Abandoning his family for love is not playing out well in the electorate, writes DANIELLE GUSMAROLI
Barnaby Joyce was more ruddy-faced than usual during the dusty New England by-election. The normally rumbustious Deputy Prime Minister had hit the campaign trail hard, focused on reclaiming his seat after being ousted in a High Court decision over his New Zealand citizenship.
Privately, and perhaps more crucially, the reality was that the stress compounded by the turmoil in his complicated personal life was showing amid rumours he had quit the marital home in Loomberah, south of Tamworth, and was living on his parents’ cattle and sheep farm near Woolbrook, about an hour’s drive to the northeast.
Joyce had come under intense media scrutiny, knowing he was risking his career over sex and was battling to keep his fractured private life under his signature Akubra.
The Joyce women – his wife Natalie and daughters Bridgette, Julia, Caroline and Odette, in their teens and twenties – had always rallied around the family patriarch, supporting him in previous elections. But this time they were nowhere to be seen as the campaign rolled on and Joyce was dogged by whispers of an extramarital affair.
Joyce, 50, it was whispered along the corridors of power, had turned his back on his family after falling “madly in love” with a former member of staff, Vikki Campion, 33.
Intriguingly, he was accompanied by his mother as he cast his vote – not the wife who had gamely posed for pictures in previous ballots – and was sworn in in December after winning the vote.
Days later, the Nationals leader dropped a bombshell, using the parliamentary debate on same-sex marriage to confirm he was no longer with Natalie, his wife of 24 years.
“I don’t come to this debate pretending to be any form of saint but I do believe in the current definition of marriage, which has stood the test of time,” he said.
“I acknowledge that I’m currently separated, so that’s on the record.”
This week the senior Turnbull government minister was forced to confess to the new relationship as a photograph of his now visibly pregnant girlfriend was published, ending months of whispering campaigns and vicious Twitter smears.
Not only had he indeed split from his wife, he had set up home with the much younger woman who had been entrusted into the family circle and the two were expecting a child in April. Revelation of the affair was all the more hurtful to his wife since Campion had become a family friend through working with Joyce, frequently visiting the marital home and becoming Facebook friends with his daughters.
Mrs Joyce swiftly issued a stinging rebuke the morning the romance made headlines, saying she felt “deceived” and “hurt” by the actions of the man she had stood by for more than two decades.
“I’m deeply saddened that my husband is now having a child with a former staffer,” she said in a statement.
“I understand this affair has been going on for months and started when she was a paid employee.
“The situation is devastating on many fronts – for my girls, who are affected by the family breakdown, and for me as a wife of more than 24 years, who placed my career on hold to support Barnaby through his political life,” she said.
“Naturally, we also feel deceived and hurt by the actions of Barnaby and the staff member involved.”
While Mrs Joyce and her daughters face the ignominy of their shattered lives being played out, due to the actions of her estranged husband, a conservative who campaigned on family values in New England and opposed to same-sex marriage, the government and Labor MPs have backed Mr Joyce’s claim that his personal life should be private.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull won’t be drawn on the sex scandal that has rocked his government, saying only, “It’s a tough and distressing episode ...
“Adults can conduct their relationships – if it’s consensual, respectful – that’s their right,” Mr Turnbull said.
The embattled Nationals leader instead launched his own damage-limitation exercise this week in an interview with the ABC in which he described the collapse of his marriage as “one of the greatest failures” of his life and a “tumultuous time”.
“My relationship coming apart, I don’t think makes me terribly unusual,” he said.
“In fact, it puts me in the same box as about 40 to 50 per cent of other marriages.
“I am not for one minute saying that that is an admirable trait.
“I’m not proud of it, but that is, that is — you know, in essence, the humanity of who we are, OK? And after that, it is a private issue.”
No one suggests Ms Campion, who was deliberately transferred out of Mr Joyce’s office nearly a year ago, was a political mover-and-shaker but the affair has shone the spotlight on her career too.
The 33-year-old had worked quietly behind the scenes for several National Party politicians before taking on her role as a media adviser to the Deputy Prime Minister.
She was employed in his office from May 2016 until May last year, when they grew close, before moving to the office of Resources Minister Matt Canavan.
Ms Campion had previously worked as a senior adviser to NSW Police Minister Troy Grant when the Dubbo MP was deputy premier and was an adviser to Racing Minister Paul Toole when the Bathurst MP had the local government portfolio.
Before becoming a political staffer, Ms Campion worked for eight years as a journalist with Sydney’s Daily Telegraph until July 2014.
Months before news circulated she was pregnant, she began withdrawing from the public eye, deleting social media accounts. Her address has been omitted from the electoral roll.
“She’s been a journalist and for her she’s hoping once the dust settles it’ll no longer be news,” an insider said.
No doubt the upheaval of Mr Joyce’s personal life will affect his political performance as he manages the backlash of his extra-curricular activities.
In his hometown of Tamworth, a grazier, hay farmer and a single mother say the Nationals leader has let down the electorate.
“Good luck to him. Love is an addiction, like drugs — but a politician should live by the rules he preaches,” said grazier George Masters, 78.
“His private life should mirror his public one.
“He should be setting an example, not letting us down. It’s pure double standards.”
Tamworth Mayor Col Murray refrained from speaking his mind, saying: “I can’t really say what I think — his private life is his private life. He performed well as a member for New England.”
Farm hand Jason Tout, 41, said: “I voted for him in last year’s by-election but never again.
“I feel sorry for his wife, Natalie. She’s a lovely woman and now has to pick up the pieces in public.
“He’s a liar and hypocrite but most politicians are.”
Mother of one Soleil Fimlay, 20, said she felt “deeply disappointed” by Joyce’s affair, saying she regretted voting for him in the December by-election.
“He should have stayed faithful to his wife,” she said, cradling her one-year-old son Rhyder.
“I voted for him in the byelection but I’d never waste a vote on him again. He’s split up the family and his daughters will be affected by what he’s done forever.”
Whether the media publicity about the affair would have made such a difference in New England is difficult to say.
While Mr Joyce has been a promoter of family values, it has not been a hard-line crusade.
I FEEL SORRY FOR HIS WIFE, NATALIE. SHE’S A LOVELY WOMAN AND NOW HAS TO PICK UP THE PIECES IN PUBLIC. HE’S A LIAR AND HYPOCRITE
FARM HAND JASON TOUT
Barnaby Joyce in sunnier times, inspecting a wheat crop near Tamworth.