February 18, 2018 / 8:10 AM / 7 months ago

Australia's PM in damage control as scandal undermines deputy

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull brushed aside suggestions of a rift in his coalition government on Sunday, saying there were “no issues” between the Liberal and National parties in the wake of a sex scandal that has swamped Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce.

Australia's Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull attends the APEC Economic Leaders' Meeting in Danang, Vietnam November 11, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

“I can assure you that the relations are very strong,” he said at a televised press conference in Melbourne.

“I know there was great excitement in the media that there was some Coalition clash, there are no issues between the Liberal and National parties, at all. None at all.”

Joyce leads the rural-based National Party, the junior partner in the centre-right government led by Turnbull’s Liberal Party, a political alliance that has existed since 1923.

The coalition rules with a majority of just one seat but relations between the parties have been strained since news broke that Joyce had an extra-marital affair with his former press secretary, who is now pregnant.

The scandal prompted the Prime Minister to ban sexual relationships between ministers and their staff.

Turnbull and Joyce met on Saturday for crisis talks in Sydney which the Prime Minister described as “frank and warm, friendly, good, constructive”.

On Sunday, Australian media reported that senior National Party figures were openly canvassing constituents with a view to removing Joyce from the party leadership.

Veterans Affairs Minister Michael McCormack, a member of the National Party who has been passed over for the leadership, declined to say whether he would challenge for the office.

“I never get too far ahead of myself,” he said, neither confirming nor denying whether he would attempt to depose Joyce at a meeting to be held on Monday.

Joyce has refused to resign from office, hitting out at critics, including Turnbull, whom he accused of causing further harm with “inept” comments on Friday.

Reporting by Alison Bevege; Editing by Eric Meijer

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