Ministers in the Australian government will be banned from having "sexual relations" with their staff, in the wake of a sex scandal that has engulfed the parliament and has the potential to bring down Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
Deputy Prime Minister, Barnaby Joyce ― a married man with four daughters ― was last week revealed to have engaged in a months-long affair with one of his former staff members, Vikki Campion, who is now pregnant and expecting a baby in April. The pair now live together, after Joyce separated from his wife last year. The affair has been described as an open secret inside Parliament House by journalists and politicians, but was only reported in national media last week.
Further damaging revelations exposed how Campion had been shunted between the offices of different government politicians as the affair became more widely-known in Parliament House, including a "newly created and unadvertised position" in the office of resources minister Matt Canavan after the intervention of the Prime Minister's office, and another in the office of party whip Damian Drum after Canavan resigned from his ministerial position.
The employment arrangements led to claims of nepotism and favoritism. The government's Statement of Ministerial Standards, a code of conduct for ministers, states that "Ministers' close relatives and partners are not to be appointed to positions in their ministerial or electorate offices, and must not be employed in the offices of other members of the Executive Government without the Prime Minister's express approval." Joyce, however, has maintained that Campion was not technically his "partner" at the time of the appointments to his or Canavan's office, and although Campion became pregnant around the time of her appointment to Drum's office, the code was not breached because Drum is not a minister.
Joyce has been under pressure to resign, and Turnbull under pressure to force him to leave, for the last two weeks of parliament. However, with the government holding just a one-seat majority in the parliament, Joyce's resignation would trigger a by-election that his party may not win in the wake of the scandal, potentially bringing down the government.
Turnbull is due to fly to the United States for a meeting with President Donald Trump next week, which would have left Joyce filling in as acting Prime Minister, but in a surprise announcement on Thursday, it was revealed Joyce would be taking a week of leave instead, with another finance minister Mathias Cormann to act as PM.
Later on Thursday, Turnbull made a second surprise statement, announcing that the ministerial code would be updated to expressly forbid sexual relations between ministers and staff. In the wake of the initial Joyce revelations, and American lawmakers supporting a similar initiative last week, some Australian members of parliament had floated a plan to introduce legislation banning relationships between politicians and their staff. At the time it was criticized by government ministers ― foreign minister Julie Bishop commenting"the Government has no business interfering into people's personal lives and we wouldn't want to cross the line, so moral police were able to dictate what happens between consenting adults" ― but by Thursday, Turnbull had seemingly come around to the concept.
The Prime Minister said he would add new lines to the ministerial standards, concerning the "need to exercise their judgement and their common sense", that "the public have high expectations of them in terms of their personal conduct and decorum," and that the families of politicians "deserve honour and respect. Ministers should also recognise that they must lead by example."
"Ministers, regardless of whether they are married or single, must not engage in sexual relations with their staff. Doing so will constitute a breach of the standards," Turnbull said.
"There was a different culture here that had gone on for a long time. I think many women in this building, who work in this building understand very powerfully what I am saying. This is a change I am making from today. You can argue it should have been made years ago, but you can't live your life backwards. The change is being made today. That is the standard I am setting as Prime Minister of Australia, today."
The Prime Minister had harsh words for his deputy, all but signalling that he would prefer for Joyce to resign. Turnbull told a packed media conference that Joyce had inflicted "terrible hurt and humiliation" on his family and new partner, had made " a shocking error of judgement" and "set off a world of woe for those women and appalled all of us."
″[Joyce] is taking leave next week and I have encouraged him to take that leave. I think that he needs that leave. He needs that time to reflect. He needs that time to seek forgiveness and understanding from his wife and girls. He needs to make a new home for his partner and their baby, who is coming in April," Turnbull said.
In an extraordinary press conference on Friday morning, Joyce gave his response to Turnbull's criticisms, labelling the Prime Minister "inept".
"Comments by the Prime Minister yesterday at his press conference, with regards to that, I have to say that, in many instances... they caused further harm. I believe they were in many instances inept and most definitely in many instances unnecessary," Joyce said.