Australia is contemplating a national debate on morals in public office after the prime minister banned sex between ministers and staff.
Malcolm Turnbull’s move came as he castigated his deputy for a “shocking error of judgment” by having an affair with a press secretary, creating a “world of woe” for the women in his life.
It follows revelations that Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce – who campaigned on “family values” and was married for 24 years – is expecting a child with his former employee.
Debate has raged in Canberra over whether the revelations were in the public interest. Joyce’s wife pointed out that their family life had been shared during her husband’s political career.
Malcolm Turnbull has said “values should be lived” in public life.
On Thursday, Turnbull denounced the affair after a week which has shaken his centre-right government and strained the coalition between his Liberal Party and Joyce’s National Party. The government has only a one-seat majority.
The deputy prime minister has not been sacked. However, Turnbull said his deputy was taking some personal leave and would “have to consider his own position” as National Party leader.
The scandal meant it was time for overdue changes to ministerial contact rules, the prime minister said. New standards would be introduced “as of today”.
“In 2018, it is not acceptable for a minister to have a sexual relationship with somebody who works for them. It is a very bad workplace practice. And everybody knows that no good comes of it,” Malcolm Turnbull said.
“Ministers, regardless of whether they are married or single, must not engage in sexual relations with staff. Doing so will constitute a breach of the standards.”
The prime minister’s action has been praised for taking on gender and calling out power imbalances in politics. However, it has also brought warnings that it could lead to widespread judgments over relationships.
Support for Barnaby Joyce has slumped in his rural constituency, according to one opinion poll. He also faces pressure over his failure to declare the relationship with his former staffer, Vikki Campion, when she was hired for two highly-paid government positions outside his office. Joyce has said he did not break any rules as she was not his “partner” at the time.
Questions have also been raised about the possible misuse of public funds relating to arrangements between Joyce and a businessman friend. Greg Maguire provided accommodation for Joyce when he separated from his wife. In 2016 a function at a hotel owned by Maguire was reportedly paid for by the government.
The Senate passed a motion on Thursday calling for Barnaby Joyce to resign or be sacked. In an unusual move, he will not be standing in for Turnbull when the prime minister visits Washington next week.