Aussie PM Turnbull says ministers will be banned from sexual relationships with staff, scandal-hit deputy to take leave

Australian Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, under pressure over his extra-marital affair, will be taking leave next week. PHOTO: AFP

SYDNEY (REUTERS, AFP) - Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on Thursday (Feb 15) said ministers will be banned from sexual relationships with staff under a new code of conduct to be enacted in the wake of his deputy admitting to an extramarital affair with a staffer.

"Ministers, regardless of whether they are married or single, must not engage in sexual relations with staff," Turnbull told reporters in Canberra.

"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."

The comments come after an earlier announcement on Thursday that his deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce will take leave next week, avoiding him assuming the role of acting leader while Turnbull is in the United States.

Joyce has been under immense pressure over an affair with a younger former staffer, who is now pregnant with their child, and allegations that he breached ministerial rules.

The crisis has dominated the front pages and parliament question time for a week, with calls mounting for him to resign.

Turnbull has so far stood by Joyce, whose National Party is in a coalition with the prime minister's Liberals, but with the heat showing no signs of abating he said the 50-year-old would not be filling in for him while he was away.

Turnbull leaves for Washington next Wednesday for meetings with President Donald Trump and is scheduled to be overseas for four days.

"The deputy prime minister will be taking leave from Monday, February 19 to February 25. And accordingly will not be able to be acting prime minister while I'm overseas," he told parliament.

Labor opposition leader Bill Shorten questioned whether this meant Turnbull had lost confidence in Joyce or "are we simply meant to believe it is all a big coincidence".

Turnbull - who reportedly feared Joyce being in the leaders' role would add to the spiralling crisis - simply reiterated that he was taking a vacation.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, as deputy Liberal leader, would normally step in if Joyce was unavailable. But she will also be travelling, which means Senate leader Mathias Cormann will take the position.

Joyce has admitted to an affair with 33-year-old Vikki Campion, who used to work in his office, leaving his shattered wife of 24 years and their four daughters.

He made a public apology to them on Tuesday and defended the two jobs, one for a minister, that Campion was given after she stopped working for him last year.

Joyce - best known internationally for threatening to euthanise Hollywood star Johnny Depp's dogs over a quarantine violation - denies he breached the ministerial code of conduct.

It stipulates that "partners" of ministers cannot be given jobs in ministerial offices without the express approval of the prime minister.

Breaching the code of conduct could be grounds for him to be removed from office.

He is also under fire over revelations that he accepted a rent-free apartment from a millionaire friend after his marriage collapsed.

Labor accused him of breaching ministerial standards by asking for a place to live, and in effect receiving a gift of not paying rent for six months. Joyce insists it was offered and he did not ask for it.

Joyce was re-elected in his rural constituency in New South Wales late last year after being forced to stand down over a once-obscure rule barring dual citizens from federal office.

He campaigned on a platform of being a pillar of the community who upheld conservative values, including marriage.

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