Correction: An earlier version of this blog post misspelled the name of former Australian prime minister Ben Chifley. This version has been updated.
As soon as a politician mentions “family values,” a sex scandal cannot be far away. That’s an old political theory, I know, but it has had fresh confirmation in Australia this week as Barnaby Joyce, the country’s deputy prime minister, attempts to survive news of a relationship with a younger woman.
Joyce is a hat-wearing, country-dwelling, gay-marriage-opposing conservative. He’s the man who threatened, on biosecurity grounds, to euthanize Johnny Depp’s dogs unless he returned them to the United States.
As an Australian, I say: “Quite right, too.”
Yet here is Barnaby Joyce’s problem: The young woman in question is pregnant. By him. She worked as his staffer on the public payroll. Joyce, who is married with four children, played a role in the recent campaign over same-sex marriage — a campaign during which conservatives like him tried unsuccessfully to police the bedrooms of other Australians. (Their push was defeated by a wonderfully large margin.)
That logjam of issues might explain why many say the deputy prime minister is now on political life support. Some say he won’t make it past the weekend.
Yet plenty of Australian politicians have survived much worse. Bob Hawke, once perhaps Australia’s most popular leader, disclosed his many affairs in a biography written by Blanche d’Alpuget — except for the one he was having at time of the book’s writing, one with a writer named Blanche d’Alpuget. The two later married. An earlier prime minister, Malcolm Fraser, lost his pants in Memphis — admittedly, a wild town. A wartime prime minister, Ben Chifley, died in the arms of his secret lover, who was his private secretary. Cheryl Kernot, who was the leader of a smaller political party, switched to the Labor Party — with a love affair, some considered, possibly having some influence.
Most of these were not reported at the time. Australia’s political journalists decided, largely, that they were private matters and were undeserving of publication.
Even in 1967, when Prime Minister Harold Holt drowned while bodysurfing, the press corps suppressed the fact that his mistress was with him on the beach. Every tiny detail of that day was trawled over by reporters except for this: she was there. It was immaterial, that’s true. The surf took him. It was hurtful to Holt’s wife, again true. But acknowledgment of her presence might have suppressed the ridiculous conspiracy theories — which are still mentioned today — that he was a secret agent for China who had arranged to be picked up off the coast by an enemy submarine.
All these years on, the debate over what is private still rages. Both the press and the opposition Labor Party are wary of talking about Joyce’s affair. On my Sydney radio show this week, I interviewed Labor’s deputy leader, Tanya Plibersek. She made political mileage, as you might expect, over how Joyce’s partner was given lucrative jobs in the offices of fellow ministers, despite a code of conduct forbidding the hiring of a minister’s partner or spouse.
But, almost more firmly, Plibersek delivered an impassioned speech about human frailty and how she refused to condemn her opponents over private matters. She recalled with sorrow the criticism of Australia’s first female leader, Julia Gillard, for her “failure” to have children. It was an example, Plibersek said, of the perils of the blurring of private and public.
I also spoke this week to the longtime international editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, Peter Hartcher. His view: “If you think it’s good that there is zero privacy for our political leaders, if you think we should start papping [photographing without permission] everybody, if you think we should start reporting prurient gossip as leading national news, then let’s upend all our conventions and start doing that.”
Joyce agrees. He argued this week that all this reporting of the private life of politicians is an import from America: “I think you have to make a distinct decision to not turn Australia into the United States of America. Private matters should remain private and that’s part of my private life.”
Yet it seems most Australians don’t accept his argument — or that of both the opposition and the journalists. The public mood is that people want to know more, not less. There is a view that journalists have been running a protection racket for politicians for years, and that a bit of American-style candor is urgently required.
Personally, I’m quite proud of Australian journalists and our attempt to separate the public and the private. A politician, who has no role in drug policy, but who has a son on heroin? I have known a few of them, and I think it’s none of the public’s business. I’m keeping it to myself. A marriage breakup, but one which has no connection with public office? I still think that is personal.
Barnaby Joyce’s problem is that so much of what has happened leaches into public life: the hypocrisy of his commentary on same-sex marriage; his denial that his lover was defined as his “partner” despite most people thinking that was the case.
What will happen next? Australian politics are about to get more American. And most Australians, on this sole occasion, will say: “about time.”