It took just six years for David Littleproud to go from rookie MP to Nationals leader. His meteoric rise peaked when the 45-year-old Queenslander was elected leader of the junior Coalition partner on Monday.
He has declared he is “not going to be chasing extremists”, saying his party needs to calibrate towards “the sensible center” as the Coalition mulls the lessons from a humbling election loss.
Littleproud takes his place at the top among an entirely new team of Coalition leaders, promising a more measured approach to climate than his predecessor Barnaby Joyce.
“The sensible center is where you win elections in this country,” he said Monday.
“Being eminently sensible about your policy formulations, not by going down rabbit holes and thinking [that] by going to one extreme or the other you’re going to win.”
Littleproud is the federal member for Maranoa. It was the safest seat in the country at the 2019 election, and Littleproud won it with a 72% to 28% two-party margin. It is also the biggest electorate in Queensland at a whopping 730,000 sq km.
He is the son of a Queensland government minister, Brian Littleproud, who was briefly the deputy leader of the Nationals in that state. He was born in Chinchilla, a small town in Queensland’s Western Downs region, and it could be said Littleproud’s family business is politics. His grandfather, George, was Chinchilla’s deputy mayor.
After a career in banking and finance with National Australia Bank and Suncorp (and a brief stint as a “cotton chipper” in 1993, according to his parliamentary biography), Littleproud was elected to federal politics at the 2016 election. In his first parliamentary speech, he talked of embracing global trade agreements, better phone connectivity for the regions, distance education and telehealth, water infrastructure, and inland rail.
“We in Maranoa need to embrace the global economy more than anybody. We have what the world wants, and our language and actions need to reflect that; we are now global players,” Littleproud said.
“We need to engage the world like we never have because the opportunities are boundless. The people of Maranoa are not victims. We are not some economic backwater. Instead, we hold the keys to our own and the nation’s prosperity. It is a matter of us grabbing it.”
In 2017, a year after first entering politics, Littleproud was catapulted into the cabinet as the agriculture and water resources minister.
Along with Coalition colleagues Russell Broadbent and Keith Pitt, plus independent crossbencher Bob Katter, he was one of four members to vote against marriage equality in the historic 2018 Turnbull-era reform. It followed the nationwide postal referendum, where 56% of participants from Maranoa registered a “no” vote – and Littleproud had pledged to vote by his electorate’s verdict.
Littleproud’s job title would change four times quickly between 2018 and 2021, adding responsibility for drought, natural disaster, emergency management, and northern Australia to his rural-focused portfolios.
In September 2019, at the start of the black summer bushfires, Littleproud, then the minister for drought and natural disasters, told Guardian Australia: “I don’t know if climate change is manmade.” The same week, he told an ABC Radio interview that it was “irrelevant” whether climate change was artificial.
Littleproud was elected deputy leader of the Nationals in February 2020, during a leadership spill in which Joyce sought to return to the party’s helm. Joyce was unsuccessful, and Michael McCormack held on with Littleproud elected as his second-in-command after former deputy Bridget McKenzie resigned after the “sports rorts” affair.
Littleproud served as deputy leader until this week, after Joyce’s successful leadership tilt spilling McCormack on the second attempt in June 2021.
In his customary relaxed business attire – jacket-free, with his shirt sleeves rolled up to the elbow – Littleproud often cuts a more moderate, reasonable figure than Joyce. When the former Nationals leader hesitated in calling out incendiary comments from backbenchers George Christensen or Matt Canavan, Littleproud was more outspoken.
“The world has moved past Matt Canavan,” he said last month after the Queensland senator criticized the Coalition’s net-zero targets.
After Christensen’s comments opposing Covid restrictions and vaccine mandates in November 2021, Littleproud said: “I don’t respect those comments, and I condemn them.”
“George Christensen’s comments are irresponsible and inappropriate,” he said after other controversial words.
David Littleproud (center) and the National party’s newly elected Senate leader Bridget McKenzie (left) and deputy leader Perin Davey (right) in Canberra on Monday. Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP
Joyce, in August 2021, cautioned colleagues against “prodding the bear” when asked whether he would pull Christensen into line, claiming it would “make the situation worse for us as a government, not better”.
Despite the new Nationals MP Colin Boyce claiming the Coalition’s net zero pledge was a “flexible plan that leaves us wiggle room”, Littleproud, after ascending to the leadership, appeared to have no desire for re-litigating the climate commitment.
“We’re living up to an international agreement,” Littleproud said on Monday when asked if the net zero plan was up for negotiation.
“Our policy was eminently sensible, and we’ll continue to work through it.”
He will now meet with the newly elected Liberal leader, Peter Dutton, to implement a new Coalition agreement. Littleproud has point-blank refused to speculate on what that could include, such as how many shadow ministry and cabinet positions – or which portfolios – would be given to the Nationals.
But with the rural party holding all its seats in the election and making up a larger percentage of the Coalition than in the last parliament, Littleproud may have a bargaining chip to demand a better deal for his party.
“I mightn’t look bright, but I’m not going to show my hand,” he said on Monday when asked what he might ask for in a meeting with Dutton.
“We must have those conversations respectfully, and even though I’m just a bloke from western Queensland, when you go and negotiate with somebody, you don’t show your hand before you walk in.”