The failure of Joyce to handle his affair with a staffer, starting with his astonishing attempt to “explain” it as only a private matter, has led to a failure by Turnbull to display the leadership role he is supposed to play as leader of the Coalition and PM of Australia. It will be surprising if tomorrow’s Newspoll does not show a drop in both the Coalition’s TPP (which was 48/52 a fortnight ago) and Turnbull’s satisfaction rate (37 to 50 dissatisfied). The political editor of The Australian suggests in his Inquirer article (see Shanahan on Joyce/Turnbull) that both leaders will see a fall in their satisfaction rates (Shorten’s was 34 to 52 last time). That is quite possible: the electorate is sick of the behaviour of both sides in Canberra.
In my previous Commentary I referred to the appalling responses by Joyce after he publicly revealed his affair and attempted to skate over its possible adverse effects on his capability to run his governmental responsibilities. But as Judith Sloan argues, Joyce has taken “some … appalling policy positions …to the detriment of the national interest and ordinary Australians” (see Sloan on Joyce’s Policy Performance). He also appears to have made maximum use of taxpayer-funded allowances from the time his affair started: for example, today’s Herald Sun reports that during 2017 he repeatedly claimed a $372-a- night living-away-from-home allowances for staying the night at Armidale (supposedly on ministerial business) about 100km away from home.
But it is not only Joyce who has created a mess. As Chris Kenny argues in his article yesterday, “Malcolm Turnbull has helped turn it a Coalition crisis” by “exposing the government’s underlying weaknesses and undermining the Prime Minister’s authority” (see Kenny on Joyce/Turnbulll). In essence, when the Joyce affair with a staffer became public knowledge after it was published in the Daily Telegraph on 7 February, Turnbull appears initially to have done nothing to discuss the issue with Joyce and reach an agreement on how it might be handled.
Then, after the issue had become widely discussed and publicized, he made a public statement last Thursday 15 February criticizing Joyce’s behavior and announcing that the Ministerial Code of Conduct would include a ban on having sexual relations with staff. Leaving aside the ban (which one National Party MP rightly described as “bonkers”), Turnbull’s behavior again demonstrated his inability to address difficult issues. As Kenny notes, “conservative voters have had their patience tested by the gay marriage debate and the Coalition’s climate change indulgences”.
And, as Peta Credlin points out in today’s Herald Sun, that Turnbull “didn’t deal with the rumours head on is a failure of his leadership; it wasn’t a matter for his staff, or colleagues to address but a matter between two men who, as recently as the New England by-election, presented as close friends and not just as colleagues. If it ever emerges that Joyce told the Prime Minister of his affair, something the PM has repeatedly and strenuously denied, including in the Parliament, then this sorry mess gets a whole lot worse”. Her former boss, Tony Abbott, has also weighed in and said its poor form for the PM to make public statements about the views of fellow members of the Coalition.
Ironically, yesterday both Turnbull and Joyce had a “private” meeting in Sydney but so far neither have made a statement. A report in the Herald Sun implies that Joyce has indicated that he will not resign as Deputy PM and that Turnbull will appear on tonight’s 60 minutes on Channel 9. According to the latter, Malcolm Turnbull will tonight “unveil his thoughts on what makes a marriage work — and his “frank” relationship with scandal-engulfed deputy Barnaby Joyce. In an exclusive interview with 60 Minutes’ Liz Hayes, the current prime minister reveals his long-standing bond with wife Lucy, and the factors he says will ensure they stay “together, forever”.
Perhaps a bit too late.