Nats facing crucial leadership crossroads
"Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.
Conservative independent senator Cory Bernardi invoked Michael Corleone's famous line from the third Godfather film as he reflected on reignited leadership tensions in the Nationals in the past week.
Mafia boss Corleone is desperately trying to make his criminal enterprise legitimate but can't escape the shackles of the underworld.
While the coalition wants to talk about anything but internal ructions after both parties changed leaders last year, some Nationals MPs can't seem to help themselves.
Former leader Barnaby Joyce fuelled speculation he was after Michael McCormack's job before retreating and backing his successor to lead the party to the election.
Malcolm Turnbull recently labelled the leadership coup which ultimately ended his political career as a peculiarly Australian form of madness.
There may be some method in Joyce's madness.
The high-profile backbencher admitted that declaring he would throw his hat in the ring if the top job became vacant was a misstep.
Despite the backdown, his desire to lead the party again still burns.
McCormack looks likely to survive until the election but if voters brandish baseball bats in the bush, his leadership could be terminal.
With the Nationals under intense pressure to save marginal seats in Queensland and NSW, it won't be hard to make a case against McCormack if he can't save the furniture in regional Australia.
Joyce will be able to claim he was unequivocal in his support for a coal-fired power station in the Sunshine State, further proving his credentials to stand up to big brother in the Liberal Party.
That plays into a central criticism of McCormack, who - fairly or otherwise - has been accused of rolling over in cabinet on issues such as a dedicated agricultural visa.
But it hasn't been one-way traffic.
After Joyce claimed the Nationals weren't married to the Liberals, McCormack fought back with a razor-sharp attack alluding to his former leader's extra-martial affair with a staffer-turned-partner.
"I understand what it takes to have a successful marriage," McCormack said.
It was a nod to a chunk of the party room which remains adamant Joyce returning to the top job would further damage the party's stocks with women.
Five of the Nationals' 16 lower house seats are at risk - three in Queensland and two in NSW.
Queensland is the epicentre of nervous Nationals in knife-edge contests pushing for government investment in a coal-fired power station, a cause Joyce has led.
Half of the party's six coal crusaders are under pressure to retain their seats, with Michelle Landry in Capricornia and Ken O'Dowd in Flynn most vulnerable.
Fellow Queenslander George Christensen's seat of Dawson is less likely to fall but remains in play while the coalition continues to lag in the polls.
In NSW, former independent Rob Oakeshott could capture Cowper with the Nationals running rookie candidate Patrick Conaghan to replace retiring MP Luke Hartsuyker.
On Cowper's northern border, Kevin Hogan faces a fight to retain his seat of Page.
And the Nats' numbers in the Senate could be cut from six to four, with seats in Tasmania and NSW on the chopping block.
Losses could diminish the number of Joyce backers in parliament, while simultaneously giving him ammunition to return to the top job.
Agriculture Minister David Littleproud could also be a spanner in the works for Joyce's leadership ambitions.
Within 18 months of entering parliament he was a cabinet minister and touted as a future leader but whether the 42-year-old pulls the trigger post-election remains to be seen.
The other complicating factor is any partyroom meeting to determine the leadership would include the old Senate team if it's held before terms expire in July.
That could give outgoing senators Nigel Scullion, Barry O'Sullivan and John "Wacka" Williams a say in who leads the party after the May poll.
Australia's self-appointed party for the regions is nearing a critical juncture.
In the coming months McCormack's safe pair of hands - often derided as dull and anonymous - will be put to the test against Joyce, the celebrated retail politician with a chequered past.
© AAP 2019