Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce was briefly absent from federal parliament on Thursday amid fears he might have been exposed to the coronavirus.
Leader of the House Peter Dutton advised MPs the Deputy Prime Minister was not there for question time.
“I’m just advised as I came into the chamber that the Deputy Prime Minister is a possible close contact from a function and just getting medical advice as we speak,” he said.
But just minutes later Mr Joyce entered the House of Representatives chamber to take up his position in the prime minister’s usual seat.
He did not address the issue when he answered a question from a government member. However, Speaker Tony Smith asked him to clarify the situation.
“Shortly before question time I was alerted that I may have been in contact with a person who was a close contact with a case,” Mr Joyce said.
“I immediately sought further information and advice from deputy chief medical officer, Professor Michael Kidd.
“As I am not a close contact I now am able to attend the chamber.”
Mr Joyce did not outline how he thought he had been exposed to someone with the virus.
It also emerged on Thursday that he had scored another new position, along with his rebooted Nationals’ leadership.
The Morrison government’s leader in the senate, Simon Birmingham, confirmed that Mr Joyce will replace deposed Nationals leader Michael McCormack on the special cabinet taskforce for the status of women.
Mr Morrison established the taskforce earlier in 2021, amid perceptions the Coalition’s support among women was falling. It is made up of all the women in the ministry plus Senator Birmingham, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg – and the Deputy Prime Minister.
Mr Joyce has long been a divisive figure among women voters. He quit the Nationals’ leadership in 2018 after news broke of his affair with then-staffer Vikki Campion and an investigation – which later made no finding – into alleged sexual harassment.
This week, Nationals MP Anne Webster conceded “we are going to find out” whether female voters would welcome him back to the top job, while federal president Kay Hull said Mr Joyce was “very polarising”.
“You can be a lover of Barnaby Joyce or a serious detractor,” she said.
WA Nationals leader Mia Davis – who called on Mr Joyce to resign after revelations of his affair with Ms Campion, who is now is partner – said this week that the New England MP would have to “rebuild trust” with voters.
Ms Davies said the WA Nationals – who are affiliated to the federal Nationals but have their own party structure – had worked hard to make the party a safe place for women.
“Myself and others in the party have gone to great lengths to try and address some of the concerns we see across political parties, not just at a state level but at a federal level,” she said.
In Victoria, the deputy Nationals leader, Steph Ryan, said she did not think Mr Joyce should not have returned to the leadership.
“I’ve never made any secret of the fact that I think Barnaby Joyce’s previous actions didn’t really make him eligible for the top job,” she said.
“Barnaby Joyce now needs to demonstrate why he should be back where he is.”
Labor has peppered Mr Joyce in parliament this week about his appeal to women voters.
On Tuesday, in his first question time as party leader, he was quizzed about comments from Australian Women in Agriculture founder Alana Johnson. She said his return showed the Coalition was “obviously not listening” to women’s concerns.
“Might I say, as a father of four daughters,” he responded – to laughter from the opposition benches – “I have an incredible vested interest in making sure women in agriculture and every section of society have the best opportunity in the safest environment they could possibly live in.”