by Miranda Devine
ALMOST exactly a year ago, I had an after-work drink at a bar in the Sydney CBD with Barnaby Joyce and his press secretary Vikki Campion, who I knew slightly from her time at the Daily Telegraph covering, ironically enough, urban affairs.
Vikki is a vivacious and immensely likeable Queensland country girl, tall and rangy, with a long mane of sun-kissed hair. She's earthy, loud, a chain-smoker and, like her boss, impetuous. Not your classic femme fatale.
She was also hardworking and very good at her job, so it made sense when Barnaby poached her from NSW Police Minister Troy Grant's office to help out during the 2016 election.
They got on like a house on fire, with an easy familiarity born of spending gruelling weeks on what Nationals call the "wombat trail", campaigning across regional areas, engaging in Barnaby's speciality of pub diplomacy.
We spent more than half the time that evening chatting out on the footpath, as Barnaby and Vikki fagged away companionably. If you've ever been a nicotine addict you'll understand the easy camaraderie of that dwindling band of societal outcasts, the footpath cigarette smokers.
It was clear there was affection and regard between them. But there was no obvious frisson of sexual tension, none of the charged physicality or guardedness that usually leaks from cheating couples.
Then, again, Barnaby is not what we thought he was, and we went our separate ways before much booze was consumed.
Five months later Vikki was pregnant.
Barnaby is believed to have told his wife Natalie that the baby, due in April, is a boy, his first son, another little dagger to her heart.
Natalie is no doormat, say her friends. She has made her marriage work, despite a largely absent husband, and their four lovely daughters, aged 14 to 21, are a credit to her.
Last year, some time around April, Natalie had wind of the affair. Friends say the office stopped telling her what was in his diary and a wife's intuition kicked in.
She stormed up to Vikki in Tamworth and tore strips off her, a furious little pocket rocket facing up to a frightened gazelle. She called Vikki a "homewrecker" in front of witnesses.
Now she tells friends with black humour that Barnaby is hopeless with babies and never changed a nappy, so good luck, Vikki.
Barnaby hasn't been an easy dog to keep on the porch, as Hillary Clinton once put it, but Natalie has persevered, understanding that highs and lows are part of his personality.
"He always comes back", she's told friends.
But this baby creates an exquisite dilemma. Do you act like a faithless bastard by leaving your wife of 24 years and four children, or by abandoning your mistress and unborn child?
In this #metoo era it would have looked worse if he had walked away from the pregnant staffer. Worse, still, if he'd pushed for an abortion.
Either way, abusing his power as deputy Prime Minister to sleep with a taxpayer-funded staffer is unacceptable, and it makes your private life a public issue.
Natalie began to outline the cost last week: ""I am deeply saddened by the news that my husband has been having an affair and is now having a child with a former staff member," she said in a statement, after the Daily Telegraph broke the story … This situation is devastating on many fronts. For my girls who are affected by the family breakdown and for me as a wife of 24 years, who placed my own career on hold to support Barnaby through his political life …. Naturally we also feel deceived and hurt.."
As for Vikki, sleeping with another woman's husband is always wrong, and she knows it.
The betrayal also invariably affects job performance, as it did with Barnaby, who was noticeably out of sorts last year.
It also leads, inevitably, to a breakdown in office relationships and across the party.
His chief of staff, Diana Hallam, quit. Vikki was moved to Matt Canavan's office and then Damian Drum's. Barnaby moved in and out of home.
In May at the NSW Nationals Conference in Broken Hill, colleagues say he "was a mess".
And then in June, Natalie and Barnaby defied the rumours by showing a united front at the press gallery midwinter ball.
But at some point, the affair resumed.
There were tearful phone calls and emails in which Natalie reminded Barnaby of their wedding vows and told him she still loved him.
In September, she asked a family friend, Catholic priest Father Frank Brennan, to counsel Barnaby to return to his family. It was about then that Barnaby disclosed Vikki was pregnant.
In November, on the eve of the New England by-election, Natalie escaped to Bali with a daughter who had just finished the HSC.
Later that month, the family went out for dinner together in Tamworth.
At the beginning of December, Barnaby announced he had separated from Natalie. He won New England with a healthy swing, giving the Turnbull government a much-needed boost at year's end.
Barnaby is the Coalition's best electoral asset, so his job as Nationals leader is safe.
People who admired him will probably still vote for him.
But they will change their calibration of his character. He is no longer admirable.
Despite criticism of the Daily Telegraph and its political editor Sharri Markson for breaking the story, it's not the media's job to keep politicians' secrets or prop up a false image.
Barnaby is the deputy Prime Minister. He had a brand as a social conservative. That does not accord with getting your staffer pregnant and deserting your family.
Voters deserve to know the character of their candidates because it gives an insight into how they will behave in office. If you can't be faithful to your wife, you can't be trusted to keep your promises in office, and you appear to lack judgment.
The man in the pub in Inverell who angered Barnaby last year by reportedly saying "Say Hello to your mistress" was just expressing the disdain and disappointment so many people now feel about Barnaby.
He can't knock the hat off every voter who feels that way, and he can't shame the media into burying his misdeeds.
He has just added to the soup of disillusionment in politics. And there is a cost for everyone.