''BLACK Jack'' McEwen is one of the Nationals' legendary heroes, and Liberals mess with his name at their peril.
On Tuesday, Malcolm Turnbull said Sir John McEwen, who led the Country Party from 1958 to 1971 and strongly supported tariffs, was on the wrong side of the divide between the protectionists and free marketeers.
Nationals Senate leader Barnaby Joyce has come to the defence of Sir John, briefly prime minister after Harold Holt drowned in December 1967.
''He was the one who opened trade with Japan after the war - the Liberals were not too keen to trade with them,'' Senator Joyce said. ''He was way ahead of his time on trade. Like most people off the land, he had a very pragmatic view on economics. He was not mystified by philosophy.''
He said the Liberal Party had offered McEwen the prime ministership if he was willing to join them but ''he had the character not to flip-flop around. He believed it would have been perceived as insincere and opportunist.''