Deputy PM's resignation may bring short-term relief for Malcolm Turnbull

Mr Barnaby Joyce said he would resign from the cabinet and as leader of the rural-based National Party, the junior member of the ruling Coalition, from Feb 26, 2018.
Mr Barnaby Joyce said he would resign from the cabinet and as leader of the rural-based National Party, the junior member of the ruling Coalition, from Feb 26, 2018. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SYDNEY - Australia's Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Barnaby Joyce, resigned on Friday (Feb 23) after a tumultuous fortnight in which he admitted to having an affair with a staffer, who is pregnant, faced claims of sexual harassment and that he misused expenses.

Following relentless pressure and a lack of support from Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Mr Joyce said he would resign from the Cabinet and as leader of the rural-based National Party, the junior member of the ruling coalition, from Monday.

He insisted the harassment claims were false but admitted that the "litany of allegations" had been damaging both for his parliamentary colleagues and for his wife Natalie, their four daughters and former media adviser, Ms Vikki Campion, with whom he now lives.

"It's incredibly important that there be a circuit-breaker, not just for the Parliament, but more importantly, a circuit-breaker for Vikki, for my unborn child, my daughters and for Nat," he told reporters.

"This has got to stop. It's not fair on them."

Thanking his supporters, he said: "I don't deserve the support that you've given me."

Mr Turnbull will likely welcome the resignation, as the scandal involving his deputy has been a political distraction and dominated media headlines for weeks.

The series of stories about Mr Joyce's private life, including claims he misused travel expenses to spend time with Ms Campion, led to a further erosion of support for the coalition in the opinion polls.

Mr Joyce, 50, has faced intense pressure after a Sydney tabloid newspaper revealed earlier this month that Ms Campion, 33, was pregnant. The pair had an affair even while Mr Joyce, a social conservative and devout Catholic, rallied against legalising same-sex marriage, saying the change would affect family stability.

Following the revelation of the affair, Mr Turnbull, who heads the Liberal party, criticised his deputy's conduct as "appalling" and announced a ban on ministers having sex with staff.

Mr Joyce hit back, describing the Prime Minister as "inept", creating a sharp divide between the nation's two most powerful politicians.

But Mr Turnbull was effectively unable to sack Mr Joyce, whose position as party leader and Deputy Prime Minister is decided by National MPs.

In recent days, Mr Joyce's party colleagues began to withdraw support.

On Thursday, the party's national president, Mr Larry Anthony, confirmed that a sexual harassment complaint had been made against Mr Joyce by a woman from Western Australia. No details have emerged.

Mr Joyce said the allegation was "spurious and defamatory" and should be referred to police. But he said it prompted him to finally resign.

"I just thought that has to be the straw that breaks the camel's back," he said.

"The leaking, the backgrounding, all that, it will destroy not only our government, it will destroy any government."

Mr Joyce, who lives in north-west New South Wales and wears a cowboy hat, is perhaps best-known internationally for his threat in 2015 to kill Pistol and Boo, the pet dogs of actors Johnny Depp and Amber Heard. The pair had brought the dogs into Australia without properly declaring them and later publicly apologised.

Mr Joyce will remain in Parliament as a backbencher. His party will elect a new leader on Monday. The likely replacement is Mr Michael McCormack, a former journalist who has been an MP since 2010.

Mr Turnbull, who is visiting the United States, insisted that relations between his party and the Nationals remained strong.

"I thank Barnaby for his service as Deputy Prime Minister and in his various ministerial roles in which he has been a fierce advocate for rural and regional Australia," Mr Turnbull said.

"The coalition between the Liberals and the Nationals is Australia's most successful political partnership, having endured for more than 95 years. This partnership is undiminished and will continue to deliver opportunity and security for all Australians," Mr Turnbull added.

Analysts believe Mr Joyce's resignation will bring short-term relief to the government. But the saga could leave lasting tensions between the two parties that make up the ruling coalition.

"Joyce's departure to the backbench obviously brings immediate relief for the government and the Nationals," wrote commentator Michelle Grattan on The Conversation website.

"What it will mean beyond that is more difficult to predict."