Paul Bongiorno
New order to follow Joyce division?

The more Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce dug in to save his job, the bigger the hole he created for the government. The saga of Joyce’s conflicted private life  morphed into a full-blown crisis for the Turnbull government this week, culminating in Joyce’s announcement on Friday that he would resign from the Nationals leadership, following what he describes as a “media witch-hunt”.

Whether this exorcises the spectre of a prime minister unable to control or lead his own government when parliament returns on Monday remains to be seen.

Joyce’s delusional thinking that he could sit out the controversy had precedent. Then prime minister Paul Keating saw attacks on his health minister Carmen Lawrence in similar terms. But the political process in Canberra and in Perth, where Lawrence had been the Labor premier, produced more than a year of negative headlines and stories, which swamped the government’s narrative.

During her time as prime minister it took Julia Gillard almost two years to cut loose Craig Thomson, as she fought back against “trial by media” and the Opposition baying for blood. Again, that affair was a distraction that buffeted her government for much longer than it need to.

More than enough has happened in the week since parliament previously sat to fan the flames first lit when The Daily Telegraph broke the story of Barnaby’s pregnant girlfriend, presenting him with a “Bundle of Joyce”. But what gave this story traction, beyond tabloid salaciousness, was the high-paid jobs offered to his new partner and the $400,000-a-year politician asking a rich mate to find him somewhere to live rent free in defiance of the ministerial code. Sure, Joyce told parliament businessman Greg Maguire made the offer unsolicited. The Australian and The Tele quoted Maguire telling them the opposite.

The Joyce story is no media beat-up. It surfaced because the dysfunction and disruption in his office, caused by his affair, spilled out into the Nationals party room. Party sources confirm that Joyce’s performance as leader became more and more erratic. He refused to take advice and in the December reshuffle served notice that rivals and critics would not be tolerated.

It is the double standard of it all that is playing extremely badly in electorates around Australia. And nowhere is that more obvious than in comparing the treatment of stood-aside Australian Border Force Commissioner Roman Quaedvlieg. Now into his ninth month of paid leave, with the bill in the vicinity of half-a-million dollars, the commissioner is being investigated by the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity for allegedly helping his much younger girlfriend get a job at Sydney Airport.

The prime minister refused to refer Joyce anywhere for investigation over what seems at the very least a prima facie conflict of interest. There’s no doubt if Joyce were a Liberal minister he would have been sacked before now.

If the Nationals were paralysed by fear that if they sacked Joyce he would set about destroying the government from the back bench, they will now see if his own resignation spares them that. The view that took hold in the 21-member party room this week was that the “transactional cost” of dumping Joyce for a new leader would be greater than the damage being done by leaving him there. As one National MP told me before Joyce’s announcement: “If you think Tony Abbott is bad, Joyce would be much worse.”

In an interview with the Fairfax papers while he spent the week on leave, Joyce said his version of the private meeting with the prime minister last weekend was that he pulled Turnbull into line for publicly attacking him. Turnbull’s office later briefed out that the “warm and frank meeting” resolved nothing because Joyce “just doesn’t get it”.

Both men asserted – incredibly – that they could continue to work together in a businesslike way. Turnbull went so far as to say there was “not an issue or conflict between the Liberal Party and the National Party, I give you my assurance about that”.

A hint of just how hollow that assurance is came from the government’s Senate leader, and acting prime minister, Mathias Cormann. He told reporters Joyce wasn’t returning his calls. Cormann’s view is that the issue needed to be resolved and the government had to move on. Now that Joyce has “come to his senses”, and for the good of his party and government quit as gracefully as he could, the goevrnment will hope to get back on track.

Turnbull’s controversial ban on ministers having “sexual relations with their staff” found 64 per cent support in Newspoll this week. There’s no doubt the prime minister has plugged into a contemporary sentiment that is intolerant of powerful men entering into “asymmetrical relationships” with women who are usually much younger and dependent on them for their livelihoods. If there are few in Hollywood more powerful than a producer such as Harvey Weinstein, there are none more powerful in Parliament House than a cabinet minister.

Turnbull was warned that if he announced the ban he would be opening a can of worms for the government – indeed, the parliament as a whole. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop was forthright in urging caution. She, like Turnbull, was critical of the United States Congress for passing a similar law recently. Back then she said the government had no business interfering in the personal lives of consenting adults.

Turnbull pushed ahead. Some Liberals saw his decision to ask Cormann to step up as acting prime minister as a direct rebuke to Bishop. She told Radio National she was ready to serve if needed. Her caution about the blanket ban was vindicated when Liberal renegade and Australian Conservatives leader Cory Bernardi told the same radio station he didn’t think “Barnaby Joyce [is] Robinson Crusoe on this”. He said other ministers were having sex with staff but refused to name them.

Turnbull’s move, though born of desperation, has its supporters. One senior Nationals MP says: “He had to do it. We were bleeding women’s votes.” This Nat said women see the Joyce situation and fear “their husbands running off with their secretaries”.

In a number of interviews and news conferences since the ban, Turnbull has not backed down. He stands by attacking Joyce for his “error of judgement” and the “world of woe” that he has created for his wife and new partner. In an interview with Neil Mitchell, Turnbull went so far as to say that any minister transgressing would be sacked. A brave call, given he admitted his impotence to do anything with regards to Joyce.

Labor’s Bill Shorten says he would keep the ban if he became prime minister. According to the 27th consecutive Newspoll, this prospect is looking firmer by the day. Joyce has done more than Shorten these past few weeks to assure that.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 24, 2018 as "Joyce division: time for new order".

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Paul Bongiorno is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a 30-year veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery.

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