If politics is, as some maintain, Hollywood for ugly people, then lots of ugly people are having lots and lots of sex. This is a disturbing thought, and perhaps you, dear reader, should stop reading here and now, and I should stop writing, before we both end up with images in our mind we won’t be able to easily erase.
In some ways, Canberra is no different to many – most, really – other work environments. Office romances are a common phenomenon; after all, what better place to find a partner than the place where you spend most of your waking hours? Law offices, food factories, TV studios, car dealerships, you name it, Adam and Eve – or Adam and Steve, or Adele and Eve – will often hook up, and often also shack up, whether they are on the same or similar level job-wise, or a boss and a subordinate. Should we be particularly shocked then that the Parliament House too is a hotbed of romance and hot sweaty… never mind.
In fact, there are several factors, which make the Capital Hill the capital of randiness. Politics, particularly at the higher levels, tends to have moments or even longer periods of high stress. Stress eventually requires release if balance and sanity be maintained. Alcohol is one very common aid at the Club Fed. In turn, alcoholic overindulgence further reduces restraint. A bottle or two of red have been handmaidens of many a parliamentary romance. There is also the fact that (sorry Canberra) there just isn’t that much to do down there during the few non-working waking hours. And so, like the colonial administrators of the old Raj, our political class whiles away the nights till the end-of-the-week flight home drinking and fornicating, for hunting would be too time consuming. Whether down in Canberra, or on the road crisscrossing Australia, people are brought together and forced to share not just the workdays but often the hours before and after too, as well as nights, to the extent of often sharing the same or adjoining accommodation. Separation from spouses and families back home increases loneliness as it increases the opportunities to stray. Lastly, as difficult as it is to believe Henry Kissinger on this one, power is, if not the ultimate, than certainly an aphrodisiac. To paraphrase Lord Acton, ultimate power attracts ultimately, but any power attracts someone out there.
And so, Barnaby Joyce’s mid-life crisis, currently playing out on the pages of the nation’s tabloids, is far from unique. What’s rare is the pregnancy, which in the end made the affair difficult to hide. But even rarer is the fact of the widespread media coverage of this liaison.
For decades, our federal politicians, their staffers, as well as the press gallery (yes, the journos are not just the passive voyeurs here) could count on a cone of silence to prevent their groans and invocations of a deity from being heard by the rest of Australia. The exceptions have been rare; mostly involving circumstances of corruption, impropriety or political scandal – see Gareth Evans and Cheryl Kernot, or Craig Thompson and his credit card. Garden variety adultery has generally remained out of bounds for the news hounds, even if often ill hidden (John Gorton, Bob Hawke, Bill Shorten, etc.). Unlike in Great Britain, where sex scandals titillate and sell newspapers, the Australian media still deems sleeping around as not news of public interest unless it ends up in a messy split up, like it did it Barnaby’s case. No one is picking on politicians specifically; any prominent person makes the news (or “New Idea”) when their relationship status changes.
As should be evident from the above discussion, only a fraction of the Canberra hanky-panky gets into the media. I would estimate that somewhere between half and two thirds of our federal pollies have extramarital affairs at least once during their career (this is arguably no higher than the rate for other high profile individuals in general, who have the means and the opportunity – not to mention the ego to self-justify). Very much of the top of my head I can think of a half a dozen instances of Members (no pun intended) and Senators push polling each other in recent years, and another half a dozen instances of Members and Senators sleeping with their staff members. Sometimes the liaisons cross the party lines – for example, Mark Latham and his second wife, Janine Lacy, a former Liberal staffer, as well as one former Labor minister and a Liberal lobbyist (and indeed Gareth and Cheryl). More often, however, it’s political bed mates who become, well, political bed mates. It has to be remembered however that not all politician-staffer hook-ups or relationships involve cheating on spouses; some pollies are single, others divorced by the time they start getting meat where they get their bread.
What conclusions should we draw from all this? Our leaders are, by and large, not saints or angels (and neither are, by and large, we, their electors). Some don’t pretend to be; some are hypocrites, like a once prominent member of the religious right who at a party dinner propositioned both my then girlfriend and her sister at the same time, or a married (male) MP who propositioned three of my (male) friends – though, in this case, not at the same time. Whether you believe this is important depends on your general attitude to politics and morality. Some people are quite utilitarian about it (“I don’t care who he/she shags; what matters is if they can deliver [insert your favourite policy]”). Others believe that adultery is a question of character, indicating broader untrustworthiness and lack of integrity, and therefore is something we should know about people before we vote for them. All too often the latter learn too late. Barnaby’s affair and impending paternity was an open secret in the political circles at the time of his recent by-election, but would it have mattered if the voters of New England had known? Probably, but probably not enough to change the result.
There are many good reasons why the politician-staffer relationships in particular are a bad idea. But it’s unlikely you can stop them from happening, humans being what they are, whether you try to ban it or you shine more light on it. What may change is the conspiracy of silence, which in the past has kept dangerous political liaisons private. I don’t know if “Barnaby’s Baby” will come to be seen as a watershed in the media coverage of sex lives of the taxpayer-funded rich and famous, leading us more down the British path of tabloidisation of political coverage, but I won’t be surprised. If that happens, another thing that might consequently change is the public perception and expectations (moral and otherwise) of our elected representatives. Either way, we’re in for a bumpy (and grindy) ride.