–Malcolm Turnbull has adopted the persona of a 19th century priest

February 15, 2018

This now formalises an important change in community standards. It also recognises the tremendous loss of people’s trust in politicians. When trust goes, rules are required.

And it implies more change to come. Because Turnbull’s rule change carries an inherent lack of trust in his ministers’ judgment, and means other regulation is required.

For instance, he has barred ministers from sex with their staff, but what about the other 180 or so members of parliament and senators? They all have staff members. And there is a power imbalance between every MP and his – or her – aides. This must surely be regulated too.

And if ministers and MPs can’t be trusted in their personal conduct on sex, then what about their conduct on corruption?

And what about the other quarter-million Commonwealth employees? The argument for a federal ICAC – first proposed by the Greens and now Labor too – is irresistible.

And while the Prime Minister seized the moment of national outcry over Barnaby Joyce to assert moral leadership, he lacked the raw power to take the logical next step – demand Joyce’s resignation.

He dared not confront the realpolitik: although Joyce is his deputy, he is deputy by dint of the fact that he is leader of the Nationals, and the Nationals elect their own leader. Turnbull was not prepared to risk upsetting his junior coalition partner.

So it’s a feeble kind of moral leadership, damning Joyce’s conduct but accepting his incumbency.

The best Turnbull could do was to “encourage” Joyce to take a week’s leave to “reflect”, to “seek forgiveness and understanding,” as Father Turnbull put it.

And by agreeing to take leave, Joyce has conceded that he can no longer fulfil his official responsibilities.

If the Deputy Prime Minister cannot act as Prime Minister in Malcolm Turnbull’s absence overseas, he is not doing his job.

His attempt to tough out the uproar over his marital troubles has now failed, and failed by his own admission. It doesn’t matter whether taking leave at his own initiative or at the behest of his Prime Minister, it’s an implicit statement of no confidence.

More than any of his private failures, more than any media sensationalisms or opposition accusations of the last week, Joyce’s self-disqualification is the greatest disqualifier yet. It turned out that Joyce wasn’t tough enough to tough it out.

He can probably limp along for a while yet, but the Nationals need to now start a quiet process of thinking about leadership succession.

Condemned by his Prime Minister, given a week off to “reflect” on his conduct, Joyce has been declared, in effect, an artifact of a bygone era.

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