Would Joyce and Campion pass the Centrelink 'couple' test?

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Cartoon by Mark David / @mdavidcartoons

Turnbull says Joyce and Campion were not in a "partnership" when she was gifted jobs, but this assessment conflicts with Centrelink's definition of the term, writes Dr Jennifer Wilson.

PREDICTABLY, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has stated that Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce and his lover, Vikki Campion were not in a partnership in 2016, when Campion was moved from Joyce’s office to a new job in the office of Senator Matt Canavan.

Campion is now expecting Joyce’s baby, due in April.

The Ministerial Code of Conduct Section 2.23 states:

Ministers’ close relatives and partners are not to be appointed to positions in their ministerial or electorate offices, and must not be employed in the offices of other members of the Executive Government without the Prime Minister’s express approval. A close relative or partner of a Minister is not to be appointed to any position in an agency in the Minister's own portfolio if the appointment is subject to the agreement of the Minister or Cabinet.

Turnbull denies he had knowledge of the affair at the time Campion was gifted her new job in Canavan’s office, worth some $190,000 per annum. However, according to news.com.au's Malcolm Farr, the affair was causing such dysfunction that Joyce’s chief of staff, Di Hallam, had to intervene. Ms Hallam told Joyce he must inform the Prime Minister of the situation. Ms Hallam also left Joyce’s office for another position.

Joyce apparently did not take Hallam’s advice because, according to SBS:

Finance Minister Mathias Cormann says because Vikki Campion was a staffer for National Party ministers, decisions relating to her employment were made by the coalition's junior partner ...

... Media reports this week suggested Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was involved in approving those two appointments.

But Mr Joyce told AAP in a statement the Nationals were responsible for all staffing for the party's MPs.

He had had not discussed Ms Campion's employment with the prime minister or his staff, although the prime minister's office has an administrative role in informing the Department of Finance, he said.

If this were the case, both Joyce and Canavan would be in breach of ministerial standards by not informing Turnbull.

However, inside sources claim that Turnbull allegedly ordered Joyce to get Campion out of his office:

'After a high-level meeting between the PMO and the Deputy Prime Minister, Ms Campion was moved into a newly created and unadvertised position in Nationals Minister Matt Canavan’s team, according to the source.'

If Turnbull did know, and approved the transfer, then he is complicit in what increasingly resembles a taxpayer-funded rort for the Deputy Prime Minister’s lover.

Turnbull has attempted to extricate himself from this imbroglio by determining the relationship was not a partnership at that time, and so does not breach ministerial standards.

However, in adopting this tactic, Turnbull has run into another field of excrement, of which he may not yet be fully aware.

In Australia, Centrelink has definitive control over what is and is not a relationship for welfare recipients. These guidelines are strict and they are strictly enforced. According to the Centrelink definition, a sexual relationship is regarded as a partnership and recipients are expected to provide details of their sexual lives when requested.

Centrelink warns:

'We can decide you’re a member of a couple even if all of these factors (list of definitions) aren’t part of your relationship.'

An assessment is made of a recipient’s sexual situation and her or his welfare payments adjusted accordingly. Single mothers are the demographic predominantly affected by these rules. In other words, the Government assumes that a single mother who has a sexual life is being financially supported by her partner.

This is an obscenity.

It is unthinkable that the definition of “partnership” should be any different for politicians than it is for welfare recipients. There must be an across-the-board definition of that term — and no argument can be made for judging the sexual relationships of politicians differently from those of people receiving welfare benefits. If a sexual relationship is a partnership in social security law, then it is also a partnership in terms of ministerial guidelines.

Much has been made, particularly by some in the media, of the assumed prurient nature of the public’s interest in the Joyce affair. We have been urged to avoid speculating on the sexual aspect of the scandal and, instead, to focus on the possible fraudulent use of taxpayer funds. We are urged, hourly, to respect the couple’s privacy with regard to their sexual relationship.

However, we see with Turnbull’s announcement that, in fact, this situation is entirely about sex: when they had it, if and when they didn’t and for how long they abstained, if they did abstain. These facts determine the nature of their relationship and if it was or was not a partnership that breaches ministerial guidelines.

Unfortunately, we cannot respect the couple’s privacy, any more than the Government respects the privacy of welfare recipients. There is no other way of ascertaining if Turnbull, Joyce and Canavan have breached ministerial standards and, in the public interest, this must be established.

In the forward to the ministerial guidelines, the Prime Minister writes:

Ministers and Assistant Ministers are entrusted with the conduct of public business and must act in a manner that is consistent with the highest standards of integrity and propriety. 

They are required to act in accordance with the law, their oath of office and their obligations to the Parliament. 

In addition to those requirements, it is vital that Ministers and Assistant Ministers conduct themselves in a manner that will ensure public confidence in them and in the government.

This document sets out the expected standards for that conduct.

~ Malcolm Turnbull

You can follow Dr Jennifer Wilson on her blog No Place for Sheep or on Twitter @NoPlaceForSheep.

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