Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack is under pressure to heal the wounded National Party and “move on”, despite revelations that Barnaby Joyce’s use of parliamentary travel entitlements is being audited.
With a looming ministry reshuffle threatening to exacerbate divisions within the Nationals, the new party leader acknowledged the “huge challenge ahead” for the coalition.
But there are fresh questions over the Joyce affair, with Labor using parliamentary privilege yesterday to question Jobs and Innovation Minister Michaelia Cash on whether there were any further sexual harassment complaints against Mr Joyce.
Senator Cash said she was not aware of more women with complaints of a similar nature having approached firm Salerno Law, which is representing WA woman Catherine Marriott in her complaint against Mr Joyce.
Senator Kimberley Kitching referred to “discussions” of another six women contacting the WA firm in her question to Senator Cash.
However, Ms Marriott’s lawyer Emma Salerno did not return The West Australian’s calls yesterday.Michael McCormack is elected as the Leader of The Nationals.Picture: Getty Images
Yesterday’s Senate estimates hearings in Canberra also revealed that Mr Joyce was told two days before he resigned that there was a formal investigation into his expenses and whether he had breached the ministerial code of conduct by having an affair with his former staffer Vikki Campion.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull asked Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Martin Parkinson to provide advice on Mr Joyce’s actions as deputy prime minister on February 21, which was two weeks after the scandal broke and two days before Mr Joyce stood down citing allegations of sexual harassment as the “final straw”.
“There were constant claims that the member for New England had been in breach of the statement of ministerial standards but no particulars were being given,” Mr Turnbull told Parliament.
“It was appropriate and I discussed it with the member of New England, the deputy prime minister at the time, that this work would be undertaken.”
Dr Parkinson wrote to the Prime Minister to cancel the short-lived probe after Mr Joyce’s resignation, saying there was “little to gain” by continuing the investigation.
But Mr Joyce’s departure from the frontbench has failed to draw a line under his affair, with an Independent Parliamentary Expenses Authority audit of travel and accommodation claims made by him and Ms Campion still under way.
The audit opens the possibility of further embarrassment for Mr Joyce and overshadowed the appointment of Mr McCormack as his successor at an early morning partyroom meeting in Canberra yesterday.
The 53-year-old former newspaper editor from NSW fended off a surprise last-minute challenge from maverick Queenslander George Christensen and a potentially serious challenge from first-term Queensland MP David Littleproud, who withdrew from the contest on Sunday evening.
Mr McCormack was later sworn in as Deputy Prime Minister and Infrastructure and Transport Minister at a ceremony at Government House. He will hold on to his previous portfolio of Veterans Affairs until a reshuffle can be held.
Conceding that it had been a “fractious” few weeks for the party, Federal Nationals president Larry Anthony said it was time to move on from the “trauma”.
“Mr McCormack’s job is to heal the party and, really, to get back on the issues,” he said.