Barnaby Joyce watched the prime minister’s press conference on TV with molten fury, his weathervane face deepening in colour from scarlet to crimson.
“I was furious,” the then-deputy prime minister recalls.
“I didn’t see him as a prime minister. I just saw him as an idiot.”
By February 2018, Malcolm Turnbull and Joyce had been in a political partnership for two years, the former big city lawyer and merchant banker and the erstwhile pub bouncer and bush accountant enjoying an unlikely friendship.
“At the start, Turnbull and I got along splendidly,” says Joyce. “I was a crucial part of Malcolm’s Praetorian Guard … I protected him. I really did.”
“We were off to a great start in 2018,” recalls Turnbull. “The government was going well. We were polling well. People were feeling very positive. Then, BOOM!”
Walking out into the prime minister’s courtyard in February 2018 to front the media, Turnbull was going to deal with that “BOOM!” head-on.
In front of the entire country, Turnbull denounced his deputy over his extramarital relationship with a staffer, Vikki Campion.
The affair had become public in the most humiliating of ways – with a front-page splash in The Daily Telegraph, complete with an awkward photo of a pregnant Campion crossing the road under the headline “BUNDLE OF JOYCE”.
“Barnaby made a shocking error of judgement in having an affair with a young woman working in his office,” Turnbull declared to the media throng.
“In doing so he has set off a world of woe for [his wife and daughters] and appalled all of us.”
Joyce remembers: “I just thought, obviously this is terminal. Our relationship’s terminal now. It’s all over.”
‘I definitely lied to him’
In an interview for the ABC political docuseries Nemesis about the nine years of Coalition government, Joyce describes Turnbull as a “shithead” when reflecting on the episode.
At his February 2018 media conference, Turnbull also announced a ban on ministers having sexual relationships with their staff, a rule that would be jokingly dubbed the “bonk ban” by the media.
“People are saying, ‘Well, we are paying you to go to Canberra to work and run the country. We’re not paying you to go and get drunk and have love affairs with your staff,'” recalls Turnbull.
“So I thought, ‘We should spell it out.'”
Listening to Turnbull’s press conference that day, Joyce knew the prime minister was genuinely upset by his affair with Campion.
Nine months earlier, in May 2017, the deputy had fibbed when the prime minister had called him to his office and confronted him about the rumours doing the rounds.
Turnbull says Sharri Markson, then a reporter for The Daily Telegraph, had been asking questions about a report she had heard that Joyce had been spotted with Campion, then his media assistant, in a Canberra doctor’s surgery.
“The insinuation, of course, was that she was pregnant,” recounts Turnbull.
After calling him to his office, Joyce says Turnbull peppered him with questions.
“Are you in a relationship with Vikki? Is this right?” Joyce recalls Turnbull asking.
“I definitely lied to him because it wasn’t his right to know.”
Joyce remembers asking Turnbull a few questions of his own. “How many other people in this building are you asking about their personal life? I can nominate a few. Where do you want to start?”
Turning from the live press conference on the TV in his office, Joyce walked over to the window.
“I open the louvres of my window and see him out in the courtyard,” says Joyce. “And then I immediately leave the room and go around and confront him about it.”
Joyce didn’t just want to confront Turnbull. He wanted him to feel his fury.
“In my previous life I’d been a bouncer in a pub, and I was very close to returning to that field of endeavour. Because I was thinking, ‘You can’t do stuff like that mate.'”
As he arrived at the prime minister’s office, Joyce almost ran into the treasurer, Scott Morrison, walking out.
“I said, ‘What on earth was that about?'” Joyce remembers telling Turnbull.
“That is inept. Why are you involving yourself in my personal life?”
“I strongly believe it was a plan by Morrison to get rid of me … to create chaos, to peel me off from Turnbull or to completely break down the relationship.
“I think he was an instigator of the bonk ban. I think Turnbull’s the narrator of it and Morrison was the architect of it.”
‘You look for people to blame’
“That’s nonsense. It was Malcolm’s idea,” says Morrison. “But I can tell you what. He had a very enthusiastic supporter in me around that table.
“I’ve been around Canberra a long time. I know it goes on and it destroys families. And this was a sensible, mature safeguard in an executive government.
“He was under an enormous amount of strain in his personal life, and then his professional life collapsed as a result,” says Morrison. “And you look for people to blame.”
“Barnaby has been paranoid about Scott Morrison for as long as I’ve known Barnaby and Scott Morrison,” says Turnbull.
“But no, the bonk ban was absolutely my initiative. Scott did support it.”
The Daily Telegraph splash showing a pregnant Campion had set off a media firestorm.
For the deputy prime minister, it was the most pressure he’d felt in his life.
“It was a nightmare. At the worst, we were locked in a house and people were having to put food under a gate at the back of this place to try and get food into us. Couldn’t leave. Cameras everywhere,” he says.
“We had them shooting in front of us, beside us and behind us. And they were going for the head.”
Later in February 2018, the two-year partnership between Turnbull and Joyce unravelled completely when the deputy prime minister and National Party leader resigned after a sexual harassment complaint was lodged against him by a West Australian woman.
On the outer, Turnbull’s self-appointed chief Praetorian Guard was now a confirmed enemy.
“Barnaby made it pretty clear that he was going to do as much as he could to take revenge,” says Turnbull.
“I certainly wasn’t going to be helping Malcolm Turnbull, let’s put it that way,” says Joyce.
“I remember saying to other people, you know after I go, within three months he’ll be gone.”
Joyce was right on one count, and wrong on another.
Turnbull’s days were numbered, but he would hang on for another six months after the demise of his deputy before his internal enemies tore him down.
Looking back on the episode for Nemesis, Joyce re-watched the painful press conference that almost had him returning to his former pursuit as a pub bouncer.
“It hurts,” he says as he watches the video of Turnbull in the prime ministerial courtyard that day in February 2018.
Then Joyce begins to talk directly to the screen and his old friend.
“I mean you mightn’t like me but there is another person involved and you’re sort of giving your own … moral repertoire as [though] you’re a person without sin … shithead.”
Watch episode 2 of the ABC’s political docuseries Nemesis from 8pm Monday on ABC TV and iview. Catch up on episode one now on iview.