RATHER than showing contrition, Barnaby Joyce went on the attack yesterday against the man he let down.
RATHER than showing contrition, Barnaby Joyce went on the attack yesterday against the man he let down. LUKAS COCH

Barnaby Joyce's time has come

PRIME Minister Malcolm Turnbull's belated display of leadership in the Barnaby Joyce affair should fool no-one except perhaps his Treasurer Scott Morrison but even he, I suspect, is having us on.

The construct Mr Turnbull presented late Thursday afternoon was an indication of how deeply damaging the matter had become for the government and the clear test it presented to his leadership and authority.

No one should be under any illusion that the affair between Joyce and his employee, her deployment from one Minister to another after Joyce resigned over the citizenship imbroglio and his claim for 50 nights' accommodation in Canberra while Parliament was not sitting, represented a serious breach of Ministerial Standards meant to protect the Prime Minister from scandal.

Mr Joyce's responsibility as a Minister and more so as Mr Turnbull's Deputy, was to uphold confidence in the government and to immediately inform the Prime Minister of any change of circumstance that may impact that confidence.

Mr Turnbull is wrong and knows it when he claims the standards in their current form did not "speak strongly enough to the values that we should all live" as justification for introduction of the so-called "no-bonking" rule.

A conversation I had with the author of those standards this week, ethics expert Howard Whitton, made that patently clear.

I had sought him out to ask whether on reflection he felt he could have tightened the standards' definition of 'partner' given that was being perceived as the loophole through which Barnaby could escape censure.

I was not the first to have called him with the same question. In fact he was on the phone when I first called providing senior Labor figures with the same advice he gave me.

Mr Whitton said the standards were an aspirational code that set high standards to obtain, not minimum rules with which to comply.

In other words they spoke to leadership and integrity, something that is made clear in the preamble Mr Turnbull signed off on when he chose to adopt them following the lead of every one of his predecessors since they were introduced by Kevin Rudd in 2007.

It states "Ministers and Assistant Ministers are entrusted with the conduct of public business and must act in a manner that is consistent with the highest standards of integrity and propriety".

There's a reason for that; elected officials at that level are not like the rest of us, are provided enormous benefits of office and are meant to lead.

Leadership is clearly not about seeking loopholes in definitions to avoid censure and by any measure Joyce's behaviour did not pass the pub test the standards were intended to set.

After its call to Mr Whitton, Labor's attack shifted to Mr Turnbull's leadership and Barnaby Joyce was doomed.

The Prime Minister either had to uphold the standards of integrity he had committed to or weakly accept the disrespect his Coalition partner had shown for his office.

Mr Turnbull's claim there were deficiencies in the code of conduct that he would now address is no more than a smokescreen for his failure to act immediately he became aware that a married Minister - his deputy no less - had conducted an affair with a staffer, behaviour which by any definition was not consistent with the highest standards of integrity and propriety.

The truth is Mr Turnbull has been paralysed in his own leadership by the demands of his party's far right and clearly now a junior Coalition partner that can't be trusted.

Scott Morrison may well praise the Prime Minister for his "extraordinary leadership and strength" claiming in the process that Mr Turnbull "gave one of the strongest statements I have heard for marriage in my experience".

But that's at best also a construct designed to defend a leader who has yet again been slow to stamp his authority, and to direct attention from the clearly fragile partnership that represents our federal government's tenuous hold on power.

If Mr Joyce had for one moment reflected on his responsibility to the Prime Minister, as National Party leader and father of four girls he would not be in the situation he now finds himself. That he didn't, renders him unfit for the office he holds. The National Party now has to decide, and should do so quickly, whether Mr Joyce is "the brand" that reflects its values.