Federal transport and infrastructure minister Barnaby Joyce could be relegated to the backbench within days as drama swirls in Canberra over his admitted affair with former staffer Vikki Campion.
Joyce, who is married with four children but separated with his wife last December, has been heavily criticised after news broke last week that Campion – who used to work in his office – had become pregnant with his child.
Joyce’s wife, Natalie, told the media last week their marriage had broken up due to Barnaby’s long-term relationship with Campion.
The transport and infrastructure minister, who is the leader of the Nationals and deputy PM, addressed the media outside Parliament on February 13.
“I’d like to say to Natalie how deeply sorry I am, to my girls how deeply sorry I am,” he said. “[And to Vikki Campion how deeply sorry I am that she has been dragged into this.”
Many in Canberra believe Joyce will not last on the Turnbull frontbench amid the revelations.
While relations between politicians and their staffers are not forbidden, it is against ministerial standards for staff to move between offices without approval from the Prime Minister’s Office, if they are the partner of an MP.
Campion was moved from Joyce’s office to that of fellow Nationals frontbencher Matt Canavan in April last year. When Canavan stepped down during the citizenship debacle, Campion was moved to the office of former Nationals whip Damian Drum.
But Joyce says Campion was not his formal partner when the staff changes took place.
He clarified his version of events in a more official statement after addressing the media on Tuesday morning.
“My marriage was under pressure for some time, Natalie and I tried to make it work again in April last year but it subsequently came to an end,” Joyce said. “I take responsibility for that failure.
“Vikki Campion has also been the subject of unwanted and deeply hurtful commentary at a difficult time, particularly as we are having a child together in mid-April.
“In 2016 Vikki worked on the election campaign and in August came to work on my staff. A friendship subsequently developed and that became, over time, more.
“In April last year she went to work for a senior colleague, Mr Canavan. She was well qualified for the role, was an existing and obviously capable staff member and the change was within the existing Nationals staff arrangement.
“I did not discuss these matters with the Prime Minister or his office as Vikki was not my partner, so they were dealt with in the usual course of staff deployments within the Party.
“When Mr Canavan stood down over the citizenship issue she went to work for another MP and subsequently left the Nationals staff following the most recent reshuffle.
“This has been a searing personal experience for Natalie, our daughters and for Vikki,” he concluded. “Criticise me if you wish, but please have some regard for them.”
Joyce is no stranger to controversy: He was forced to run again for his seat of New England last December, after it was revealed he held dual-citizenship with New Zealand.
He also caused reported rifts within the National Party after naming himself the transport and infrastructure minister shortly after he was re-elected, relegating well-regarded National colleague Darren Chester to the backbench.
But the controversial deputy PM still has the support of his Party room, with Nationals colleague Nigel Scullion reportedly saying he believed the saga to be “the biggest beat-up I’ve ever seen”.
“Let me tell you, the people who keep Barnaby here and in his position are National Party people and he has 100% support from all of us,” Scullion was quoted by The Guardian.
Prime Minister Turnbull has distanced himself from the controversy, insisting he was not aware of any relations between Joyce and Campion when the staffer’s moves occurred.
Former Liberal leader John Hewson told Q&A on February 12 he thought Joyce’s parliamentary career had been in danger “for quite some time”.
“He was most of the cause for distraction and destruction, last year, in the government,” Hewson said. “He and his team led the debate in a lot of areas, to the detriment of the government. I don’t think he understands unity, I don’t think he understands the significance of that. And over the course of last year, I think they played a pretty disruptive role.
“Whether he survives or not will come down to whether he actually broke any code of conduct. He certainly made some pretty significant errors of judgement in my view.”
However, Hewson said the affair would be “at least an opportunity for Malcolm to pull him into line, and get him to start performing as you’d expect him to do, as part of the team”.
Some think it’s too late for the Nationals leader, however.
“My view is that … Barnaby Joyce’s political career is over,” The Australian’s associate national affairs editor Chris Kenny told Q&A. “I don’t think it will take long. That’s what we’re going to have to wait to see play out.
“It seems like Malcolm Turnbull’s office at this stage is inoculated from it, but that means Barnaby Joyce was effectively making these decisions about the employment of his new partner, himself.
“He has turned himself into a massive political handicap for the government. He’s embarrassed his prime minister.”
Turnbull on Tuesday confirmed Joyce will become acting prime minister next week, while the PM is on a trip to the US, “to the horror of many people watching this program,” Kenny said.
“That is a very difficult position for Barnaby to hold, when he left his own prime minister, just last Friday, in the glare of the television lights and cameras, having to defend this ugly, personal story, and not knowing quite what to say.
“I think he’s really let down his party, and his prime minister, and I think it’s probably only a matter of time before his party decides they need a new leader.”