SYDNEY • Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull yesterday banned sex between ministers and staff, and rounded on his deputy for a "shocking error of judgment" in having an affair with a press secretary.
Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce is a Roman Catholic who has been married for 24 years and campaigned on "family values". He and the former staff member are expecting a child in April.
Mr Turnbull denounced the affair at a press conference in Canberra, after a week in which the scandal threw his centre-right government into turmoil, and strained the alliance between his Liberal Party and Mr Joyce's National Party.
He stopped short of sacking Mr Joyce, which would have put the government's narrow one-seat majority at risk, if he were to be expelled from Parliament. But Mr Turnbull said the scandal had prompted overdue changes to ministerial conduct rules, and announced new standards broadly similar to a ban on relationships between lawmakers and staff members adopted last week by the United States Congress.
He said: "In 2018, it is not acceptable for a minister to have a sexual relationship with somebody who works for them. It is a very bad workplace practice. And everybody knows that no good comes of it."
He added that the changes take effect "as of today" and that Mr Joyce will "have to consider his own position" as leader of the National Party.
Mr Turnbull earlier said Mr Joyce would take a break next week, which will then avoid the need for him to fill in as acting prime minister during Mr Turnbull's upcoming visit to meet US President Donald Trump in Washington.
Support for Mr Joyce - a plain-spoken small-town accountant turned politician - has tumbled in his rural electorate, according to latest opinion polls.
The percentage of voters backing him crashed to 43 per cent, according to the ReachTEL poll published in Fairfax newspapers last Thursday, down from the 63 per cent margin he won at a by-election in December last year.
He also faces growing pressure over his failure to declare the relationship with his former press secretary Vikki Campion, when she was hired for two highly paid government positions outside his office.