After enduring probably the worst question time any government has had in living memory yesterday, Malcolm Turnbull needed to do something about Barnaby Joyce. He’d already twisted his deputy’s arm into taking leave next week, thus removing the national and international embarrassment of having Joyce as its acting leader. But after question time, something bigger was needed. Much bigger.

On Wednesday, Labor had — to borrow a phrase from Speaker Tony Smith (who has, just quietly, played a blinder this week) — got a little cute in linking Joyce’s asinine claim that housing affordability in major cities could be addressed by people moving to Armidale, with his rent-free accommodation from his mate Greg Maguire. But after Joyce presented Labor with the gift of insisting to Parliament he had never approached Maguire, and with a new charge to pursue relating to an Agriculture Department stakeholder function (not, as libellously claimed on Radio National this morning, a fundraiser) held at a property owned by Maguire, the opposition was ruthless.

Bill Shorten left much of the work to his lieutenants — Mark Dreyfus, Chris Bowen, Albo. It was to a question from Bowen that Turnbull endured what surely must have been the most painfully embarrassing moment of his prime ministership, 90 seconds at the Dispatch Box alternately turning to Joyce for help (he appeared to offer none), scrolling through his iPad for information, enduring heckling from Labor MPs and responding to the jibes half-heartedly, as if in a kind of fugue. You could hardly blame him, given the hell Joyce has put him through for the last eight days. Labor didn’t bother with an attempted censure motion. Maybe it was derailed by Joyce’s convenient leave-taking. But it didn’t need any stunt. It had comprehensively monstered the government.

[Joyce on the bring after trainwreck question time]

With parliament about to rise for 11 days, Turnbull appeared in the Prime Minister’s Courtyard late in the afternoon, with the goal of trying to draw a line under the matter, in two ways. The first, to announce the start of a process of amending the Statement of Ministerial Standards, starting with a ban on sex with staff members. The second, to signal about as explicitly as he could that, if he couldn’t sack Joyce because of his party’s coalition deal with the Nationals, he was going to publicly indicate his lack of confidence in the man’s judgment and morals.

The bonk ban backflip, as it may be termed — only six days before, Turnbull had rejected such an idea out of hand — probably isn’t a bad call, on balance. But it’s a fine balance. The Turnbull of last Friday is correct — adults should be responsible for their actions, rather than the state having to regulate relationships. And how exactly such a ban will be enforced is unclear. But when it comes to power relationships, they don’t get more lopsided than between a minister and a staffer.

Ministerial staff have fewer workplace rights than most workers in either the private sector or the public service. It’s also a workplace where the boundaries between the professional and personal blur. People often work for ministers because they’re believers in the party cause, or at least eager apparatchiks. The hours are extraordinarily long, especially in sitting weeks. Your time is not your own — if the minister needs you, you need to be there for them.

And political workplaces — whether electorate offices, or ministerial suites in Canberra — are notoriously toxic for bullying, reflecting the egos involved and the often intense pressures exerted by politics. Many politicians and chiefs of staff, of course, are excellent managers. But some are thugs and bullies. Removing relationships from such workplaces is probably not a bad idea.

Once he’d committed to this idea, Turnbull had no choice but to give Joyce a bucketing. There was no way he could credibly announce such a standard without reflecting on the exact circumstances that had brought it about. And National MPs — who are the ones who have inflicted more damage on this government than anyone else, including Labor — might be furious about the public bucketing the Prime Minister gave Joyce. But who screwed up their citizenship? It was mostly Nats, including Joyce and his former deputy. Which MPs routinely threaten to leave the government? The Nats. And the Nats have locked in behind a leader who is not so much damaged goods as a tangled pile of junk on the political roadside. They don’t get to set standards of political behaviour for anyone else, especially not the Prime Minister of Australia.

So, now, the private lives of ministers are fair game for the media if they involve staff members. That might delight some journalists, who can see a succession of political sex scandals in the offing. But if we’re applying that standard to ministers, maybe we should be applying the same standard to journalists who want to write such stories. If it’s in the public interest to out ministerial personal lives, maybe it’s in the public interest to do the same to those who would judge them.

Peter Fray

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