Aussie PM in crisis talks with deputy amid feud

DPM Joyce blasts PM Turnbull for public condemnation of his affair with adviser

Australia's Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce held a crisis meeting yesterday with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull after an open feud between them over Mr Joyce's affair with an adviser threatened to tear apart the ruling coalition.

The meeting came a day after an extraordinary press conference in Canberra, at which the Deputy Prime Minister condemned the Prime Minister for making hurtful and "inept" comments about Mr Joyce's affair with his former media adviser, who is pregnant with his child.

This followed Mr Turnbull's statement on Thursday that Mr Joyce's conduct had been "appalling" and marked a "shocking error of judgment". A Sydney tabloid revealed earlier this month that Mr Joyce, 50, has left his wife of 24 years - and the mother of his four daughters - for 33-year-old Vikki Campion.

Despite Mr Turnbull's apparent belief that his deputy would resign, Mr Joyce, leader of the rural-based National Party, hit back and accused the Prime Minister of worsening his family's turmoil.

"Comments by the Prime Minister yesterday at his press conference, with regards to that, I have to say that... they caused further harm," Mr Joyce said.

"I believe they were in many instances inept and most definitely in many instances unnecessary. All it does is reinvest in the hurt that's being felt by other people. All that is... going to do is pull the scab off."

Mr Joyce's party is the junior member of the Liberal-National coalition but is crucial to ensuring the joint ticket can achieve a parliamentary majority. The two parties have been in a coalition for decades. But the scandal over his affair has dominated headlines for more than a week and has created a serious rift within the coalition.

Mr Turnbull met Mr Joyce for an hour in Sydney yesterday to try to resolve their differences. But there is growing speculation that Mr Joyce could face a leadership challenge tomorrow.

Mr Joyce on Friday accused the Prime Minister of intervening in internal National Party matters.

Asked about his current relations with Mr Turnbull, Mr Joyce said: "I am intending to make sure that, like all relationships, this relationship gets back onto an even keel."

Mr Turnbull insisted that the coalition remained "very strong" and claimed he had not been trying to meddle in the National Party.

"Expressing views of disapproval or criticism of Barnaby's own conduct is not criticism of the National Party," he said.

But National Party MPs were reportedly furious about Mr Turnbull's public denunciation of their leader. Mr Turnbull on Thursday announced a ban on ministers - married or not - having sexual relations with their staff.

National MP George Christensen said on Facebook: "The bonk ban is bonkers! And it shows that the whole attack on Barnaby Joyce is driven by one thing: sex."

Commentators questioned Mr Turnbull's decision to publicly chastise his deputy, a move apparently intended to force Mr Joyce to resign but which instead led to the feud.

Most analysts suggested the split was unsustainable and would probably end with Mr Joyce's resignation.

"The lack of judgment on display by both Australia's Prime Minister and his deputy is breathtaking," said Fairfax Media commentator Tony Wright. "There is no going back now for either of them. Yet they are supposed to be partners, running the country together. Will they ever be able to persuade anyone of that, ever again?"

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 18, 2018, with the headline 'Aussie PM in crisis talks with deputy amid feud'. Subscribe