Huge weather systems moved over central and western Queensland during my visit to Saint George. They dropped dozens of millimetres of rain on the flat countryside causing roads to flood and people to stay at home. I was stuck, for the first time in my trip, and beginning to worry about making it to Darwin by my deadline of December 18th.
I blame one particularly outspoken Queensland Nationals Senator for my predicament. Had it not been for his generous hospitality I would surely have been out of town in time to dodge the weather.
By mid-morning last Thursday I was marching towards the highway – pack on my back, sun on my shoulders – ready to thumb a ride, when I happened upon the hometown office of Barnaby Joyce. Had it been any other politician I would probably have kept walking, but there’s something irresistible about Barnaby. Like a car crash.
I opened the door and three women turned from their computers in surprise. A scruffy-haired man in the middle of the room raised an eyebrow and said, “Hi. Can I help you?” He was dressed like he’d just been out dog walking, in sandals, shorts and a yellow polo neck T-shirt. It took me a moment to realise this was Barnaby.
I’d caught him on a good day. Parliament was over for the year and he was slogging away at 400 Christmas cards. I told him I was an ABC journalist who had left my job to hitchhike from Sydney to Darwin. He threw his support behind my project and seemed glad for the distraction from his card writing. He launched into a long, rambling dialogue ranging from Socrates to my own marital affairs. By the time I flicked on the audio recorder we were talking about faith…
Barnaby told me about some mates he’d gone to school with who had taken a different path in life from him. As he tells the story, they started smoking a lot of pot after high school and drifted into “a morose kind of nihilism”. Now he sometimes sees one of his old mates hanging around Martin Place, homeless.
For all the faults Barnaby has made in public life – and he freely admits there have been a few – the one thing you could never accuse him of is pretence. He is incredibly earnest no matter what he’s talking about. You name it he means it. And he amps up the earnestness to hitherto unseen levels when we start talking about the arc of his life and why he is in politics.
Having literally walked in off the street, unprepared, I was pleased with how things were going. Then Barnaby threw in a conversation stopper.
It was probably a cue for me to be on my way. If I had known the weather was closing in, about to flood the entire region, I would have hitched right outta town. Instead I let Barnaby take me for lunch at the pub. Four beers later we were still there, and with arrangements to meet some Saint George identities back there again at 7:30.
To be continued...
To be continued...