Barnaby Joyce and Malcolm Turnbull reflect on how ‘bonk ban’ blew up their political partnership

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.”

The prime minister and deputy prime minister in parliament in October 2017, and campaigning together in Joyce’s seat of New England in December 2017.(ABC News: Jed Cooper / AAP: Tracey Nearmy)

“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”.

The Daily Telegraph front page from February 7, 2018, revealing the affair, and Joyce and Campion at Canberra airport a few weeks later.(Daily Telegraph / Newspix: Kym Smith)

“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.

Malcolm Turnbull told his press conference Joyce had made “a shocking error of judgment” in having the affair.(ABC News: Jed Cooper)

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.”

Barnaby Joyce admits he didn’t tell Turnbull the truth about the affair when the prime minister asked him about it nine months before it became public.(ABC News: Ryan Sheridan)

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.'”

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