Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce during a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra. Picture Gary Ramage
Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce during a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra. Picture Gary Ramage

Barn[aby] burning backfires on PM

THE two most powerful politicians in the country have launched an extraordinary two-day, tit-for-tat verbal assault on each other, with embattled Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce calling Malcolm Turnbull "inept" as he clings on to his job.

The row between Malcolm Turnbull and Barnaby Joyce over his fathering a love child with a former staff member has caused deep divisions and mistrust between the Prime Minister and his deputy, with insiders threatening to rewrite the Coalition agreement.

An emboldened Mr Joyce declared he would not resign and returned fire at Mr Turnbull for his "inept" comments about his personal crisis.

"In regards to the comments by the Prime Minister yesterday ... I have to say that, in many instances, 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, who has been working to retain the support of his National Party colleagues, said members of the party objected to "implied intervention" in their internal processes.

Deputy PM Barnaby Joyce donned his Akubra for a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra, called to respond to PM Malcolm Turnbull. Picture: Kym Smith
Deputy PM Barnaby Joyce donned his Akubra for a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra, called to respond to PM Malcolm Turnbull. Picture: Kym Smith

After a week of reflection and thinking about his own political capital, Mr Turnbull yesterday announced a ban on relationships between ministers and their staff, and criticised Mr Joyce's affair.

The Courier-Mail can reveal Mr Joyce knew Mr Turnbull would enforce the sex ban, but while he watched the press conference in his office, he was floored by what came next.

"I think we know that the real issue is the terrible hurt and humiliation that Barnaby by his conduct, has visited on his wife, Natalie, and their daughters and indeed, his new partner,'' Mr Turnbull said on Thursday. "Barnaby made a shocking error of judgment in having an affair with a young woman working in his office. In doing so, he has set off a world of woe for those women and appalled all of us."

It is understood Mr Turnbull was just as floored that Mr Joyce, 50, had kept secret that he was expecting a child with his lover and former staffer Vikki Campion, 32. The Courier-Mail has been told Mr Joyce kept it from all of his closest confidants.

After stewing on Mr Turnbull's comments all night, Mr Joyce yesterday slapped down the Prime Minister in a canberra press conference for trying to interfere with the Nationals' leadership.

 

Malcolm Turnbull, left, and Will Hodgman at a press conference after touring the Norske Skog plant in the Derwent Valley. Picture: Sam Rosewarne
Malcolm Turnbull, left, and Will Hodgman at a press conference after touring the Norske Skog plant in the Derwent Valley. Picture: Sam Rosewarne

"Far from assisting - and I have been around this organisation more than a couple of days - it locks people in. They lock in behind the leader," Mr Joyce said. "I will not be making comments about the leadership of the Liberal Party and would not expect comments about the leadership of the National Party.

"I am intending to make sure that, like all relationships, this relationship gets back on to an even keel."

Mr Turnbull was forced to hold a follow-up press conference to thank his deputy for supporting his sex ban while emphasising his disappointment in Mr Joyce's conduct, and to assuring the Nationals he was not trying to interfere with their leadership.

While it is inconceivable Mr Joyce would rip up the secret Coalition agreement, sources told The Courier-Mail he may seek to strengthen it. The Nationals have felt they have been dragged too far to the left by Mr Turnbull and the public spat could allow the agreement to be revisited.

Colleagues were reaching out to the pair last night and publicly and privately urged them to go for a beer and sort out their issues.

Nationals chief whip Michelle Landry told The Courier-Mail she had told Mr Joyce he and the PM needed to have a meeting face-to-face alone to sort out the matter.

Mr Joyce will take leave from Monday and Finance Minister Mathias Cormann will be Acting Prime Minister while Mr Turnbull meets with US President Donald Trump.

Yesterday, Liberal party backbencher Kevin Andrews called for calm.

"Most Australians expect our leaders to be able to sit down on an issue like this in a man-to-man fashion and sort our whatever the differences there are there, and they should be sorted out privately, and can I say Mr Turnbull and Mr Joyce should be doing that this weekend.

"Mr Turnbull should not be going to America until this has been sorted out."

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten called on Mr Turnbull to sack Mr Joyce - which he knows the PM cannot do.