Malcolm Turnbull and Barnaby Joyce meet to resolve row

Attempt to defuse tension comes as Liberal senator Ian Macdonald tells ABC Joyce should resign to the backbench

Sydney: Barnaby Joyce and Malcolm Turnbull have met face-to-face in Sydney in an attempt to resolve the damaging public crisis engulfing the coalition.

The pair are understood to have met about midday for more than an hour.

Joyce expressed concern at the forcefulness of the comments made by Turnbull on Thursday, when the prime minister had described his deputy’s affair as a “shocking error of judgement” and urged that he “reflect” on his position.

The pair’s meeting came as the internal rift within the coalition took a turn for the worse on Saturday.

The Liberal senator Ian Macdonald appeared on the ABC and publicly called on Joyce to resign to the backbench.

Macdonald said that by staying on as deputy prime minister, Joyce was giving Bill Shorten a “free ride into the Lodge”.

“He and I both know that having Shorten as prime minister would be disastrous for Australia,” Macdonald told the ABC. “But he would also know that the way he is handling this issue is just going to see our polls plummet.”

Former prime minister Tony Abbott also spoke out for the first time on Saturday, taking a veiled swipe at Turnbull’s handling of the controversy.

Abbott said it was always his “general rule” that one party never gave another party advice in public.

“I’m just not going to get into any details about personalities or specifics, but certainly as a general rule, certainly the general rule that I always observed, was that one party doesn’t give another party public advice,” he said.

The tensions between the two leaders escalated dramatically this week, after Turnbull said Joyce had displayed a “shocking error of judgment” in his affair with his staffer Vikki Campion.

Joyce immediately hit back, describing the prime minister’s comments as “inept” and “unnecessary”. Other Nationals expressed outrage at a perceived intervention by the Liberals into their internal affairs, and declared it was “open season” on Turnbull.

Abbott declined to be drawn into whether Joyce should step down when asked whether he agreed with Macdonald’s comments.

“I’m not going to give Barnaby public advice, it’s not my job to give any of my colleagues public advice,” he said. “I think that if a member of parliament has something to say to another member of parliament, he or she should knock on the door or pick up the phone.”

Abbott also did not express support for Turnbull’s ban on ministers having sex with their staff. He said the existing code of conduct was a “perfectly good one”.

“I think all politicians, I think all people should act with propriety,” Abbott said.

“That’s the thing, there was a perfectly good code of conduct in place. I thought the code of conduct was a good code of conduct, and as I said the basic rule is to act honestly, to act sensibly, to be of good and strong character.”

Meanwhile, Labor is continuing to focus its attack on accusations that Joyce breached the ministerial code of conduct. The party is putting pressure on the government over Joyce’s acceptance of a rent-free apartment from his friend, the millionaire Greg Maguire, after being forced out of his family home.

The Labor MP Pat Conroy said there had been a “clear breach of the ministerial code of conduct around seeking gifts,” because Joyce had asked Maguire for the apartment.

Joyce has denied this in parliament, saying Maguire had approached him.

“We’ve also got Barnaby admitting in question time, and Scott Morrison, that Barnaby authorises the movement of a staff member who he was sleeping with,” Conroy told the ABC. “How can you have the leader of the Nationals party authorising the creation of positions in other offices for someone he was in a relationship with?”

The Liberal MP Jason Falinski dismissed any claim that Joyce had breached the code of conduct, adding that the accounts of the Nationals leader and Maguire were consistent with each other.

“There has been no evidence brought to the parliament or to the prime minister that that is not the case,” Falinski said.

Guardian Australia reported on Thursday that a hotel business owned by Maguire had also indirectly benefited from Joyce’s moving of the Australian Pests and Veterinary Medicines Authority to Armidale.

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