Just as the worst appeared to be over for Barnaby Joyce, he may well have dug himself even deeper into trouble this morning in his response to Labor’s focus on his free accommodation.
After his party locked in behind him yesterday, at least for the moment, and a round of endorsements from his deputy Bridget McKenzie and backbenchers, Joyce appeared set to at least make it to the end of the sitting week still in his job. Parliament rises this afternoon and Joyce is scheduled to be acting Prime Minister next week while Malcolm Turnbull again travels to the US to see Donald Trump.
Labor, however, has shifted focus from the apparent breach of standards in relation to the employment of his now-partner in other offices to an apparent breach of standards relating to the prohibition on the soliciting of gifts — in this case, free accommodation provided by Joyce’s friend, millionaire Greg Maguire.
Joyce insisted to Parliament this morning that “Mr Maguire approached me, as did many other friends, approached me, to offer support.” However, Maguire has told News Corp journalists that Joyce had asked him for a place to stay.
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Joyce may not be in breach of ministerial standards because he was not a member of Parliament or a minister at the time, and thus free to solicit gifts or breach any other section of the government’s standards as much as he liked. Moreover, Maguire and Joyce both say he offered to pay for the Armidale townhouse he is staying in, which makes it an unlikely “gift”.
But misleading parliament is still — at least notionally — a sacking offence, and Joyce’s defence that he didn’t approach Maguire, if contradicted by the facts, will continue the saga beyond parliament today. It would also be characteristically sloppy of Joyce, who has no grasp of detail and apparently limited capacity to think through consequences.
So far the government and Joyce have relied on the technicalities that Campion was not Joyce’s partner when Matt Canavan employed her, that Damian Drum was not a minister when he employed her and that Joyce did not have to declare the accommodation in appropriate detail because he wasn’t an MP when it was provided. The continued reliance on technicalities to avoid the sacking of Joyce won’t play well with the electorate, and guarantees more stories will emerge.