As Barnaby Joyce clings to the Nationals leadership, his Coalition colleagues watch and wait for further fallout from his indiscretions. By Karen Middleton.

Turnbull caught by Hobson’s Joyce

Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce.
Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce.

As the media frenzy surrounding Nationals leader and Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce was peaking on Tuesday night, his most likely possible successor made a strategic public appearance.

Minister for Veterans’ Affairs and Nationals MP Michael McCormack slipped quietly into the crowd gathered in Parliament House’s mural hall for an event by Our Watch, an organisation that works to reduce violence against women and increase gender equality and respect.

After speeches from Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten and Shorten’s wife, Chloe – an Our Watch ambassador – McCormack made his way to the front and asked to have a photo taken with Our Watch chairwoman Natasha Stott Despoja.

With daily news reports detailing Joyce’s failed marriage, affair with a now pregnant staff member and alleged late-night misbehaviour, the last of which he strenuously denies, McCormack’s appearance seemed designed to make a statement about his own attitude to women.

When the huge media contingent inevitably pounced, he spoke earnestly about the problem of family violence and then left with the media pack in tow, ignoring journalists’ shouted questions about his leader’s fate until he could duck into a stairwell and shake them off.

As the week ended, parliament had risen but McCormack had not: Joyce retained enough support among his 21-member Nationals party room to stay in the job.

But there is a growing view that Joyce’s reputation has been severely damaged and his personal brand as an authentic, trustworthy politician seriously undermined.

The Opposition continues to allege impropriety and breaches of ministerial standards relating to Joyce’s domestic circumstances and to the employment arrangements for his former media adviser and now partner, Vikki Campion.

Joyce insists he neither breached any ministerial codes nor broke any laws, calling the breakdown of his marriage his greatest personal failure and apologising to his wife, Natalie, to his daughters and to Campion for the “unwanted public intrusion into what is an intensely private matter”.

As serving and former Nationals MPs and senators offered their views, former MP De-Anne Kelly defended Joyce against what she called “the morality police”.

Regardless of Joyce’s robust defence, some senior Nationals outside the parliament believe he cannot recover and will have to be replaced.

They point to the combined effect on a socially conservative base of a leader who campaigned on moral issues – including those related to marriage – being revealed as a philanderer and of employment arrangements for his lover in the offices of Nationals colleagues that appeared to be carefully structured to fall within the letter of the ministerial code of conduct, if not exactly its spirit.

At the time, Campion was not Joyce’s “partner” as described in the code and therefore she could be found a new well-paid job in the office of then minister and Joyce ally Matt Canavan.

When Canavan also fell foul of section 44 of the Constitution, Campion was moved to the office of then Nationals whip Damian Drum.

But because Drum was not a minister, the code did not apply.

After separating from his wife, Joyce also accepted the gift of six months’ rent-free accommodation in an apartment in Armidale in his New England electorate from a businessman friend and supporter, Greg Maguire.

The register of members’ interests says MPs do not need to disclose gifts from “personal friends” whose gifts are made “in a purely personal capacity”.

But it says the exception is where the MP “judges that an appearance of conflict of interest may be seen to exist”.

Joyce disclosed the apartment in his declaration in January, arguing he was out of parliament when he moved in, so was not subject to the register.

He also argued that although he had declared it, he was under no obligation because it was from a personal friend.

The view that Joyce and his supporters deliberately exploited loopholes in the rules to warehouse his girlfriend is shared by some of his colleagues at the top of the government and in the wider Nationals upper ranks.

They think it looks tricky.

One National told The Saturday Paper the party’s traditional supporters were likely to be extremely unhappy.

“One way or another, Barnaby’s cactus,” he said. “It’s just a matter of when.”

There are also some in the top government ranks who believe he may yet have to resign as Nationals leader. They say it depends on whether any more damaging stories emerged.

Malcolm Turnbull held an extraordinary press conference on Thursday afternoon, in which he announced a new code of conduct that would forbid ministers from having sex with their staff, effective immediately. He said the current standards were “truly deficient” in that regard.

Turnbull reflected on the “terrible hurt and humiliation” Joyce had visited on his wife, daughters and new partner.

“Barnaby made a shocking error of judgement in having an affair with a young woman working in his office,” he said. “In doing so he has set off a world of woe for those women, and appalled all of us. Our hearts go out to them.”

A deep pessimism is gripping some in cabinet that any hope of building on the momentum suggested in the latest opinion polls may now be gone.

Government MPs returning to their electorates after the parliamentary fortnight will gauge the reaction beyond the walls of what the assistant minister to the prime minister, James McGrath, called “the crystal citadel” in Canberra.

Senior government sources told The Saturday Paper they fear it will be bad. They say that it’s not the affair but the appearance of a cover-up that could be most damaging.

The calendar also guarantees the issue will keep re-emerging.

Turnbull has cauterised his first looming problem, by ensuring Joyce takes leave next week while the prime minister heads to the United States with state and territory leaders and high-powered business executives.

Joyce being acting prime minister would have left the travelling Turnbull unable to escape more questions about his ongoing confidence in the embattled Nationals leader.

With deputy Liberal leader Julie Bishop also overseas, government Senate leader Mathias Cormann will fill the role instead.

But in two weeks, the Senate estimates committees will reconvene. Opposition senators will have a long list of questions about how Vikki Campion was moved from office to office and about Joyce’s receipt of the free accommodation, valued at about $12,000.

Quarterly travel entitlement claims will also soon be tabled.

And – having already made a public statement revealing the depth of hurt she and her children feel – Natalie Joyce is reported to be considering a television interview.

Then, in mid April, in the lead-up to a federal budget that is meant to reset the agenda and propel the government into an election year, the baby is due – the first son for Joyce after four daughters.

Some in the government and the wider Coalition parties are asking why there was no plan to deal with any of this in a way that did not turn it into a rolling political catastrophe.

“If you were writing a manual, this is not how you’d write [it],” two separately observed.

Instead of making a controlled announcement about his marital circumstances and his pregnant former staffer before he faced voters at the unexpected byelection in December brought on by his dual citizenship, the Nationals leader chose to keep it a secret.

His first public acknowledgement that his 24-year marriage had ended was when he mentioned it in his speech during parliamentary debate on the same-sex marriage bill in December.

The Prime Minister’s Office had no plan for managing what were unavoidable revelations, given the pending birth of a child.

The Saturday Paper understands that despite the rumours of the affair and pregnancy being widely known in senior ministerial ranks – and discussed between ministers – it was never raised as an issue in meetings of the leadership group.

Joyce’s statement said he did not discuss Campion’s job movements with the prime minister or his office.

“Vikki was not my partner so they were dealt with in the usual course of staff deployments within the party,” he said.

While some colleagues and constituents are saying it is Joyce’s private business and he should be left alone, others argue voters deserved to know before they decided whether to return him to parliament.

An opinion poll, conducted a week after The Daily Telegraph revealed Joyce’s personal circumstances, recorded a plunge in personal support for Joyce in his electorate.

The Fairfax ReachTEL poll put his primary vote at 43 per cent late this week, compared with 65 per cent at the December 2 byelection. The December result represented a 7 per cent swing in the Nationals’ favour, the biggest recorded to a government at a byelection in Australia.

“We’re getting the band back together,” a jubilant Turnbull declared alongside Joyce that night.

Now, he and others are mounting an uncomfortable defence.

Joyce’s deputy, Senator Bridget McKenzie, took almost a week to emerge and defend her leader publicly. She denied she had hesitated.

“The leadership team thought … and relayed this to the entire party, that this was a personal matter and that Barnaby would deal with that in a statement, which is exactly what he’s done,” she said.

McKenzie had her own uncomfortable exchange with Joyce six years ago, when she was acting deputy Senate president during a night-time debate on water efficiency labelling.

Joyce, then a Queensland senator and upper house Nationals leader, made some remarks for which he later apologised.

“Madam Acting Deputy President McKenzie, you are looking wonderful tonight,” Joyce said, as he began a speech in the Senate at 9pm on a Tuesday night in June 2012.

“You are a flash bit of kit in this chamber. There is no doubt about you.”

When an embarrassed McKenzie interrupted that she was “sure there must be a standing order somewhere” – presumably to shut him up – he responded: “This is non-contro [controversial]. Roll with me on this.”

Joyce later apologised, conceding he had “consumed a few drinks” but denying he was drunk.

“Look, it wasn’t my finest hour, although what I was saying, I thought, was being flattering and it was meant to be a private joke between two people, not the rest of the nation,” Joyce later said.

In an interview with Sky News on Wednesday, McKenzie acknowledged that among Nationals women there was currently “an unease” and “an uncomfortableness around his personal life” but she defended Joyce’s leadership.

“Whilst not everybody agrees with decisions made in the personal life, everybody agrees that when you want somebody to fight for your community, when you want somebody to deliver real results – real, tangible things that change people’s lives in rural and regional Australia – Barnaby Joyce is the one,” she said.

McKenzie also defended Campion, a former senior journalist at The Daily Telegraph, as having been “highly qualified in her role”.

The Nationals insist that when she was moved from Joyce’s office she was amply qualified for her subsequent positions. Colleagues who have worked closely with Campion say she is very good at her job.

But others argue that once she had begun an affair with her boss, the merit principle was compromised.

Labor accused Joyce of double standards, focusing on the rent-free Armidale apartment in which he is still living.

Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen compared this with Joyce’s comments when he forced a Commonwealth agency and its Canberra-based staff to relocate to Armidale last year, claiming accommodation was much cheaper there.

“It is more affordable if you’ve got a rich mate,” Bowen told parliament on Thursday, as Labor tried unsuccessfully to move a censure motion.

“It’s more affordable if you can ring up and say, ‘Anywhere to stay tonight?’ ”

The code of conduct says ministers must not seek or encourage the offer of any form of gift. Maguire told The Daily Telegraph Joyce had contacted him asking if he had any accommodation available.

But Joyce told parliament it was Maguire who contacted him to make the offer, declining payment. “I did not approach Mr Maguire for any help,” he said. “… He made an approach to me when I was not a minister.”

Nationals filed out of parliament after the turbulent fortnight, hoping the issue would subside but fearing it would not.

Other than his non-responses at the Our Watch event, Michael McCormack made no public comment on the fate of Barnaby Joyce, beyond telling a News Corp journalist two days after the story broke that “time will tell”.

Privately, right across parliament, it was a big topic of conversation, even among those who are neither politicians nor staff but who work to support them by cleaning, catering, gardening, guarding and maintaining things.

One of them volunteered an assessment that seemed to neatly sum it all up: “We expect better judgement.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 17, 2018 as "Turnbull caught by Hobson’s Joyce".

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Karen Middleton is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.

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