Michael McCormack has been forced to take the Prime Minister’s chair during an awkward question time, despite losing the Nationals’ leadership just hours before.
Barnaby Joyce seized back the Nationals leadership on Monday morning via a party room spill motion, three years after resigning as Deputy Prime Minister.
Mr McCormack had earlier attempted to stare down his challengers, saying he would need to be “blasted out” and warning plotters a failed attempt should see them considering their futures.
But with Mr Joyce unable to be sworn in to the ministry before question time, and Prime Minister Scott Morrison attending via videolink from quarantine, Mr McCormack faced the prospect of leading a party that had just dethroned him.
Labor’s first question prompted a bizarre spectacle: a leader forced to explain his own axing in parliament, as the man who ousted him watched quietly from the backbench.
“If the Morrison-McCormack government was going so well, why have you been replaced?” Labor leader Anthony Albanese asked.
“The Opposition Leader mentions the leadership changes in the Liberal-Nationals government. I think Australians can well remember what went on in the Rudd-Gillard years. They were dysfunctional. They were chaotic. They were not good for this nation,” Mr McCormack replied.
Speaker Tony Smith chided Mr Albanese for repeatedly referring to Mr McCormack as the “current Deputy Prime Minister” in violation of parliamentary rules.
But Mr McCormack saw the funnier side while offering data on infrastructure.
“I have numbers to read to the house. Numbers have not been my friend today, but these numbers are very enlightening,” he quipped.
Health Minister Greg Hunt was heckled by the opposition backbench as he referred to the Deputy Prime Minister.
“Which one?” cried some Labor MPs, prompting a telling-off from the Speaker.
The return of Mr Joyce, a staunch supporter of coal, threatened to widen divisions in the government over climate change.
Mr McCormack last week refused to give full-throated backing to Resources Minister Keith Pitt, who claimed a net zero emissions target flagged by Mr Morrison had not been raised with the junior coalition partner.
Mr Pitt reportedly voted for Mr Joyce.
Mr Albanese continued to twist the knife, targeting Mr Joyce for describing investment in renewables as “insane” and “lemming-like”.
He asked Mr McCormack whether the formation of the “Morrison-Joyce government” meant there was “no hope” the Coalition would adopt a net zero target.
The outgoing Deputy Prime Minister soldiered through the barrage, insisting “we will always do the right things by jobs in regional Australia”.
Mr Albanese asked Mr McCormack to release the Coalition’s agreement on climate change “so that Australia can have transparent oversight over policy on climate change, including on net zero”, but the question was ruled out of order.
The Labor leader twice attempted to suspend standing orders, taking aim at the various Liberal-National combinations since the government took office.
The Labor leader referred to the Coalition as the “Abbott-Truss, Turnbull-Truss, Turnbull-Joyce, Turnbull-McCormack, Morrison-McCormack, and now Morrison-Joyce government” and condemned it for “fighting itself rather than fighting for all Australians”.
But the outgoing Nationals leader was philosophical while ending his final question time.
“Que sera, sera,” he said, leaving the chamber to a standing applause from both benches.