PM says his criticism of Joyce ‘would have overwhelming endorsement of Australians’
Canberra: The ministerial sex ban Malcolm Turnbull imposed on his government was “one of those classic issues” where he sought the counsel of his wife, Lucy, the prime minister has revealed.
In an interview for 60 minutes, Turnbull maintained he had no regrets about the public flaying he gave his deputy, Barnaby Joyce, over his affair with a former staffer. Turnbull said he spoke for the nation despite his now-infamous comments that threatened to tear the Coalition apart.
“I think Australians wanted to hear their prime minister’s heartfelt views about these events, they wanted to know what I felt about them,” he said in an interview broadcast on Sunday.
“They wanted to hear it from my lips but also from my heart.
“Saying you’re speaking for 25 million people is a bit presumptuous, but I certainly felt that the values I expressed and the action I took would have the overwhelming endorsement of Australians. I felt it was absolutely the right thing to do.”
Both the prime minister’s office and Barnaby Joyce’s staff had told journalists Turnbull had been discussing his changes to the ministerial code of conduct with other parliamentarians in the days leading up to Thursday’s decree.
But in the interview, hastily shot after the “bonk ban”, as it has been termed on social media, came into force in response to the deputy prime minister’s affair with a former staffer, Turnbull said he turned to his “life partner” for advice.
“She, Lucy, absolutely agrees, and I mean, who would disagree? Do we think it’s a good idea for ministers to have sexual relations with their staff? No? Well, why don’t we just say so?” Turnbull said.
“I don’t care if the ministers are married or whether they are single. The minister can be the most eligible bachelor or young woman in the country and be absolutely free in terms of who they can have relations with, but if they’re a minister in my government, they cannot have sexual relations with their staff.”
The sex ban has made international headlines, but was almost overshadowed by the rift the prime minister’s accompanying words created in his relationship with his deputy.
A visibly upset Turnbull openly, and publicly, questioned the Nationals leader’s character, describing him as creating a “world of woe” for his wife, four daughters, and new pregnant partner, by embarking on an affair, which had “appalled everyone”.
A furious Joyce, who knew the sex ban was coming, but was caught unaware by the PM’s words, accused Turnbull of overstepping his bounds and inflaming the situation, deliberately using the words “inept” and “unnecessary” in relation to his coalition partner.
In the days since, Liberal MPs and Turnbull have attempted to hose down suggestion of a rift between the two leaders, with crisis talks held between the pair on Saturday described as “frank” by Turnbull, the same terminology he used after his first infamous phone call with Donald Trump.
National MPs spent the weekend canvassing their electorates after more than a week of damaging headlines sparked by their leader’s affair.
But while the government attempted to shift the narrative to one of standards, Labor maintained it was about the potential misuse of power and influence, with the opposition vowing to continue to pursue Joyce over how he used his public office.
Turnbull maintained he did not attempt to interfere with the Nationals’ party processes, despite telling Joyce he needed to use his week of personal leave to “reflect” and “consider” his position.
So far, no one consensus alternative candidate has emerged as a potential challenger to Joyce.
But with Labor maintaining its attack, signalling it will use next week’s Senate estimate hearings to further pursue how public monies were spent and who knew what, when, as Joyce’s partner was moved across National MPs’ offices, and Joyce accepted free accommodation from an influential New England businessman and friend, his future on the front bench is not guaranteed.
A move to the backbench would not necessarily solve the Coalition’s unity problems, with Turnbull still fending off criticism and fire from Tony Abbott, whom he ousted in a 2015 leadership challenge after 30 negative polls in a row.
Turnbull is four negative polls away from reaching his own benchmark, a point some of his National party partners made, following the prime minister’s intervention in the Joyce affair.
While the prime minister said he did not expect to be “thrown bouquets of flowers all of the time” in the top job, Lucy Turnbull was damning in her faint praise for his predecessor, describing Abbott only as “very sporty” and a “very good local member in his electorate”.
In the meantime, senior Liberals, including Mathias Cormann, the soon-to-be acting prime minister, and Scott Morrison have been deployed to downplay the fracture within the coalition.
“We’re a professional government,” Morrison told the ABC on Sunday.
“From time to time people in senior positions have positions of disagreement. But they work together.”