SYDNEY -- An affair between Australia’s married deputy prime minister and a younger member of his staff, who is now pregnant, gripped the country Thursday, reigniting questions over MPs’ private lives.
Barnaby Joyce, leader of the National Party which rules in a coalition with the Liberals, is best known internationally for threatening to euthanize Hollywood star Johnny Depp’s two dogs when they were brought into Australia illegally.
The 50-year-old appeared on national television to admit his marriage had broken down after Sydney’s Daily Telegraph splashed a picture of his 33-year-old pregnant lover on its frontpage Wednesday.
The decision to publish was widely criticized by politicians across party lines who argued for the right to privacy.
The staunchly conservative Joyce — who has campaigned in support of traditional marriage values and has four daughters with his “devastated” wife of 24 years Natalie — insisted his private life should not be discussed in the public arena.
“I don’t think it’s right, I don’t think it would be right for any other politician,” he said, while insisting he had never used public funds to conduct the relationship.
“I think you have to make a distinct decision to not turn Australia into the United States of America.”
Politicians’ private lives are fair game in America, where the House of Representatives on Tuesday voted unanimously to ban sexual relationships between lawmakers and their employees as part of an overhaul of policies on harassment.
The Telegraph’s Sharri Markson, who broke the story, said it was clearly in the public interest.
“I don’t think there are any punters out there who are saying, ‘I wish I did not know this story’ this morning,” she said Wednesday.
“(They are not thinking) ‘I wish the Daily Telegraph had suppressed the information that the Deputy Prime Minister had left his wife and four daughters for his former staff member nearly 20 years his junior’.”
Joyce’s wife issued a statement saying her trust had been “shattered” and the situation was “devastating on many fronts” for her and her children.
The tryst was widely suspected according to The Australian newspaper, which in a frontpage story claimed the government “went to enormous lengths to keep the Barnaby Joyce affair secret”, fearful of a backlash.
“Instead of forcing him to fess up, the government went into kill-and-bury mode, actively obstructing any attempt by any number of journalists to get to the bottom of the turmoil,” it said.
In the midst of the affair, Joyce was caught up in controversy over his nationality.
It led to him quitting in November after it was discovered he automatically acquired New Zealand citizenship through his father, and so was ineligible to be in parliament.
His departure and that of several other MPs for similar reasons threatened the ruling coalition’s grip on power.
After renouncing his New Zealand citizenship, Joyce won a crucial by-election the following month, during which he campaigned as a pillar of the community who upheld conservative values, including marriage.