dawning disappointment, perhaps even disgust. No one here is madly in love with the idea of another by-election, should Mr Joyce succumb to the scandal that began with his extramarital affair and now encompasses accusations of nepotism and misbehaviour at an awards night.

But there is movement at the station, with rumours state Nationals MP Adam Marshall is gearing up for a federal move, and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull making calls to Nats backbenchers.

Marshall and local Nationals powerbrokers wouldn't return calls on Tuesday. Tony Windsor, the former New England MP and Joyce's old nemesis, has known Marshall since he was 16 and says he likes the man, but is reluctant to comment.

Barnaby Joyce outside the Tamworth Aero Club in December. Photo: AAP

Barnaby Joyce outside the Tamworth Aero Club in December. Photo: AAP

"I think Joyce will probably be mortally wounded by all this," Windsor predicts. "If they were smart he would get out of the way, but they’re not that smart."

If Joyce does quit - the cabinet or his seat - he'll have no shortage of constituents mourning his departure.

"He’s done so much for this area and he’s a man of good values - and he knows what the f---’s going on in this country," says Ryan Tibbie, a 29-year-old business owner. As for the affair: "Does it matter? It happens all the time, every day of the week."

It's a resignation reflected in many of Tamworth's steeled hearts: infidelity is a reality and what business is it, anyway, of ours? There is also a genuine swell of sympathy for Mr Joyce's wife Natalie and their four daughters, with 24 years of family life extinguished in full public glare.

"His family are copping a lot more than they should," says Zoe Cooper, 23, who voted for Mr Joyce and would again. "His daughters are my age ... I couldn’t imagine having people from Sydney contact me asking for money for a story. It would be awful."

Her mother Robyn Douglas, 64, agrees. "People just can’t leave him alone," she says. "I don’t say what he’s done is right - it’s not, obviously. But there’s bigger fish to fry than what Barnaby Joyce is doing in his spare time."

It's the affair that sticks in people's minds here, but the details of media adviser Vikki Campion's moves to newly created jobs with cabinet minister Matt Canavan, and then Nationals' Whip Damian Drum, are also raising eyebrows.

"That's not really what the public purse is for," says Barwick. "It all seems a bit dodgy, doesn't it?"

However, more than one local makes the point that in the private sector, it would be outrageous if a woman in Ms Campion's position were simply dumped from the company instead of relocated.

Among Joyce sympathisers, there is a good deal of hostility toward journalists for peeling back a curtain beyond which people feel they had no right to glimpse - let alone stare at for days on end.

"I think it's disgraceful that people are delving into private lives," says Cecilia Dries, 65. "I’m sure he never set out for this to happen. But he’s a man, and he’s only human. At the end of the day that’s what you’ve got to remember. You’re a man, I’m a woman. We have all these great ideas, but when you actually walk the walk, sometimes crap happens."

This story On the streets of Tamworth: Barnaby’s Blues stoke deep divide first appeared on The Northern Daily Leader.