A scandal that erupted last week in Australia over an affair between Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce and one of his female staffers has devolved into an open conflict between Joyce and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull that threatens to take down the coalition government.
In an extraordinary news conference on Thursday, Turnbull announced a ban on government ministers having sex with staff amid pressure over Joyce to step down over the affair with his former press secretary, Vikki Campion.
The affair with Campion became public last week. Joyce confirmed earlier this week that she is expecting their child.
Turnbull called Joyce’s actions a “shocking error of judgment,” but he stopped short of directly calling for him to quit. The prime minister spoke of the “terrible hurt and humiliation that Barnaby, by his conduct, has visited on his wife Natalie and their daughters — and indeed his new partner.”
The existing ministerial code of conduct is “truly deficient,” Turnbull said as he pledged to overhaul it in an effort to prevent such breaches in the future.
“Ministers must behave accordingly,” he told reporters. “They must not have sexual relations with their staff — that’s it.”
Joyce will take a leave from his duties starting Monday. “I think he needs that time, he needs that time to reflect, he needs that time to seek forgiveness and understanding from his wife and girls,” Turnbull said. “He needs to make a new home for his partner and their baby that is coming in April.”
It’s not the first test for Joyce, who was ousted in October after the country’s High Court held that he was ineligible to hold office because of his dual Australian-New Zealand citizenship. However, he subsequently renounced his New Zealand citizenship and convincingly won a December by-election to return to the No. 2 post in the Cabinet.
However, the deputy prime minister, who has repeatedly refused to resign, lashed out at Turnbull, exposing a growing rift between the head of government and his top lieutenant.
“In regards, comments by the prime minister yesterday at his press conference, I have to say that in many instances, they caused further harm,” Joyce told reporters Friday. “I believe they were in many instances inept. And most definitely, in many instances unnecessary.”
For days, Turnbull had circled the wagons, employing what The Sydney Morning Herald described in an editorial as “unedifying black-letter lawyerisms about what constituted a ‘partner’ in the ministerial code of conduct.”
As political pressure mounted, however, Turnbull’s news conference on Thursday changed the tone entirely — threatening a split between his Liberal Party and Joyce’s National Party that potentially has far-reaching implications. “The stand-off it invoked between the cabinet’s two most senior figures now represents the gravest threat to the Coalition government since it was formed,” the Herald editorial said.
The scandal has sparked calls for Joyce to resign, but motions to have him removed were defeated in both the House and Senate on Thursday.
Defending himself, Joyce insisted once again on Friday that his personal life should have no impact on his ability to serve nor should it be a cause for his resignation.
“This was a personal issue that’s been dragged into the public arena and I don’t believe people should be resigning in any job over personal issues,” he told reporters.