Paul Bongiorno
Joyce ruins Turnbull’s turnaround

The Turnbull government’s much-hyped better start to 2018 hit a brick wall this week, or more accurately a barn door with Barnaby Joyce’s face painted on it. The deputy prime minister has spectacularly exposed what is wrong with the Coalition government and the prime minister’s helplessness to do anything about it.

To the dismay of many in the Liberal Party, Malcolm Turnbull’s capitulation to Joyce and the Nationals from day one of his leadership weakened his authority at the helm of the government. “Malcolm always takes the line of least resistance,” was the way one senior Liberal summed it up. His failure to stare down the Nationals in September 2015 set the conditions for the pathetic display this week of a prime minister not in control.

It was Joyce and others in the Nationals who pushed then leader Warren Truss to insist the new Liberal leader adopt Tony Abbott’s reactionary policy framework. It was the beginning of the end for Turnbull’s brand as a contemporary moderate. One figure, who helped marshal the numbers for Turnbull, urged him to assert his authority on the back of the overwhelming public support his coup against Abbott had generated. “Where could the Nats go? Nowhere but into Opposition,” was an argument put to Turnbull.

But as one of his moderate allies laments, “Turnbull lacked the ticker to do it”.

Still, Turnbull was well aware of the role the Nationals played in his downfall as Liberal leader in Opposition in 2009. They had no votes in the Liberal party room but they were implacably opposed to Turnbull’s support for the Rudd government’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, otherwise known as the carbon tax. Their opposition was shared just as vehemently by Liberal conservatives, including, of course, Tony Abbott.

Turnbull was also well aware of the suspicion the Nationals had of him and was keen to allay their fears when winning back the leadership, just as he wanted to keep on side his own Liberal conservatives, who switched to him. It is not only the Labor Party that claims he sold out to the hard right to get and hold the top job; moderates have given up on expecting the Malcolm Turnbull they used to know to ever come back.

Their disappointment was widely shared by voters at the 2016 poll. Whatever authority Turnbull had before the near death election has decreased further since. Now the numbers were so tight any one, Liberal or National, could rob the government of its majority. Joyce did just that when the High Court made him the highest profile victim of the citizenship imbroglio last year. His inattention to the consequences of his father being born in New Zealand saw him out of the parliament and forced to a byelection.

His further inattention to the consequences of his affair with his staffer Vikki Campion derailed the government this week. Turnbull could scarcely hide his exasperation and spent every question time trying to either hide from Joyce or shove all the blame for the mess on to him. In doing so the prime minister was caught up in the risible parsing of the word “partner” to get around Joyce’s apparent flouting of the ministerial guidelines.

Joyce insists appearances are misleading, and that when Campion moved from his office to a higher-paying position in the office of Resources Minister Matt Canavan she was not his partner but his lover. It was while in this role that she became pregnant with their child. So as far as Joyce and Turnbull are concerned, the conflict of interest that the ministerial guidelines seek to prevent is a second order issue to the survival of the government. Of course, a Centrelink client wouldn’t get away with the same brazenness.

The guidelines are clear-cut: ministers’ close relatives and partners “are not to be appointed to positions in their ministerial or electorate offices, and must not be employed in the offices of other members of the executive government without the prime minister’s express approval”. Joyce did not seek that approval, a fact he confirmed in a statement last weekend. Turnbull grabbed this like a lifeline in parliament. Joyce had fortunately kept him uninformed. Turnbull’s office says reports that the prime minister was involved in managing Joyce’s handling of the affair are wrong; they say he knew nothing about it.

This ignorance is curious given that the Joyce affair was talked about and widely known around Parliament House. It was a cause of consternation in the National Party and led to Joyce’s sacking of Darren Chester from cabinet and Keith Pitt from the front bench – both for their criticism of him. There were concerns that it could play badly in the New England byelection, but Barnaby managed to survive its featuring in the on-ground campaigning and social media. Voters were more exercised by what they saw as an unfair anachronism in the Constitution striking down a dinkum Aussie. At least that is how Joyce’s old nemesis Tony Windsor explains the result. How Joyce would fare now is a hotly disputed question.

Turnbull this week announced changes to the ministerial guidelines to explicitly ban ministers from any sexual relationship with their staff.

It will take quite some work to restore credibility to the Nationals as the “family values” party. If the party room sticks by Joyce, they are endorsing his hypocrisy – nowhere more on show than in his support of the “No” case on marriage equality. He spoke at an Australian Christian Lobby rally about the need to give children the stability of a committed, heterosexual relationship.

Natalie Joyce is well liked in the electorate and makes no secret of her pain. In her statement last week she said she always trusted her husband to travel widely as part of his job, and to spend weeks in Canberra, while she raised their four daughters at home. She says her trust was betrayed and she was deceived. Adding insight to her plight was the revelation in the Fairfax papers that her husband claimed travel allowance for 50 nights in Canberra when parliament was not sitting in 2017, more than any other cabinet minister. The reports noted that Campion lived in the national capital last year.

Joyce’s public handling of his marriage break-up has been an appalling shambles. Against the advice of the Prime Minister’s Office, he went on the ABC’s 7.30 program. He spoke of his now partner as “a pregnant lady” without naming her, although he admitted his marriage breakdown was his “greatest failure”. He stonewalled on questions about his private life as if that wasn’t the reason for the political crisis he had created, both for himself and the government.

This week, he had another go. He turned up unannounced at the doors of Parliament House to say he was “deeply sorry for all the hurt this has caused” to Natalie and to his daughters. And he was “deeply sorry” that Campion had been dragged into it. Behind this contrition was a determination to ride out the storm. He told the government party room “every political career has a time of trial” and he is “determined to work through this”.

One senior Liberal described Joyce as a “stubborn bastard with the hide of a rhinoceros”. There was a pretty general view in the Liberal and National parties that it would be better for the government if he quit. But Joyce set about persuading the other 20 members of his party room that time heals everything and he should be given time to recover. According to party sources, seven Nationals remain unconvinced, seven are firmly with him, and the rest are unwilling to cut him down. “They lack the balls to do it,” was a Labor view.

It’s a pity for Turnbull. He and the government would be well rid of the millstone Joyce has proved to be. Any serious analysis of his performance as a minister would reach the same conclusion as The Australian’s economics writer Judith Sloan: “... the Nationals leader is a dud when it comes to policy matters.” His craven toadying to vested interests has the national interest running a poor second. Climate change action is hobbled and energy policy is shaped to look after patrons such as mining magnate Gina Rinehart. The Murray–Darling Basin plan is at the point of collapse. Joyce has been missing in action and silent on massive water theft while his irrigator mates game the system. The man who railed against Labor debt when he was in Opposition is pushing a massive “inland rail” project without a proper cost–benefit analysis. At the same time, he spends millions moving a government department from Canberra to his electorate, with no case to support it other than pork-barrelling.

Partway through the week, Labor’s Richard Marles homed in on Turnbull’s lack of authority to end the chaos. “Can you imagine John Howard letting an issue like this go on in the way that we are seeing happen now?” he asked rhetorically. On Thursday, Turnbull was able to finally persuade Joyce to go on leave next week rather than embarrass the government by being acting prime minister. That reprieve will be short lived, given Labor’s plan to forensically scrutinise Joyce’s travel and entitlements in senate estimates. This sore will continue to fester.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 17, 2018 as "Rhinoceros leaders". Subscribe here.

Paul Bongiorno
is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a regular commentator on ABC Radio National Breakfast.

Continue reading your one free article for the week