Editor’s Note: Peter van Onselen is a professor of politics and foundation chair of Journalism at the University of Western Australia and the Contributing Editor at The Australian. The opinions expressed here are solely his.
Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce is perhaps best known for the Pistol and Boo affair – when he threatened actor Johnny Depp with perjury over bringing his dogs into the country illegally.
But it’s a very different type of affair which is now engulfing the Deputy PM and leader of the Nationals Party.
Joyce announced the break up of his marriage late last year, and just last week it was revealed that he’s living with a former staffer who is expecting his child in April.
Rumors of an affair and a pregnancy were circulating last December when Joyce was forced to contest his own seat after breaching rules which bar foreign nationals from serving in parliament.
Last week, Sydney tabloid The Daily Telegraph ran a page one photo of Joyce’s pregnant new partner, Vikki Campion, sparking a nationwide debate about whether or not politicians’ private lives should be public business.
Unlike many other countries, the Australian media has largely shied away from reporting on the private lives of its politicians.
The Joyce affair has led to other accusations of inappropriate dealings by the deputy PM, which so far have been strongly denied.
Of more concern for Joyce’s political survival is the timing of when his now partner worked for him as well as other senior members of the government. Arguably even though their relationship was consensual, it was a fiduciary relationship between a boss and a subordinate.
This was raised in the first major television interview Joyce did after the revelations of the affair. The US House of Representatives is moving to disallow such personal relationships, although there is no indication similar rules will be adopted in Australia.
There are rules when it comes to “partners” of members of parliament working in other MPs offices, which is what Campion went on to do after leaving Joyce’s office in April last year. First she was moved into the office of another Nationals cabinet minister, Matt Canavan, who was himself caught up in the citizenship saga, before being shifted into the office of the Nationals chief whip, Damien Drum.
Such appointments require Prime Ministerial approval, which was not given. The government is justifying what many regard as a breach of its own ministerial code of conduct on the grounds that Campion was not yet technically Joyce’s partner, which most journalists are reporting as “not passing the pub test.”
Further, the role of the chief whip is to ensure MPs don’t miss parliamentary votes, making it a functional internal position. Campion was a senior media adviser, and she became the second media adviser in Drum’s office. A whip hardly needs one media adviser much less two.
Joyce’s private dealings have received more attention than might be the case for other high profile politicians because of his strong conservative values and rhetoric over the years.
He opposed the recent same sex marriage laws when they were being publicly debated on the grounds that traditional marriage was too important and needed protecting. Critics say that his personal life is therefore fair game when he violates his own statements on values and the sanctity of marriage.
The word “hypocrite” has been widely used to describe Joyce, a concerning political label for the leader of a party that has strong support in rural areas – deeply conservative parts of the nation. It remains to be seen how the Nationals heartland will react to the Joyce revelations.
It’s hard to predict if Joyce can survive this scandal. If he survives the parliamentary week, next week he will be the acting Prime Minister with Malcolm Turnbull heading to the US to meet President Donald Trump.
Certainly if there are any new revelations, Joyce’s position would become untenable. Even if he does survive, he is now an unwanted distraction for a government already struggling in the polls.
When the Coalition scraped back into power in 2016, it was the junior partner, The Nationals, led by Joyce, that saved the Turnbull government. The Nationals retained all of their seats and netted one more as the senior Coalition partner, the Liberal Party, lost more than a dozen.
Since that time, however, Joyce’s party has become increasingly divided, meaning that this scandal is providing ammunition for his internal opponents. In their 90-year history the Nationals have only removed one leader in a party room coup, but they have never faced a scandal as big as this.
The global #MeToo campaign has put more attention on the actions of men in positions of power. While Joyce and his staffer were engaged in a consensual relationship, at the corporate level in Australia senior executives have lost their jobs for similarly consensual relationships in the workplace with subordinates.
Australia’s largest sport, the Australian Football League, saw two executives stand down under such circumstances, leaving the impression that the country’s political class isn’t living up to the standards being set in corporate Australia.