For reasons that aren’t entirely clear to me, the Daily Telegraph decided on Saturday to publish a piece inferring that Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce engaged in an extra marital affair with a staffer that has caused upheaval and discontent in his workplace, and his home.
My colleague Noely Neate offers some interesting speculations on the Tele’s piece here.
What caught my attention was the reaction on Twitter from a few journalists, among them Katharine Murphy of the Guardian, who tweeted:
1. There's something of a convention in Aus politics: unless there's criminality, coercion or abuse involved, private lives are private.
— Katharine Murphy (@murpharoo) October 21, 2017
2. It's a good convention. I hope we stick with it.
— Katharine Murphy (@murpharoo) October 21, 2017
I’ve written on this convention here, but there’s more to be said about it.
The problem with Murphy’s convention is that it makes any scrutiny of the parliamentary workplace well-nigh impossible. If journalists are not willing to do the necessary investigations, and politicians know they are safe from scrutiny no matter what their sexual activities unless a victim complains to police, they are at liberty to conduct affairs with employees in circumstances that are far from equal. A politician is a powerful individual, some more so than others. Staffers not so much.
In Barnaby’s case he is the Deputy Prime Minister. The power differential between himself and his staffers is considerable. Consensual sex requires a modicum of power on both parts, and it’s arguable whether or not the staffer of a DPM, in a workplace such as Parliament House, has that modicum of power.
I’m not aware of any workplace in Australia other than our Parliament that has an agreement with journalists that employees sexual lives are private, and will not be reported on.
While Murphy’s criminality rider is relatively straightforward, coercion and abuse are not. It is difficult to see how situations of coercion and abuse can ever see the light of day, given the agreement the Press Gallery apparently has with politicians to keep their sexual lives private.
Whether or not an individual is entitled to a private sexual life depends entirely on the nature of that life. If we look at examples such as Rolf Harris, Jimmy Saville, Harvey Weinstein, Donald Trump, to name but a handful of men whose sexual lives consisted in large part of exploitation and sexual assault, then no, those sexual lives are certainly not entitled to privacy. Indeed, according them privacy enables their abusive and criminal behaviour. Without journalists denying them that privacy, we’d be unaware of their predations.
I’m not, of course, suggesting there’s a large number of politicians indulging in predatory sexual behaviours, but given the Press Gallery’s refusal to go there, how do we know? It would be naive in the extreme to believe their workplace is the only one on the planet in which sexual predation does not occur.
We know how difficult it is for victims of sexual predators to speak out. How much more difficult must it be if you’re in a workplace where you know the culture is one of protection for perpetrators?
There are circumstances in which a politician’s sexual behaviour is absolutely of concern to the public, and those circumstances need not be criminal, coercive or abusive. Barnaby, for example, campaigns vehemently against marriage equality on the grounds that it will somehow destroy the sanctity of heterosexual marriage, while he’s allegedly destroying the sanctity of his own marriage vows. If we are being governed by the hypocritical, we have a right to know that.
Paula Matthewson deals with the implications of illicit sexual behaviours in the political world, and our need to know, here.
There are situations in which a politician’s sexual life is absolutely irrelevant, and privacy appropriate. The Press Gallery convention, however, makes no such distinctions, and journalists’ hands off attitude to politicians’ sexual behaviours ensures a cone of silence around their workplace that can only disadvantage less powerful employees, while allowing our elected representatives freedom from accountability journalists grant no other workplace.
Guardian columnist Jeff Sparrow posted this tweet:
Our sex lives shouldn’t matter to politicians; politicians' sex lives shouldn’t matter to us.
— Jeff Sparrow (@Jeff_Sparrow) October 23, 2017
While there’s no argument from me that our sex lives shouldn’t matter to politicians, there are occasions on which politicians’ sex lives should matter a great deal to us. Why, for example, is there no investigation into Barnaby’s alleged affair? Did he use public money to fund its enactment? Is it an isolated incident, or does he make a habit of betraying his family?
This is a government that has subjected LGBTQI people to a foul postal opinion poll that gives everyone the right to “vote” on their human rights, based entirely on sexuality. Barnaby Joyce wholeheartedly supports this disgusting intrusion into the sexual lives of others simply because they are not heterosexual. Why is there a journalistic convention that protects Joyce from scrutiny?
Let’s not forget as well that Minister Alan Tudge announced stringent and intrusive requirements for single parents to prove they do not have a sexual/intimate relationship, before they can receive benefits. This government increasingly encroaches upon our privacy and into our bedrooms: yet politicians’ privacy and bedrooms continue to be considered be sacrosanct.
This article was originally published on No Place For Sheep.