Does Barnaby Joyce’s Affair Pass The Centrelink Test?

One rule for us, another rule for them.

Barnaby Joyce

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There’s a lot going on in the wash up of Barnaby Joyce’s affair, and there are strong signs suggesting the Deputy Prime Minister won’t survive the week.

One of the biggest problems facing Joyce is the suggestion that the ministerial code of conduct may have been breached when his girlfriend and former staffer, Vikki Campion, was shifted to the offices of various Nationals MPs after the affair became common knowledge within the party.

Campion left Joyce’s office in April 2017 and moved to a newly created role in the office of fellow National Matt Canavan, who is one of Joyce’s closest colleagues. Canavan later stood aside as a minister, which led Campion to move into the office of Damian Drum, the chief Nationals whip.

When Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was questioned about the scandal, he said in a statement that staffing within the Nationals was a matter for the party.

But not according to the Statement of Ministerial Standards. The document, which is supposed to govern ministerial behaviour, has a pretty clear clause relating to the employment of partners of ministers.

Section 2.23 of the standards says that “Ministers’ close relatives and partners are not to be appointed to positions in their ministerial or electorate offices, and must not be employed in the offices of other members of the Executive Government without the Prime Minister’s express approval”

Given that Joyce and Campion were having an affair at the time, which was the catalyst for the staffing reshuffle, that strongly implies the Prime Minister would have needed to approve the hiring process. But when Fairfax asked the PM’s office for clarification, a spokesperson said “the Deputy Prime Minister did not breach the ministerial code of conduct because Ms Campion was not his partner at the time of the staff appointments.”

You Can Have A “Mistress”, But Not A Wife

According to Turnbull’s office, despite the fact that Campion and Joyce were in a relationship, the pair weren’t technically “partners” because Joyce was still officially with his wife, therefore negating the application of the ministerial standards. It’s a pretty weird excuse, but does it stack up?

Back in 2016 Liberal senator Ian Macdonald actually highlighted this bizarre loophole in the ministerial standards. Macdonald was riled up about the fact that he was no longer able to employ his wife under a new set of rules.

“What I find intolerable is that because my wife happens to be married to me, she is unable to be paid for the work which she continues to do for me,” he said. “I reiterate that if rather than my wife, I was employing a mistress, that would be in order. It appears that simply because my wife is married to me she is precluded from receiving payment from her work.”

The situation was entirely hypothetical when Macdonald made that point, but now with Joyce’s affair we’ve got a real world case study.

A lot of people have pointed out that while the PM might have been generous to Joyce in terms of how the standards have been applied, certain government agencies, like Centrelink for example, might not be as gracious. Centrelink is notorious for monitoring the living habits of welfare recipients, including relationship status, in order to bump people onto lower payments.

What Does Centrelink Actually Say?

The main criteria Centrelink applies to assess whether welfare recipients are in a relationship, outside of whether they’re married or in a registered relationship, is their living situation.

But obviously the agency can’t just assume that any two people living together are a couple, so it also takes into account financial aspects of your relationship, the nature of your household, social aspects of your relationship, if you have a sexual relationship, and the nature of your commitment to each other.

A lot of these are pretty vague and presumably designed to give Centrelink plenty of scope to make rulings.

At the time of the staffing merry-go-round, Joyce and Campion weren’t living together, even though they were conducting an affair, which makes it harder to establish whether they would be considered “partners” — but we can be very certain that they met at least one of the criteria.

But now that Joyce is formally separated from his wife, living with Campion, and the sole income-earner in the household, it is much clearer that they would be considered partners.

Even if the PM is technically right that Campion couldn’t be considered Joyce’s partner at the time, it’s understandable that people are pointing out an apparent hypocrisy. As we learnt from the #FakeDebt saga, Centrelink doesn’t tend to give people the benefit of the doubt. They act first and ask questions later.

So to see politicians come up with ways to protect each other, even though everyone involved clearly knew Joyce and Campion were having an affair, is pretty jarring.

More importantly, this whole situation points to a glaring problem in the ministerial standards.