Barnaby Joyce has managed to fend off an internal insurgency triggered by rolling controversy over his personal life, at least for now, but Labor has doubled down on a gift of free accommodation in Armidale from the prominent local businessman Greg Maguire.
Wednesday opened ominously for Joyce with one of his colleagues predicting he would be visited by a shoulder tapping delegation over the course of the day, but supporters of the deputy prime minister rallied early, hitting the airwaves with public statements of support.
With the Nationals divided on how to resolve the controversy, it became clear that dissenters, which numbered between five and six MPs, did not have the numbers to pose any immediate existential threat to Joyce’s leadership in the absence of more damaging revelations.
But while the insurgency fizzled, Labor continued to press the deputy prime minister in parliament on a range of fronts and, outside the parliament, Joyce’s old political foe Tony Windsor, and his former backroom adviser John Clements, continued to stoke controversy about a rural women’s dinner in 2011, where the Nationals leader is alleged to have behaved inappropriately.
Joyce emphatically and categorically denies the allegations, which have circulated for months, and has reserved his legal rights.
Guardian Australia has made efforts to verify the various accounts, but no one has been prepared to speak on the record. A legal firm acting for one of the parties alleged to have been involved in the incident has also characterised the allegations in circulation as “false and vexatious”, and on Monday signalled potential legal action.
Windsor took to social media on Wednesday to allege Georgie Somerset, a board member of the ABC, had been at the dinner. Guardian Australia has made repeated calls to Somerset. The calls have not been returned.
After talks on Tuesday night, when reports surfaced that a delegation would put the deputy prime minister on notice, Joyce supporters rallied early.
David Littleproud, who Joyce elevated to cabinet in last year’s reshuffle, appeared on the ABC early on Wednesday morning to demand that critics of the deputy prime minister either “put up or shut up”.
The Nationals’ deputy leader, Bridget McKenzie, who had made no public comment about Joyce since the controversy over his private life erupted last week, also fronted the cameras to declare her support for the deputy prime minister and to ridicule talk of a delegation.
McKenzie gave a “rolled gold guarantee” that the Nationals party room would hold firm for Joyce. “I have every confidence and I will give you my solid rolled gold guarantee that, come tomorrow, come Friday, Barnaby Joyce will be leading the National party,” McKenzie told Sky News.
As well as pressing the prime minister about whether he had confidence in the deputy prime minister, Labor asked in question time whether a declaration Joyce had made about a gift of free rental accommodation in Armidale complied with his obligations under the ministerial standards, given he had not declared the identity of the donor in the register of members interests.
The gift was from Maguire, a prominent local businessman who is active in politics in the New England region.
In 2004, Maguire was named in a Senate inquiry as having been an intermediary who had sought to get Windsor to retire from politics.
Maguire had asked Windsor what it would take to consider leaving politics and whether he would be interested in a diplomatic or trade posting overseas, Windsor’s campaign manager, Stephen Hall, told a Senate inquiry. The matter was referred to the federal police but no charges were laid.
Joyce told parliament that, because the gift was from “a close friend”, it didn’t have to be declared at all, and the gift covered a period when he was not a member of parliament.
The rules state that gifts “in a purely personal capacity” don’t need to be registered unless the MP judges that a conflict of interest “may be seen to exist”.
While Joyce has defended both the favour from Maguire and his transparency about it, the deputy prime minister was publicly critical of the Labor senator Sam Dastyari when he took a donation from a Chinese businessman in order to settle a personal bill, characterising it as “an overdraft by call”.
“How can it be that that individual, how can that individual just ring somebody up and miraculously without question say, ‘Look, I need $1,670’. ‘Sure, here you go. Here’s $1,600. Why don’t you ask for more?’ What a great relationship,” Joyce told the ABC.