The PM's office says Barnaby Joyce didn't breach a key rule over his girlfriend's jobs because she was 'not his partner at the time'

Stefan Postles/ Getty Images.Barnaby Joyce and Malcolm Turnbull in parliament.

Nationals leader and deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce was not in breach of the ministerial code of conduct that prevents MPs from giving jobs to family and partners because he was not officially in a relationship with his former staffer at the time, the office of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull says.

Details emerged of the MP’s relationship with a former staffer, Vikki Campion, 33, who is several months pregnant, last week after Joyce admitted publicly he had separated from his wife of 24 years last December.

While Joyce and members of the government have refused to comment on when the relationship began, or when they became aware of it, the MP’s wife, Natalie Joyce, said in a statement last week that: “I understand that this affair has been going on for many months and started when she was a paid employee”.

Campion worked for Joyce up until April last year, when rumours of their relationship reportedly caused issues in the deputy PM’s office.

She then went to work for resources minister Matt Canavan, a one-time Joyce staffer, in a senior adviser’s role that reportedly paid up to $190,000. When senator Canavan resigned from the ministry over dual citizenship concerns last August, Campion was then employed by then-chief Nationals whip Damian Drum. She finished up in December after a cabinet reshuffle that saw Drum appointed assistant minister to the deputy PM after Joyce returned to parliament following a by-election because he was a dual national.

Fairfax asked the PM’s office if Joyce was in breech of the ministerial code of conduct, which says that “close relatives and partners are not to be appointed to positions in their ministerial or electorate offices and must not be employed in the offices of other members of the executive government without the Prime Minister’s express approval”.

A spokesperson for Malcolm Turnbull’s office says the PM “was not aware of the relationship” when Campion was appointed to positions with Canavan and Drum.

Joyce was not in breech of the ministerial code “because Ms Campion was not his partner at the time of the staff appointments”, they said.

“National Party staffing is a matter for the National Party,” the spokesman added.

Fairfax reports the pair moved in together only recently and Campion is not yet Joyce’s designated partner for MP’s travel entitlements.

On the weekend, The Australian reported that Joyce was living rent-free in a $650,000 townhouse in the NSW regional city of Armidale, where his electorate is based, courtesy of a millionaire businessman.

At the start of the year, Joyce updated his pecuniary interests register with a “post-election residual of six-month tenancy on Armidale premises”. The Australian estimates the value of the rental at $14,000.

Less than a fortnight ago, in response to a question about housing affordability in Australia’s capital cities, Joyce suggested moving to Armidale to save money.

“It’s quite simple. You cash out your house in Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane, and buy a house in Armidale and you put money in the bank, with a better standard of living,” he said.

The property Joyce is living in rent-free has had a security upgrade to protect the deputy PM, but The Australian reports “the Department of Home Affairs declined to answer questions about whether it would be reimbursed for the upgrade”.

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