Malcolm Turnbull refuses to back Barnaby Joyce as Deputy PM

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Australian deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce has stepped down, after a formal complaint of sexual harrassment was laid.

Asked if there was a "sense of relief" that the issue was over, Mr Turnbull said the matters were very personal for Mr Joyce and he had to deal with some personal issues and a complaint that had been made about him. "I never tried to be anything else".

Speaking in Washington while on an official USA visit, Mr Turnbull declined the opportunity to throw his support behind his coalition partner, insisting the decision was a matter for the Nationals. The Australian news media was reluctant to report on the relationship with the woman, Vikki Campion, until it was discovered that the couple were living rent-free in an apartment donated by a supporter.

Mr Joyce described his work proudly as that of a "circuit-breaker".

Mr Joyce famously threatened to have the fugitive pooches put down.

"I have asked that be referred to the police", Joyce told reporters Friday.

"All that's going to do is basically pull the scab off for everybody to have a look at", Joyce had told reporters.

Speaking in Washington DC, Mr Turnbull declined to publicly back Mr Joyce, saying "leadership of the National party is a matter for the National party".

Joyce had spent the past week on "holiday" in Armidale, though he made a number of media appearances, including a candid interview with his partner and former media advisor, Vikki Campion.

Malcolm Turnbull says he's looking forward to working with the new leader of the Nationals. Natalie Joyce, his estranged wife, who responded earlier this month that she felt "deceived and hurt" when she saw a picture of a pregnant Campion.

As a sexual harassment allegation surfaced, and questions were raised over property Mr Joyce bought along the new inland rail line, but failed to declare, he faced dwindling support from his party.

A spokesman for the Deputy Prime Minister said "allegations of wrongdoing should be immediately referred to police so that the veracity of any claim could be properly tested".

Barnaby Joyce has finally caved under pressure and sensationally stepped down as leader of the Nationals and as Deputy Prime Minister.

In response to the scandal, the prime minister announced a ban on government ministers having sex with their employees and later called Joyce's actions a "shocking error of judgement". The affair has also spurred a debate about what parts of a parliamentarian's life are private and should be off-limits to media reporting.

He said he didn't want the job himself but someone other than him should lead. WA leader Mia Davies said Joyce's leadership was no longer tenable.

The move to the backbench means he will give up the portfolios of Infrastructure and Transport and his salary will drop from $416,000 to about $200,000 a year.