Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, left, listens to Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce during Question Time for the House of Representatives in Canberra on Feb. 14. (Mick Tsikas/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Australia's government is in a battle with itself this week after the country's deputy prime minister refused to quit over an affair with a staff member and suggested that his coalition partner boss — Australia's prime minister — was “inept” in his handling of the scandal.

The unusual public split between Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull could potentially threaten the coalition government, which is led by the Liberal Party and has a junior partner in the National Party. Even with the coalition, the government has a fragile majority of just one seat.

The war of words began Thursday, when Turnbull issued a blistering criticism of Joyce's office affair with a woman almost 20 years his junior, calling it a “shocking error of judgment” that had hurt Joyce's wife and four daughters. “He has set off a world of woe for those women and appalled all of us,” Turnbull told reporters.

Joyce, leader of the National Party, was well-known in Australia as a staunch defender of family values and a vocal critic of same-sex marriage. However, it was revealed last week that the 50-year-old Joyce was expecting a baby with the 33-year-old former staffer with whom he is now living.

Though Turnbull had initially stood by his deputy, his stance changed this week. At a news conference Thursday, Turnbull said that in light of the affair, he would amend the ministerial code of conduct to restrict sexual relationships between ministers and their staff.

“I've today added to these standards a very clear and unequivocal provision: Ministers, regardless of whether they are married or single, must not engage in sexual relations with their staff,” he said. The move came a week after the U.S. House of Representatives similarly voted to bar sexual relationships between lawmakers and their staff members, after a heated debate about how Congress should handle such allegations involving lawmakers.

Some Australian analysts noted that both the initial reporting of Joyce's affair and Turnbull's reaction to it showed that politicians' private lives, long off-limits for reporters, were now under intense scrutiny. “Australian politics are about to get more American,” Australian journalist and radio host Richard Glover wrote for The Washington Post this week, adding that in the case of Joyce's affair, most in the country welcomed the change.

Turnbull said Friday that Joyce would no longer take over as head of government when the prime minister visits the United States next week, instead telling reporters Friday that Joyce “has taken some leave, and he is considering his position.” His comments were widely interpreted in Australia as a request for his deputy to step down.


Barnaby Joyce arrives for a news conference at Parliament House in Canberra on Feb. 16. (Lukas Coch/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Joyce has so far refused to consider that move, however; instead, he has fired back. Speaking to journalists in Canberra on Friday, the deputy prime minister said that Turnbull's comments had “caused further harm” in many instances.

“I believe they were in many instances inept and most definitely in many instances unnecessary,” Joyce told reporters. “All that is going to do is basically pull the scab off for everybody to have a look at.”

For many Australians, the issue is less about sex between a minister and his subordinate than the allegations of financial corruption that go with it. Joyce's former staffer and mistress, Vikki Campion, was shuttled around different jobs in Parliament after the affair began. It later emerged that the couple were living rent-free in an apartment owned by a wealthy businessman, which some critics called a breach of ministerial standards.

The scandal exposed deep rifts in the long-standing conservative coalition between the Liberal and National parties.

The former is one of Australia's two major parties, and generally promotes a modern, urban form of economic liberalism that Turnbull — a Sydney-born, Oxford-educated former banker and lawyer — exemplifies. However, for almost a century, the Liberal Party has formed coalitions with the National Party and its predecessors. Politicians like Joyce, who often wears a bush hat in public appearances and who once made headlines by calling for Johnny Depp's dogs to be euthanized, have helped find rural supporters for the conservative government.

Australia analysts have noted that though Turnbull cannot fire Joyce, he could ask the National Party to sack him — something it has already indicated it would not do. If push came to shove, the Australian prime minister could even break the coalition with Joyce's Nationals, though such a decision could cause political chaos in Australia, an awkward prospect in a country that has had four separate heads of government in the past decade.

Opposition leader Bill Shorten told reporters Friday that neither man was fit for his job.

“Yesterday, Mr. Turnbull declared war on Mr. Joyce. Today, Mr. Joyce has declared war on Mr. Turnbull,” Shorten said. “Australians have every reason to be angry and frustrated when the two most senior Australian leaders are not focused on anything other than their own jobs.”

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