Pressure grows on Australian deputy leader to quit amid new allegations

Barnaby Joyce, Australia's Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources, speaks during a media conference at Parliament House in Canberra, Australia February 16, 2018. AAP/Lukas Coch/via REUTERS

Thomson Reuters

By Colin Packham

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia's embattled deputy prime minister called a news conference on Friday at which domestic media reported he was likely to resign after weeks of damaging revelations over an affair with a staff member who is carrying his child.

Barnaby Joyce, the leader of the conservative National Party, the junior partner in the ruling centre-right coalition, had earlier dismissed calls for him to quit.

The renewed possibility of his resignation comes after a falling out with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who is in the United States for meetings with President Donald Trump and who declined to leave him in charge while he is out of the country.

Joyce, a practising Catholic, campaigned on family values and is the father of four children but has left his marriage of 24 years and is expecting a child with his former media secretary.

His decision to call a media conference for later on Friday, confirmed by his party, came after a new allegation of sexual harassment was made by an unidentified individual.

National Party federal director Ben Hindmarsh confirmed earlier on Friday the party had received the sexual harassment allegation but declined to give any details.

A spokesman said Joyce had been made aware of the claims indirectly and believed they were "spurious and defamatory".

While Joyce's resignation would come as an embarrassment to Turnbull's government, the damage could be limited if he simply resigned as National leader and moved to the backbench.

The party would then simply nominate a new leader, who would become deputy prime minister under the terms of the coalition agreement with Turnbull's Liberal party.

The damage could be worse for Turnbull's unpopular coalition, which governs by only a one-seat majority, if Joyce were to resign from parliament.

The government would then lose its majority in parliament, at least until a by-election could be held to replace Joyce. That process would take at least a month, leaving Turnbull exposed in parliament.

Two-thirds of Australian voters want Joyce to resign, The Australian newspaper's Newspoll showed earlier this week and discontent has been growing within his rural-focused party, with at least one senior member calling for his resignation.

(Reporting by Colin Packham; Editing by Jane Wardel and Paul Tait)

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