Scandal plagues Australia government amid deputy PM's affair

Australian Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce arriving at Parliament House in Canberra on Feb 13, 2018. PHOTO: REUTERS

CANBERRA (BLOOMBERG) - Australia's Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce insists he didn't breach parliamentary guidelines while conducting an extramarital affair with his former media adviser, as the widening scandal threatens to damage the government.

Joyce, 50, on Tuesday made a televised apology to his wife and four daughters for the affair, which has ended his 24-year marriage. News of the relationship surfaced in local media in the past week and Joyce has confirmed that his now partner Vikki Campion is pregnant with his child.

While the revelations have damaged Joyce's credibility as a family man, he's also under pressure amid allegations he allowed Campion to work in his and another ministerial office during the affair. A code of conduct bans ministers from employing their "partner."

"It is without a shadow of a doubt that Vikki Campion is my partner now, but when she worked in my office, she was not my partner," said Joyce, who is leader of the Nationals, the junior partner in Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's coalition government.

"I think this is vitally important in how we differentiate between the public and the private."

The saga has made front-page headlines for days and is an unwanted distraction for Turnbull, who is seeking to give renewed momentum to his Liberal-National government that's trailing in opinion polls. Joyce is due to become Australia's acting prime minister when Turnbull visits Washington for talks with President Donald Trump next week.

Sidelined Agenda

Much of the government's policy agenda was sidelined last year by a constitutional crisis in which Joyce and other lawmakers were forced to step down for being dual citizens. The government lost its majority in parliament for more than a month after it emerged the deputy leader and another lower-house lawmaker were citizens of other nations, meaning they were ineligible to remain in parliament.

Rumors of Joyce's extramarital affair went unreported as he campaigned to regain his parliamentary seat after renouncing his New Zealand citizenship. He easily won a special election in December and returned to parliament.

Turnbull has sought to distance himself from questions around whether guidelines were breached when Campion was moved from Joyce's staff to posts in two other offices, saying the Nationals were responsible for their own appointments.

Privacy Debate

The affair has spurred a debate in Australia about what parts of a parliamentarian's life are private and should be off-limits to media reporting. In the US, the House last week adopted rules banning sex between members and their staff. An independent Australian lawmaker has raised the prospect of doing the same.

The son of sheep and dairy farmers, Joyce has led the coalition's rural-based partner the Nationals for two years. He's been a vocal critic of foreign investment by state-owned Chinese companies, and made international headlines in 2015 when he threatened to euthanise Johnny Depp's Yorkshire terriers after the movie star brought the dogs into Australia without fulfilling proper quarantine procedures.

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