Barnaby Joyce has hit back at an attack from former Nationals leader John Anderson over Mr Joyce's affair with a staffer, saying Mr Anderson is wrong to blame declining morality for political disillusionment.
"I would welcome him not referring to my personal life," Mr Joyce said, referring to a speech Mr Anderson made in London urging voters to punish badly behaving MPs.
Mr Joyce has also revealed a proposal under Mr Anderson's tenure to dissolve the NSW Nationals and merge with the Liberals.
In a speech on July 27 to the Legatum Institute think tank in London, Mr Anderson said Australians craved moral leadership but had been let down. In an interview after the speech, he was asked about Mr Joyce and Queensland MP George Christensen and said he did not know why voters had not punished them at the election.
Mr Joyce, who split with his long-term wife in 2017 to take up with his staffer with whom he has now had two children, and George Christensen, who was criticised for the time he spent in the Philippines last term with his local fiancee.
But Mr Joyce said Mr Anderson was wrong to blame declining morality for the woes of Western countries.
"I kept my counsel [when Mr Anderson's comments were made public] but now I will reply," Mr Joyce writes in an opinion piece to be published in The Canberra Times on Monday. "No John, you are wrong. It is the loss of regional political power - and you oversaw a fair section of that demise while you were leader."
Mr Joyce claimed that Mr Anderson had considered dissolving the National Party altogether to merge with the Liberals.
"Hell of a leader that says that to his troops," Mr Joyce said, saying the number of National politicians had fallen to record lows under Mr Anderson's leadership.
Mr Joyce's claim was backed by another senior party member at the time, who said on background that internal work on a merger with the Liberals was done about 2007 - perhaps after Mr Anderson stepped down as leader, but he had judged it "an appropriate way forward". It was stymied by the NSW organisation, adamant it would not happen.
Mr Anderson led the Nationals until 2005 and in 2007 he resigned from Parliament altogether to head back to his farm. He now runs a website where he posts a series of interviews with prominent thinkers on Western civilisation, conservative values and Christianity.
In London, Mr Anderson said the world looked to the West for integrity and good governance but it seemed determined to be its own worst enemy.
Last year, he suggested Mr Joyce should reconsider his political career, and in London he reportedly warned Mr Joyce that "it takes time to rebuild broken trust".
In an interview, Mr Joyce said issues or morality should be left to "the church or the pastor or the synagogue or the mosque" and not be confused with the job of politicians.
"I don't pretend to be perfect but I practice my faith as best I can, noting my flaws better than anybody else," he said. "It gets very confusing when politicians become the arbiter of morals and ultimately become tragically unstuck."
He referred to noted and claimed adulterers in high public office, naming Dwight Eisenhower, John F Kennedy, Bob Hawke and Robert Menzies (although the claim in Menzies' case seems ill-based).
Mr Joyce said he was in "no way making an excuse for any of them", but they could have been lost to politics under Mr Anderson's criteria.
While Mr Anderson had suggested the lack of moral leadership would bring on a Trump moment, the real danger was people feeling their voices were not being heard, he said.
"What brings on a Trump moment is when people feel they're not being represented, when people feel invisible and feel there's no hope of having their political issues heard, when people get overawed by a central figure at the expense of other disparate groups' views," Mr Joyce said.
That had happened under Mr Anderson's leadership, when the strength of John Howard's prime ministership had dominated to the extent that the Nationals were no longer seen as a national voice. Mr Anderson had lacked the ability to push through that, and "we were dying", Mr Joyce said.