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Two years since Barnaby Joyce became deputy prime minister and three months since his byelection victory, a look at the spectacular flame-out that put the former Nationals leader on the back bench. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Bungle of Joyce

Barnaby Joyce and Malcolm Turnbull celebrate Joyce’s re-election to the seat of New England in December.
Credit: AAP IMAGE / TRACEY NEARMY

There was joy that December night at the West Tamworth Leagues Club. Barnaby Joyce had not only been returned to the seat of New England, briefly relinquished as a result of his New Zealand dual citizenship, but he had been returned by a historic margin. “This has been a stunning victory,” Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said, by his side. “Barnaby Joyce will be re-elected with what appears to be the largest swing to the government in the history of byelections in Australia. I would like to say it looks like the Labor Party are comfortably ahead of the informal vote.” 

Turnbull’s quip harmonised with the mood. Balloons fell. Music blared. Joyce embraced the punters. His face was flushed, his smile fixed. There was a charming abandon to his elation. Joyce didn’t temper his enjoyment – hell, his supporters thought, he didn’t temper anything.

After months of disharmony – John Howard publicly hoped for an end to “the madness” – Turnbull was enjoying the moment, too. And here he was, celebrating with a man more popular than him, at least out here. “We’re getting the band back together,” the prime minister said, smiling.

Joyce’s triumph was clear, but circumscribed, because in the distance, over the weatherboard and iron, clouds were gathering. He had already separated from his wife, and for the preceding months the parliamentary bubble was smoky with rumours. For a man who had campaigned on family values, he had chosen not to declare his marital status before campaigning began. The band was back, but not for long.

 

On February 7, The Daily Telegraph splashed with an ambush photo of a pregnant Vikki Campion, the deputy PM’s former media adviser, impressed with the headline “Bundle of Joyce”. Here it was: the public culmination of the rumours and innuendo that for months had coloured Twitter, newspaper columns and corridors of power. The bizarre maelstrom began.

That evening, Joyce appeared on the ABC’s 7.30. It began a series of statements by Joyce that were bafflingly self-defeating, contradictory and damaging to loved ones. “Deputy prime minister,” Sales opened. “Let’s address the elephant in the room...”

It was, understandably, an awkward interview. Joyce cited the breakdown of his marriage as his “greatest mistake”. Not for the first time would Joyce appeal to privacy while volunteering his thoughts to journalists. Still, was a man being sacrificed here for a common transgression? Joyce had opposed same-sex marriage by appealing to the natural stability of the “traditional family”, and while he had personally pained and made unstable his own, did this automatically render his religious conviction hollow? “Between the idea and the reality ... falls the shadow,” T. S. Eliot wrote. One needn’t perfectly fulfil a principle to believe it.

But to take Eliot’s line seriously is to be humbled. After Joyce’s byelection win, and his return to the deputy prime ministership, his ego swelled. Buoyed by his historic re-election, Joyce immediately exercised his muscle in the party room and cabinet. He saw that the respected Darren Chester was demoted. Then, the scandal of his affair with his staffer – of varying importance to voters – quickly bore a plague of questions of misused entitlements.

After Joyce’s citizenship-prompted resignation from parliament, Campion was moved to Matt Canavan’s office – then minister for resources, and himself formerly a staffer to Joyce. Canavan then succumbed to questions regarding his own citizenship, and was temporarily removed from cabinet, and Campion was moved on to the office of Damian Drum. Having initially been employed by Joyce, no one doubted her ability, but the subsequent transfer of an undeclared partner between high-paid positions stank.

As did Joyce’s use of travel allowances, which vastly eclipsed that of any cabinet colleague. Then it was reported that Joyce requested the National Party subsidise his forfeited parliamentary salary while he campaigned for New England – a salary suspended because of his own negligence. It was not hard to find previous statements of Joyce’s about welfare that jarred hypocritically with his now asking others to pay for his mistakes.

The spectrum of Australia’s media – from literary journals to tabloids – were arrayed against him. So were the Western Australian Nationals and his own colleague Andrew Broad. But Joyce was firm. He wasn’t going anywhere. He trusted his numbers in the party room and the fact that an increasingly infuriated prime minister – no longer thrilled with the band’s reunion – did not have the power to remove him as deputy, as per the Coalition agreement. Joyce would see it out. The bloke from the bush was made of jarrah. He’d triumphed in New England and he’d triumph against the sharks and false prophets of the press.

But then on Valentine’s Day, the prime minister called a press conference. In his courtyard, Turnbull spoke of the “terrible hurt and humiliation” Joyce had caused, and questioned his judgement. Turnbull announced that the ministerial code of conduct was insufficient and outdated, and he would amend it to prohibit sexual relationships between a minister and their staff. And so was born the “bonk ban”.

It was extraordinary, in its way, and unpopular in Turnbull’s cabinet – the prime minister was meddling with raw human autonomy. Additional to scolding Joyce, Turnbull’s proposed changes implied a brutal rebuke: his deputy prime minister’s transgression was so great it compelled an alteration of codified standards.

All this just days before Turnbull flew to the United States, which would compel Joyce’s acting in the Big Job. You had to give it to the band: their sense of timing was exquisite. Vast amounts of ink were spilled pondering the appropriateness of the beleaguered Joyce serving as acting prime minister. On Valentine’s Day, a decision was made: Turnbull announced during question time that his deputy would be taking a week’s leave, and that, per hierarchically ordained procedure, the leader of the government in the Senate, Mathias Cormann, would serve as acting prime minister in the absence of the deputy leader of the Liberal Party, Julie Bishop, who would be overseas in her role as foreign minister.

Under enormous pressure, Joyce’s health, reputation and prospects might have been better served by his properly observing that leave and staying quiet. But he didn’t, and his public pronouncements would become eccentrically damaging. On February 16, Joyce said Turnbull’s comments were “inept” and causing further harm. 

 

A few days later, the private Joyce allowed Fairfax journalists – pointedly preferred over the News Corp papers that had broken the initial story – into his home for a chat and photo shoot. Joyce said it was time “people move on”. He said he feared his child would be seen as “less worthy than other children”, a statement that appalled those who felt the children of same-sex couples had been damaged or diminished by the marriage equality debate. “How utterly self-serving,” The Australian’s Rick Morton tweeted. “Pose for pictures in rent-free townhouse and moan about how you have to move.”

Meanwhile, in the other hemisphere, Turnbull was emailing the secretary of his department to investigate Joyce’s use of entitlements.

Perhaps Joyce couldn’t see it, but the end was coming. WA Nationals leader Mia Davies said that Joyce should resign, prompting surprise given they have no members in the federal party room. Davies didn’t specify her reasons, but it would be revealed that she was close friends with former WA Regional Woman of the Year Catherine Marriott, the woman who lodged a private sexual harassment complaint against Joyce.

Joyce’s actions have triggered an enormous amount of collateral damage. Marriott was insistent that her identity not be revealed, but her complaint was leaked. It was an act of bastardry, one presumably designed to force Joyce’s resignation. An internal investigation, itself leaked this week, found that her complaint had been politicised, resulting in her outing and the denial of natural justice to Joyce. “Speculation on this issue by people who are unaware of the facts is impacting my right to a fair and due process,” Marriott said in a statement this week. “The additional stress of having to go through this publicly and with people’s judgement is the exact reason people don’t come forward.” Joyce dismissed the allegations as “spurious and defamatory”.

 

The Nationals had arranged a caucus meeting for Monday, February 26, but it would prove to be a formality. The sexual harassment claim, Joyce accepted, was the “final straw”. He notified the acting prime minister of his intention to resign, and called a press conference for Friday. He did not notify Turnbull, who was alerted by news reports in Washington. There needed to be some “clear air”, Joyce said. Sixteen days had passed since The Daily Telegraph’s scoop. Two years had passed since Joyce became deputy prime minister.

Joyce promised not to emulate Tony Abbott’s destructive bitterness, and he might now have given his leader, his family and his loved ones the gift of silence. Last weekend, however, there would be a tawdry and head-scratching postscript to the saga. In an interview with Fairfax Media, Joyce voluntarily cast doubt over the paternity of the unborn child. “It’s a grey area,” he said, and complained that the media, which he had accused of invasiveness, had not bothered to ask him if he was the father. But they had. At least twice.

Meanwhile, the latest Newspoll is, unsurprisingly, terrible news for the Coalition. It is the 28th consecutive poll that has the Coalition trailing Labor – just two shy of the 30 consecutive losing polls Turnbull cited as one reason for toppling Abbott as prime minister. That December night in Tamworth now seems a very long time ago.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 10, 2018 as "Bungle of Joyce". Subscribe here.

Martin McKenzie-Murray
is The Saturday Paper’s chief correspondent.

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