Coalition ties will continue: Turnbull

Aussie PM and deputy Joyce 'still working closely' despite rift over latter's affair scandal

CANBERRA • Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull says he can "absolutely" continue working with his deputy after the pair met in a bid to avoid fracturing the coalition government amid the fallout from Mr Barnaby Joyce's extramarital affair with a former staff member.

"It's always very important to meet, to work through the various challenges and issues that we face, but the important thing is Barnaby and I are working closely together as we always have," Mr Turnbull told reporters in Melbourne yesterday.

The nation's two most senior lawmakers talked for over an hour in Sydney last Saturday and agreed they need to work better together in the future. Mr Turnbull said he and Mr Joyce, Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the National Party, had a "frank and warm, friendly, good, constructive meeting".

"There are no issues between the Liberal and National parties at all," Mr Turnbull said, characterising the relationship between the two factions as "the most enduring political alliance in Australian history and it will continue".

He lambasted Mr Joyce last Thursday over an affair that ended his 24-year marriage, accusing him of making a "shocking error of judgment". Mr Joyce, 50, who leads the junior party in the coalition, hit back on Friday, saying the criticism was "inept" and "unnecessary", while Mr Turnbull said yesterday he did not apologise to Mr Joyce because "there's nothing to apologise for".

The war of words between the pair risks undermining the Liberal-National coalition, which already trails in opinion polls ahead of elections due by next year.

Mr Turnbull's Liberals are the dominant partner, but the party relies on support from Mr Joyce's rural-based Nationals to govern.

The saga has played out on the front pages of Australia's newspapers for days, with Mr Joyce confirming that his now partner Vikki Campion is pregnant with his child.

The revelations have damaged the father of four's credibility as a family man, and he is facing claims that he allowed Ms Campion to work in his and another ministerial office during the affair - potentially breaching the ministerial code of conduct.

Mr Joyce has signalled he would resist attempts to force his resignation as Nationals leader. Only his own lawmakers could oust him and none has publicly asked for his resignation.

Veterans' Affairs Minister Michael McCormack - considered the most likely National lawmaker to replace Mr Joyce - did not rule out a leadership challenge last Saturday but said he did not want to get "too far ahead of myself", the Sun-Herald reported.

Any challenge to Mr Joyce would probably happen at a party room meeting when Parliament returns in just over a week.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 19, 2018, with the headline 'Coalition ties will continue: Turnbull'. Print Edition | Subscribe