JUDGE me by my work ethic, policy vision for regional Australians and delivery record for farmers - but stay out of my “private” affairs; even if some of it overlaps with hefty responsibilities like being the Agriculture and Water Resources Minister.
That’s the inside word from embattled Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce who says he “never expected a gold star” for the controversial revelations this week about his personal and political affairs which have subsequently dominated the national spotlight.
Mr Joyce spoke exclusively to Fairfax Media after facing probably the toughest test of his 13-year political career so far, due to a media report which broke the story about his personal involvement with one-time political staffer and media adviser Vikki Campion.
That article got tongues wagging and sent social media into melt-down after it featured a front page picture of Ms Campion, claiming she was pregnant with My Joyce’s baby and the couple were now living together and expecting a child at some stage in April.
In response, Mr Joyce spoke live on ABC television that evening, refusing to confirm or deny the accuracy of the reported relationship; instead side-stepping the critical question to say he wanted to “make sure that private matters remain private”.
He avoided further media appearances during the first sitting week of federal parliament for 2018 as the controversy raged, igniting a ferocious public debate about the ethics of reporting on politicians’ “private” matters, in the national interest.
Mr Joyce spoke to Fairfax Media at length answering questions about the central issues, before leaving Canberra and returning to his New England electorate yesterday.
He again denied any wrongdoing over the use and allocation of taxpayer funds in the running of his ministerial office, while serving in the agricultural portfolio.
He also dismissed suggestions of any misappropriation in subsequent roles Ms Campion was appointed to working for other Nationals members, after being moved out of the leaders’ office, following Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s intervention last year.
Mr Turnbull was asked about his involvement in the staffing matters yesterday saying to reporters, “you are rushing to facts and assertions” in regards to whether or not and when he intervened on Ms Campion’s employment, in Mr Joyce’s office.
He said it was “a deeply personal matter relating to Barnaby Joyce and his family and I do not wish to add to the public discussion about it”.
Mr Turnbull said he was also “not aware of any inappropriate expenditure of public funds”.
Amid calls for his resignation, raised in various forms of subsequent media and social media commentary, Mr Joyce denied the scandal would now terminate his Nationals leadership or that the relationship, which subsequently ended his 24-year marriage to wife Natalie who he shares four daughters with, had damaged and tarnished the party’s image, with female voters and irrevocably broken trust.
Asked if could continue as Nationals leader following this week’s events, Mr Joyce said “Yes, of course”.
Asked if there’d been any brand damage inflicted on his party and if they’d had now lost female voter support over the affair, he said “No”.
“We continue on with our job and it’s just the same as everything else now - it’s about outcomes,” he said.
“People look at the agriculture prices they’re getting, they look at the infrastructure we’re building (and) they look at our vision for the nation.
“We’ve clearly set out our vision for a sealed road from the top of Cape York to the bottom of Australia, from east to west from Cairns through to Perth, for the inland rail, to create a corridor of commerce.
“These are the things that actually make a difference in peoples’ lives and that’s what I’m concentrating on.”
Mr Joyce also denied the relationship with a political staffer had distracted or detracted from his ministerial duties and ongoing performance in delivering policy outcomes for agriculture.
“We continue to do our job and I say the same thing to everybody - personal issues are precisely that, personal,” he said.
“I never expected a gold star but I think everybody in life knows that life is a precarious and at times rough and tumble thing.
“And this is it and it’s what everybody else does - they go back to work and continue working and that’s precisely what I’m doing.
“We’re charging ahead on the inland rail - we’ve already unloaded the steel at Peak Hill.
“I was up at the Warrego (Highway) the other day where we’re opening up a new road to Western Queensland.
“We’re continuing on with our work on dams - we’re close to finalising the Rookwood Weir - and we’re continuing on with other water projects like the Malpas Dam to Guyra pipeline and the Northern Adelaide recycled irrigation scheme.
“These are all vitally important projects and so is the Laverton to Winton (Outback Road) to seal the third road across our nation.”
“Everything has been FIO’d to death”
Asked if he was comfortable that there were no improprieties in terms of travel arrangements and pay-rates regarding Ms Campion’s time working for the Nationals, the party leader made a forthright statement.
“I can go beyond that and say everything has been FIO’d (Freedom of Information request) to death and you know that, and I’ll just keep my personal life private,” he said.
So what does the future hold for Mr Joyce and can he survive this latest chapter in his often outrageous political career, which adds weight to other recent incidents like being presented with a $40,000 cheque for being a “champion” of agriculture, by Australia’s richest woman Gina Rinehart, on National Agriculture Day and his dual citizenship disqualification?
Mr Joyce said the Coalition government had had a “very good run at agriculture” during his time in the ministerial role that he started in after the 2013 federal election and held up to the end of last year, following a ministerial re-shuffle where he took on Infrastructure and Transport.
“I think everyone would acknowledge, that as one of the longest serving agriculture ministers in history, we’ve had incredibly good results,” he said.
“In the commodity prices - I started (as Agriculture Minister) by saying I wanted to get a better return back to the farm-gate and we got it and we managed to do some substantial things like the Agricultural White Paper and free trade agreements.
“The only response I was getting was people wanted me to stay with agriculture but there are other jobs to do now.
“I’m really excited about the major infrastructure projects for our nation because I truly believe the next (strategic challenge) for agriculture is to try to catch up to where other countries are at, like the US and China.
“I want us to be like China and the US and everywhere else that’s upgrading their infrastructure requirements to meet the movement of bulk commodities such as grain, such as cotton, such as minerals.
“These things have to happen for us to take the next step forward and using the inland rail as a metaphor, it’d been talked about for so many years, it was just never done, but now we’re doing it.”
Mr Joyce’s message for farmers, farm leaders and regional Australians concerned about his political future, in the wake of this week’s pressure-cooker challenge, was “I don’t think anybody’s ever doubted my capacity to work”.
Despite the unprecedented pressure caused by scandals like this latest one, Ms Rinehart’s bizarre $40,000 cheque presentation and his dual citizenship disqualification, Mr Joyce is confident he can continue to lead the Nationals.
“We’re doing it right now - we are driving agendas every day and that’s precisely what I do,” he said.
Farm sector’s fears
It’s understood Ms Campion came to work in Mr Joyce’s ministerial office, after working for him on campaign staff during the 2016 federal election, having previously worked as a journalist and then for the NSW Nationals in the office of former leader Troy Grant.
Speculation about the relationship has been widespread within the farm sector for an extended period of time with questions and fears raised about whether it has impacted on Mr Joyce’s capacity to perform his ministerial duties and personal well-being.
That background chatter has intensified in recent months; especially after the Nationals leader was disqualified from federal parliament last year, following his dual NZ citizenship revelation, and faced a subsequent by-election to reclaim his New England electorate.
Around the New England contest late last year, Mr Joyce’s prime political foe and one-time New England independent MP Tony Windsor started to raise major allegations on social media, about matters relating to Mr Joyce’s personal and political conduct, which mostly remain unproven.
Despite the seriousness of Mr Windsor’s claims and his ongoing commentary on Twitter, and baiting media to investigate what are often cryptic statements which have led to a wide range of actions - such as FIO requests and investigations into various claims including at the Rural Women’s Awards in Canberra in 2011 or 2012 - Mr Joyce is unlikely to take legal action, at this time, to address the attacks.
The fish rots from the head ...the fish has a headache ...the smell will attract ...— Tony Windsor (@TonyHWindsor) February 7, 2018
He is also confident the media reporting will eventually die down, even within days, and the focus will once again return to public policy matters, like rolling out the $8.4 billion inland rail, to deliver farm produce to port more efficiently and affordably, in his role as Transport and Infrastructure Minister.
But Mr Joyce’s party colleagues have expressed strong private views about the latest scandal, with none, spoken to by Fairfax Media, welcoming the affair which has attracted unwelcome media attention and intense public focus and negative scrutiny, on the rural, conservative party.
“It’s the affair that could bring down the government and the worst kept secret in Australia,” said one senior party member who asked not to be named, for fear of retribution, late last year.
Most all federal members of parliament stood united by the view that Mr Joyce’s matters should remain “private” when quizzed by reporters this week, including Opposition leader Bill Shorten.
“There are too many glass houses in this building (Parliament House) – nobody’s going to take action and do anything serious about this,” one source said.
Mr Shorten was asked yesterday if he believed there was anything inappropriate about Ms Campion's appointment to the office of Northern Australia and Resources Minister Matt Canavan, after she was moved there, from Mr Joyce’s office.
“I said on day one, that Barnaby Joyce's private life is his business,” he said.
“I've never been one to moralise about other people's relationships and I'm not about to start now, and I certainly feel for everyone.
“I mean to have this dragged out in the public, it's hard.
“I don't know any more about that than you or the media reports.
“I think it would be wise of Mr Turnbull to reassure the Australian public that nothing untoward has occurred here.
Mr Shorten said he wasn’t going to give Mr Joyce advice.
“But what I would say is that families are complicated,” he said.
“I've learnt a long time ago not to stand in judgement.
“Politicians, we should be up there talking about policy and jobs.
“I'm not about to start giving you life advice about your relationships and I'm not going to do that to Mr Joyce either.”
Mr Shorten also responded to the proposal raised by Victorian independent MP Cathy McGowan to try to tighten workplace standards between politicians and their staff, believing current laws are out of touch with other areas of modern society, live private enterprise.
The Labor leader said “We understand what's driving that debate - it's another way to talk about Barnaby Joyce's matters, so I'm pretty reluctant to throw any more fuel on the fire”.
“What I will say about workplaces is that modern workplaces should have equal opportunity policies, they should be safe places of work, you should be free from harassment - but I'm not going to use that issue as a backdoor way to give Barnaby Joyce anymore analysis, because…frankly, his life, his business,” he said.
Mr Windsor has said his Tweets about Mr Joyce in recent times are an attempt to attack his political rival’s views on marriage.
“Some of those tweets were short upper cuts to remind him of his own public and private conduct to not be out there preaching the gospel to others and causing a lot of pain, particularly to those in same-sex relationships,” he told media.
But reports also said Mr Windsor believed politicians are entitled to their private lives, “Unless they’re having an impact on performance of public duties”.
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