Malcolm Turnbull is applying textbook damage control to the mess that Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce has created for his government – keep answers brief and point the finger of blame somewhere else.
It’s hard to see it working, for in trying to hide from Mr Joyce or to distance himself from him, the PM is just creating another appalling look of disarray.
Mr Turnbull’s closest advisers are shaking their heads in frustration and disbelief. The better start to the year and the building momentum they believe was happening has been derailed by yet another distraction not of the Prime Minister’s making.
What is more galling for the government is last year’s mega interruption in the shape of the citizenship imbroglio had the same Barnaby Joyce front and centre. He was the highest-profile politician among those who paid no attention to the implications of their family heritage.
Labor leader Bill Shorten asked Mr Turnbull if Mr Joyce would still be Acting Prime Minister next week in his absence overseas and whether he still had confidence in him.
The answers were terse and underwhelming: “Yes and yes.”
The Prime Minister’s spin doctors insist he has not been involved in any of the management of Mr Joyce’s issues. Mr Turnbull did not advise him to move his girlfriend Vikki Campion out of his office. They say the PM did not advise him to attend last year’s Mid-Winter Ball with his wife Natalie nor did Mr Turnbull sign off on Ms Campion’s subsequent employment by other ministers.
If these denials are true it paints a picture of a Prime Minister disengaged from the welfare and, indeed, survival of his own government. Disengaged because he lacks either the wit or the authority to confront Mr Joyce.
But someone in the government was able to have Mr Joyce issue a statement at the weekend that appears to exonerate Mr Turnbull of any complicity in the affair.
Mr Turnbull grabbed it like a lifeline: Mr Joyce said that “he had not discussed Ms Campion’s employment with me or my office”.
He confirmed that the Nationals were responsible for decisions relating to staffing and that the PM’s office has an ‘administrative role’ only. That is, it ticks off on anything providing the Nationals are within their overall staffing allocation.
Except that the Statement of Ministerial Standards clearly states: “Close relatives and partners are not to be appointed to positions in their ministerial or electorate offices” nor in the offices of other ministers.
This code applies to all ministers, Liberal and National, and says all appointments are subject to the approval of the Prime Minister. But apparently a “mistress” is not a partner if the minister is still living with his wife. Ms Campion’s status evolved from girlfriend to mistress to partner and Mr Turnbull didn’t know anything about it. Really?
But here’s the rub: In telling Parliament it was the Nationals’ responsibility to apply the code in their own regard, as Treasurer Scott Morrison did, it can only mean that Mr Joyce interpreted the guidelines in the widest possible way to benefit himself and his now partner.
It is hard to see how it is not a flagrant flouting of the standards “designed to ensure public confidence in them and the government”.
Mr Joyce has been big trouble for Mr Turnbull from the outset. He forced the Nationals into delaying any quick agreement to a coalition with Mr Turnbull after the September 2015 coup.
The price of that agreement was foisting their and Tony Abbott’s conservative agenda on the new Liberal leader. It trashed brand Turnbull and has contributed in no small way to the disappointment voters feel about him, according to the opinion polls.
Those Liberals who urged Mr Turnbull to stare down Mr Joyce then have every reason to be even more exasperated now that he didn’t heed their advice.
Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics.