Michael McCormack slid into the deputy prime ministership in the slipstream of Barnaby Joyce’s lurid soap opera.
The Nationals could scarcely have had two more contrasting leaders — Mr McCormack controlled and restrained almost to the point of invisibility, Mr Joyce pugnacious and boisterous to the point where the name Barnaby could mean only one person.
The federal election will be Mr McCormack’s chance to cement his position. A poor showing and the dogs will start barking, not that there are any obvious new pack leaders.
Mr McCormack, 54, is a Wagga Wagga boy through and through.
He was born in the city, the main centre of the Riverina. He went to school there and he worked there all his life. His parents had a small farm just outside town.
Mr McCormack started his working life as a cadet journalist on the local paper, the Daily Advertiser, and rose quickly. In 1991, aged 27, he became editor. It’s hard to imagine a better grounding for a local, grassroots politician.
In 1993 he wrote several editorials that 25 years later came back to bite him.
The worst was a homophobic attack on gays’ ‘‘sordid behaviour’’ and ‘‘unnatural acts’’. In other editorials he called for the return of the cane and compared women’s soccer to an egg-and-spoon race.
Now he says his views have changed. He voted for the same sex marriage bill in 2017.
In 2002 the paper sacked him, apparently for not cutting costs sufficiently. About 20 editorial staff staged a 24-hour walkout in his support. Mr McCormack sued for unfair dismissal and settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.
With three young children to support, his wife Catherine went to work full-time and he became a house father while setting up his own media company. Job offers that would have taken the family out of Wagga were turned down.
He also managed election campaigns for Kay Hull, the feisty Nationals member for Riverina. So when she decided to retire ahead of the 2010 election, he was a natural fit.
Mr McCormack’s ministerial career started after the 2013 election.
During the next four years he held a number of portfolios, none of cabinet rank. He was responsible for the Australian Bureau of Statistics when its 2016 online census failed.
He risked the then prime minister’s wrath in 2015 when he said Tony Abbott’s knighting of Prince Philip exposed the government to ridicule.
Mr McCormack didn’t hide his leadership ambitions. He ran twice for the Nationals’ deputy leadership, losing by one vote each time.
Then came the self-immolation of Mr Joyce, which left Mr McCormack the most obvious replacement, given that deputy leader Bridget McKenzie was in the Senate.
Others tested the waters and pulled back. In the end only the turbulent Queenslander George Christensen ran against him.
Mr McCormack won and the man whom almost no-one outside Wagga and its surrounds had heard of was deputy PM.
He hasn’t set the world on fire. Many observers think his parliamentary performances are lacklustre. Some Nats doubt he’s a proper leader because he doesn’t farm.
Yet that could be a strength as the Nationals need to become the party of the big regional centres and not just the farmers.
One great test is how well he can get National policies through the Liberals. The signs aren’t great.
The other great test is the election.