Malcolm Turnbull responds to ‘shocking error of judgment’ by deputy PM, who had a relationship with a former staff who is now pregnant
Canberra: Australia’s prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, will move to ban sexual relationships between ministers and their staff, in response to a scandal which has engulfed the deputy prime minister and leader of the National party, Barnaby Joyce.
Turnbull announced the ban at the end of a parliamentary week dominated by controversy over Joyce’s relationship with a former staffer, Vikki Campion, which began when Sydney’s Daily Telegraph published a front-page photograph effectively confirming the end of Joyce’s 24-year marriage, and Campion’s pregnancy.
The prime minister said on Thursday his deputy had made “a shocking error of judgement” and created a “world of woe” for the women in his life. He said Joyce was taking some personal leave to reflect and seek forgiveness from his former wife and four daughters, “and make a new home for his partner and their baby”.
In a swingeing assessment of Joyce’s conduct and judgement, reflecting a rupture in their relationship, Turnbull said the incident involving the deputy prime minister and Campion, who was employed as his media adviser, raised “some serious issues about the culture of this place, of this parliament”.
The prime minister said the code of ministerial standards needed to “speak clearly about the values of respect in workplaces, the values of integrity that Australians expect us to have”.
He said Australians expected parliamentarians to behave decorously. Ministers needed to be “very conscious that their spouses and children sacrifice a great deal so they can carry on their political career, and their families deserve honour and respect”.
Turnbull said when it came to serving in public life, “values should be lived”.
He said he intended to add “a very clear and unequivocal provision” to the ministerial code of conduct: “Ministers, regardless of whether they are married or single, must not engage in sexual relations with staff.”
The prime minister’s declaration late afternoon, and his direct reflection on the behaviour of his colleague, followed confirmation earlier in the day that Joyce will not act in the top job, as is customary, when Turnbull departs Australia to visit Washington next week.
The Liberals govern in coalition with the Nationals, and when the prime minister is overseas, the leader of the National party acts in the role.
Turnbull confirmed that decision during parliamentary question time on Thursday, in a highly visible gesture tantamount to a vote of no confidence in the leader of the National party.
To compound Joyce’s woes, the Senate also passed a motion on Thursday afternoon calling on him to resign or be sacked. The vote passed 35 votes to 29, and no Liberal colleagues spoke in support of the deputy prime minister.
Nationals had hoped the rolling controversy around Joyce was beginning to subside at the conclusion of a difficult parliamentary week, but Turnbull’s public benching of his colleague at the opening of question time, and the late afternoon upgrade of the ministerial code of conduct, hangs a lantern over the deputy prime minister’s woes.
Senior Liberals, including the prime minister, have sought to distance themselves from the Joyce fracas throughout the week.
A spokesman for the deputy prime minister said the decision to take leave next week was Joyce’s. He had asked for personal leave because “he wanted to support his family and partner after such intense public focus on personal matters”.
As well as the obvious efforts by Liberals to isolate him, Joyce on Thursday also faced a fresh round of parliamentary scrutiny about his dealings with the businessman Greg Maguire, who supplied free accommodation in Armidale when the deputy prime minister separated from his wife of 24 years, Natalie.
After first suspending the standing orders in parliament early in the day to force Joyce to account for that arrangement, Labor then doubled down on the inquisition in question time.
The deputy prime minister told parliament Maguire had contacted him to offer him a place to stay in Armidale, rent-free, as a favour for a “mate”.
But the businessman has contradicted this version, previously telling two newspapers it was Joyce who first approached him seeking a temporary place to stay, and that the deputy prime minister offered to pay rent.
As well as pursuing the issue of whether or not Joyce had potentially misled the House of Representatives in his account of the conversation, and whether the contact breached ministerial standards, Labor also raised an instance where the Department of Agriculture picked up the tab for a $5,000 function at Maguire’s hotel in Armidale in 2016.
In seeking to land a point about a potential breach of ministerial standards, the shadow attorney general, Mark Dreyfus, pointed out Maguire had been the recipient of “at least $5,000 of taxpayers’ money in his pocket when he gave the deputy prime minister free accommodation” after the break-up of his marriage.
Joyce stood by his account of the conversation with Maguire concerning the Armidale property, and professed to be unaware about the $5,000 payment to the businessman for the departmental function at the Quality Hotel Powerhouse.
The deputy prime minister said it wasn’t notable to be unaware of such a small payment in a “multibillion-dollar department”.
The ministerial standards say ministers in their official capacity may accept customary official gifts, hospitality tokens of appreciation, but must not seek or encourage any form of gift in their personal capacity.
The rules also state that gifts “in a purely personal capacity” don’t need to be registered unless the parliamentarian judges that a conflict of interest “may be seen to exist”.
The prime minister told parliament that according to Joyce’s account of his conversation with Maguire “he did not encourage or solicit the gift, and unless honourable members opposite are able to present a case that his statements are false, then he has not breached that particular ministerial standard which I just quoted from”.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd