SYDNEY - Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce held a crisis meeting on Sautrday (Feb 17) with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull after an open feud between the pair 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 Mr Joyce condemned the Prime Minister for making hurtful and “inept” comments about Mr Joyce’s affair with his former media adviser, who is pregnant.
This followed Mr Turnbull’s claim 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 – after having an affair with his 33-year-old adviser, Vikki Campion.
Despite Mr Turnbull’s apparent belief that his deputy would resign over the affair, 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 once more going to do is pull the scab off.”
Mr Joyce’s party is the junior member of the ruling Liberal-National Coalition but is crucial to ensuring that the joint ticket can achieve a parliamentary majority. The two parties have been in a coalition for decades.
But the scandal over Mr Joyce’s affair has dominated headlines for more than a week and has created a serious rift within the coalition.
Mr Turnbull met with Mr Joyce for an hour in Sydney on Saturday to try to resolve their differences.
But there was growing speculation that Mr Joyce could face a leadership challenge on Monday.
Mr Joyce on Friday accused Mr Turnbull of intervening in internal National Party matters.
“There is nothing that we dislike more than implied intervention into the party processes of the National Party,” he said.
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.
Attempting to end the crisis, Mr Turnbull on Thursday announced a ban on ministers – whether married or not - having sex with staff.
Criticising the ban, Mr George Christensen, a National MP, said it was “bonkers”.
“The bonk ban is bonkers! And it shows that the whole attack on Barnaby Joyce is driven by one thing: sex,” he said on Facebook.
Political commentators questioned Mr Turnbull’s decision to publicly chastise his deputy – a move which was intended to force Mr Joyce to resign but instead led to an open brawl.
Most analysts suggested the split was unsustainable and would most likely end with Mr Joyce’s resignation.
“The lack of judgment on display by both Australia’s Prime Minister and his Deputy is breathtaking,” said Mr Tony Wright, a Fairfax Media commentator.
“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?”