At the time of writing it looks as though Barnaby Joyce will keep his positions as Leader of the National Party and Deputy Prime Minister. The Nationals seem to have given him ‘another chance’, as his deputy put it. Quite what would, after this episode, make its members think otherwise is not clear. Throughout this trial by media two thoughts kept running in my head. The first was why the press gallery had decided to run as a pack after him, and who might be the next MP or Senator to be brought forward for public excoriation.
For, as I see it, an old and important rule has been broken in this case: a parliamentarian’s private life is kept private unless those concerned make it public themselves, as was finally the case with Jim Cairns and Juni Morosi a long time ago, or where one of the parties outs the other. There are good reasons for such a rule. Every Parliament is a hothouse, where there is intense pressure on the leading players, all day, every day. The hours can be weird. MPs and Senators are, almost all of them, away from their homes for extended periods. The pressure can lead to over-indulgence in alcohol, to drugs, to dalliance, and even to physical violence.
Those who work there know all this. Moreover, there are a lot of alpha males (and an increasing number of alpha females) together with a lot of attractive younger women and younger men. The number of MPs and Senators who have enjoyed the favours of support staff, let alone of each other, is not restricted to the numeral one, and confined to Barnaby Joyce. The press gallery members are alert to all this, and will have a fair idea of what is going on at any time. But they don’t write about it unless there is good reason. At least they haven’t since I became a habitué of the old Parliament House in 1961.
What was the good reason? Joyce began having an affair with a staff member. He then recognised that they could no longer have a professional relationship, which was correct, and with the agreement of colleagues, the staff member went to another office. His marriage was apparently not a happy one at the time, and understandably became even unhappier. His lover became pregnant, which meant that he had to make some important decisions. He made them. I don’t know the details, the dates or any of the other circumstances, and I doubt that many of those who have written about it have any more information than me, but this is the story as I have worked it out.
Anyone who has been through a broken marriage, and I am one, will know that it is a wretched business, with more losers than winners. I don’t know Barnaby Joyce at all, but I feel sorry for him. It is not at all enjoyable to be on the front page of newspapers because of the details of your personal life. As I read it, the charges against Joyce are that the support staff member should not have been found work in other offices, or that the Prime Minister should have vetoed the moves as being inconsistent with the rules. The issue seems to rest on whether or not the staff member was a ‘family member’ at the time. Mr Joyce says she is now but wasn’t then.
Added to these charges are some vague ones about what Barnaby Joyce stands for publicly and what he has been doing privately. One writer said it wasn’t about sex but about integrity. For heaven’s sake! Hypocrisy and double standards are widespread in our public life. Stand up those who are not guilty of saying one thing while doing another. Oh, I’m not saying that hypocrisy and double standards are fine things and we should all be engaged in them. But politicians have to speak to diverse audiences, and they say different things to different audiences. To a church group you might emphasise family values; to a women’s group you might applaud freedom of choice. Stand up those politicians who have never done something like that. Whatever you say there is a good chance it will be recorded, and then used against you if the moment seems ripe.
The silliest charge I saw was that Mr Joyce had claimed 50 days allowances for being in Canberra when Parliament was not sitting. The accuser seemed unaware that Barnaby Joyce is not only Deputy Prime Minister but also responsible for a couple of departments of state. I would expect him to be in Canberra at least as often as he is in his electorate. Sydney and Melbourne ministers can have their offices in Commonwealth buildings in those cities. It is not the same for ministers who have country electorates. And you need to be where the head offices of your departments are. They are mostly in Canberra.
The longer the issue went on — more than a week so far — the more I wondered who had started this, and why, and whether they had thought of the consequences for themselves and their colleagues afterwards. For, annoyed and irritated with the Nationals Leader though they undoubtedly are, the members of the Coalition will be ready with their own fire when a suitable culprit from the other side demonstrates his or her very own human weakness. It won’t be hard to do. A little leak here and a little leak there, and the press gallery will be passing around a new story. I see it as inevitable, but a pity. The old rule was a good rule. Unless the private life is adversely affecting public life, it is not really for the public prints, because it is just gossip. Would those in the press gallery appreciate their own private lives being made front-page gossip news?
A later thought wondered whether the Barnaby Joyce affair is an extension in some way of the #MeToo movement. We don’t know the details, but it is hard to read some of the comments without coming to the conclusion that these commenters see the staff member as the victim, if not of sexual harassment, then of some nebulous construct like the Capitalist Patriarchy. The staffer is now publicly the Deputy Prime Minister’s partner, but that idle fact seems sometimes to have been passed by. Perhaps it was the price he had to pay, such a commenter might add. No couple ought to have their privacy invaded in this way. I had put the #MeToo movement to the side for a later essay, and I have no evidence that there is a connection. Nonetheless, there is an eerie flavour of it in some of the comments.
In short, someone somewhere decided that Barnaby Joyce’s private life could be made a matter of public interest. If it was someone in the ALP the party will live to regret it. If it was someone in the press gallery, then such a person will in due course find that a career there will prove to be short and profitless. Episodes like this one bring out a most unsavoury ‘holier-than-thou’ flavour in the self-righteous statements of politicians and commentators. The victims in this story are not simply Barnaby Joyce his family and his new partner, but the quality of our public life.