I feel sorry for Barnaby. I can’t pretend I know the guy – though unlike one of his Cabinet colleagues who calls him “my dear friend Barnaby”, I don’t actually hate him – but I have reasonably closely watched his unfolding career from a father-of-four, small town accountant in the outback Queensland all the way to the dizzy heights of the National Party leadership and deputy prime ministership, and from the Queensland Nats in the Senate, via the LNP, to the New South Wales Nats in New England.
I feel sorry for Barnaby, because unlike so many in politics, he is not a fuckwit. I have my policy differences with him – the proverbial “agrarian socialism” of the Nats has never been my cup of tea brewed over fire by the billabong – as well as differences in political style; the Nats generally partly amuse me and partly terrify me. But there is no doubt that Barnaby has been one of the great retail politicians of the last two decades, despite having been in the Senate for the majority of his political career. He has also been a real character; mercilessly ridiculed for his country hick attire, always caricatured chewing on the ubiquitous ear of wheat, confounding friend and foe alike with his stream-of-consciousness press releases that only he could have dictated. I hate the word “authentic” for its essential wankery, but Barnaby has always been Barnaby, no one more and no one else, and he has never changed to make himself more liked and palatable and trendy.
But above all else, Barnaby stuck me as essentially a decent human being. You knew where you stood with him; there was no pretense, no games, no forked tongue.
Barnaby will most likely survive being kicked out of the Parliament for running foul of section 44 of the Constitution. He was born in Australia and is a foreign citizen only by descent. It’s not like he spied for New Zealand; voters will forgive him a technicality of dual citizenship, though he and a number of his colleagues arguably should have been more diligent investigating any potential eligibility problems (which the High Court noted in their judgment).
The voters of New England, however, might be less forgiving of Barnaby’s personal failing. “Don’t screw the crew”, “don’t shit where you eat”, “don’t get your meat where you get your bread” are all very good pieces of advice, nowhere more so than in politics, even if so far in Australia the media has been very reluctant to report on politicians’ peccadilloes, unless they have a clear political as opposed to merely political angle (for example Gareth Evans and Cheryl Kernot or Craig Thompson and his union credit card). This “conspiracy of silence” perhaps has been in tacit recognition of the fact that journalists tend to be as bad as the politicians they cover. Up to half of our married elected representatives screw around – with other politicians, with their staff, with other politicians’ staff, with lobbyists, with journalists. The stressful environment, those lonely Canberra nights, separation from families, ubiquity of alcohol, abundance of temptations (politics might be the Hollywood for ugly people, but power is an aphrodisiac, even if not necessarily the ultimate one, as Harry Kissinger maintained), the toxic mixture of big egos and coursing hormones; who knows why it happens so much. I’m not writing this from a position of any moral superiority, pointing out the hypocrisy of so many “good family men and women” straying out of the camera’s spotlight – we are all sinners – but merely to suggest that there is more than enough of the sleazy dirt around Canberra of the type that now routinely gets reported in the United States and the United Kingdom and usually finishes politicians’ careers. Whether you think that the media pointing out that emperor literally has no clothes (and neither do the rentboy and the donkey) is a good or bad thing for our democracy and society, there but for the grace of God go we – and I suspect that the grace is about to be withdrawn from Australia.
The whispers are now all around and it’s unlikely that they can be kept away from New England. The story is salacious because it involves not merely an infidelity, but also a staff member and a pregnancy. Our political and media culture are changing – in many ways getting uglier and grubbier – and feasting on public figures’ private lives is perhaps the next natural step in the danse macabre of Australia’s political-entertainment circus.
The December by-election will be an important test case; firstly, of whether our media goes there, and secondly, of whether our voters are more or less forgiving than their counterparts in other English-speaking democracies. Roughly in the same time frame Australia will have (most likely) rather strongly “voted” in favour of same sex marriage. Even though country areas are not as trendy and progressive as the inner cities, New Englanders might still surprise us. After all, would you rather have Barnaby, flawed but proven and prominent, or Tony Windsor, flawed but… Actually there is no but. The man is a prime tool.
For the sake of Barnaby and our country generally, I hope he survives this perfect political storm. We can’t afford to lose decent polies, even if somewhat indecent human beings. We won’t end up with a parliament of angels, just those who are better or luckier at covering their tracks.