Handling of affair could split Coalition

When Barnaby Joyce won back his seat of New England in a by-election in December last year, Malcolm Turnbull was there to cheer him on.

He said: “Barnaby and I together, have been the closest, best team you’ve seen between a Liberal and National leader for many years.”

Two months later this relationship is in absolute tatters, with the Nationals leader and Prime Minister Turnbull at loggerheads over Joyce’s extramarital affair with a former staff member, who is now expecting their baby.

Not only has the relationship between the deputy prime minister and Turnbull entered the terminal phase, but tensions between the Nationals and the Liberals are seriously threatening to destabilise the Coalition government. 

Last week was possibly the worst parliamentary week for the government since Turnbull took the leadership from his predecessor, Tony Abbott.

In an attempt to draw a line under the chaos, last Thursday Turnbull launched an extraordinary attack on Joyce’s behaviour, stating that he should “consider his position” during the week’s leave forced on him this week while the Prime Minister is in Washington.

This is tantamount to asking Joyce to resign. 

The Prime Minister cannot effectively sack Joyce, because the Coalition agreement states that the deputy prime minister is the leader of the Nationals.

The Nationals’ party room chooses their leader and if Joyce digs his heels in – as appears to be the case – the only way for him to be forced out is for him to lose the confidence of his party room.

On top of the attack on Joyce’s behaviour, Turnbull said he was changing the ministerial code of conduct to ban sexual relations between ministers and their staff, which surely seems an overreaction.

How that ban is going to be enforced is anyone’s guess.

On Friday, Joyce – obviously hurt and angry at Turnbull’s personal attack on his behaviour – hit back at the prime minister saying the comments were both “inept” and “unnecessary”.

“All that is going to do,” Joyce added, “is basically once more pull the scab off for everyone to have a look at.”

More importantly Joyce went on to say that: “In regards to the National Party, there is nothing we dislike more than implied intervention into the party processes of the National Party.”

Make no mistake, the Coalition parties are now at war.

And, unless there are serious attempts – on both sides – to ameliorate the open tensions between the two, the Turnbull government faces a renewed period of destabilisation.

Disunity, as they say in politics, is death. Last Saturday’s attempt at a rapprochement appears to have achieved little.

And, of course, the winner in all this is Bill Shorten and the Labor Party.

If Barnaby Joyce’s choices have damaged his reputation and career, Turnbull’s dramatic unilateral attack on his now former close friend have threatened the future stability of the Coalition.

Even if Joyce manages to hold on, which is by no means certain, it will be nigh on impossible to paper over the obvious tensions between the leaders as the parliamentary year continues.

Ian Tulloch is Honorary Associate (Politics) at La Trobe University, Bendigo.