MALCOLM TURNBULL, Australia’s prime minister, looked relieved when on February 26th the junior party in his coalition, the Nationals, elected Michael McCormack (picured centre) as its new leader and thus deputy prime minister. For almost three weeks Mr Turnbull had endured a festering embarrassment after the press reported an affair between Barnaby Joyce, the previous Nationals leader, and his former press secretary, who is now pregnant. Mr Joyce had at first refused to resign as party leader, despite being caught flouting his own talk of family values. His long goodbye exposed tensions in the coalition, just as Mr Turnbull was trying to revive its fortunes ahead of an election due next year.
Leaders of the Nationals have mostly been restrained and unobtrusive. Mr Joyce proved an aberration. As a minister three years ago, he rowed publicly with Johnny Depp, an American actor, who had brought two dogs into Australia without the right paperwork. Last year Mr Joyce had to quit parliament after he was found to have breached the constitution by holding dual nationality. He returned after renouncing his New Zealand citizenship and winning the by-election for his constituency in northern New South Wales.
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Mr Turnbull had hoped to start the parliamentary year on February 5th with zest, by promoting his plan for business tax cuts to boost the economy. But just two days later his hopes were flattened by a media stampede after a tabloid newspaper exposed the married Mr Joyce’s affair. There were loud complaints of hypocrisy: Mr Joyce had loudly defended “traditional” marriage when parliament legalised gay marriage last December. The prime minister can ill afford such turmoil. Since the most recent election in 2016 his government survives with a majority of just one in the lower house (it is in a minority in the upper one). It trails the main opposition party, Labor, in most opinion polls.
Clearly frustrated, Mr Turnbull accused Mr Joyce of making a “shocking error of judgment” and imposed a ban on ministers having sexual relations with staff. But the prime minister was powerless to sack his deputy. The most he could do was to deprive Mr Joyce of the role of acting prime minister when Mr Turnbull flew to Washington for talks with President Donald Trump on February 23rd, giving it instead to a dour member of his own Liberal party, Mathias Cormann, the finance minister. Mr Joyce finally announced he would resign after his party received a sexual-harassment complaint against him from a woman in Western Australia. Mr Joyce calls the complaint “spurious and defamatory”.
The saga has only magnified fragilities within the coalition. The city-based Liberal Party, which Mr Turnbull leads, has been a political partner to the rural Nationals for almost 70 years. But the two partners have never formally merged, and their coalition has sometimes resembled a marriage of convenience. The Liberals espouse market economics and a small state, whereas the Nationals advocate greater government support for farmers and isolated rural communities.
Mr McCormack has also expressed the sort of conservative social views that got Mr Joyce into trouble and have fallen out of favour with urban voters, at least. As a newspaper editor in Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, he once denounced “homosexuals and their sordid behaviour”. He has since apologised, and voted for same-sex marriage in parliament. Mr McCormack’s interest in helping small businesses will appeal to Mr Turnbull’s liberal instincts. Yet Mr Turnbull’s “inability to deal firmly with Joyce”, says Norman Abjorensen of the Australian National University, suggests there will be no easy way out should tensions arise again.