No sex, please, we're Aussies

by Bernard Lagan / 25 February, 2018

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Barnaby Joyce. Photo/Getty Images

Former Aussie Deputy PM Barnaby Joyce is scorned for being not only a philanderer but, worse, a Kiwi.

Back in the 1980s, a journalist in the Wellington press gallery had a glorious run of scoops thanks to his well-informed paramour – a government staffer who was also sleeping with a Cabinet member.

All three seemed airily relaxed about the arrangement, and it may well have been that the minister, knowing whose ears his pillow talk was eventually headed for, was equally enthusiastic as leaker and lover.

More than a couple of other gallery journalists formed relationships with ministers, which is hardly surprising when you consider that many people in society at large find their partners in the workplace.

The Australian press gallery in Canberra, which your correspondent joined in the early 90s, was no different, although size did matter: the number of reporters was much larger than in the Wellington one and so, too, was the number of politicians, all living in a small city, far from their electorates.

The affairs between MPs, ministers, staffers and journalists were many, varied – and sometimes explosive. Gareth Evans, Foreign Minister in both the Hawke and Keating Labor Governments, and Cheryl Kernot, then leader of the Australian Democrats, managed to keep their long affair secret until a television journalist blew their cover after Kernot produced a biography that omitted her liaison.

Veteran Australian journalist Mungo MacCallum wrote in 2002 that seven of Australia’s 11 post-war prime ministers were certainly philanderers and another two were likely to have been.

In Wellington and Canberra there was – and still is – an unwritten rule that affairs between ministers, MPs, staff and journalists remain private unless there are compelling reasons to disclose them: that they deleteriously affect government administration or betray a moral position previously and loftily adopted.

The latter was the justification used by Sydney tabloid the Daily Telegraph when it published a front-page photograph in early February of 33-year-old Vikki Campion, the pregnant partner of Australia’s 50-year-old (now former) Deputy Prime Minister, Barnaby Joyce. Campion, a former Telegraph journo and media adviser to Joyce, told a rally against same-sex marriage that it posed a danger to the four daughters he had with his wife, Natalie, from whom he separated in December. “We know that the best protection for those girls is that they get themselves into a secure relationship with a loving husband,” Joyce had said.

It didn’t help Joyce that his National Party colleagues had agreed to keep his then-secret lover in a merry-go-round of well-paid government jobs while he recontested his seat last year after he was outed as a New Zealand citizen.

Such was the ensuing public opprobrium for Joyce – as a philanderer and, worse, a New Zealander – that within a week, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull disowned him, forcing him to take leave and accusing him of a shocking error of judgment. Turnbull also announced that Australia’s ministerial code of conduct was being urgently revised to ban sex between ministers and staff.

Aside from the chilling effect Turnbull’s announcement will have on Cabinet leakers – a rare enough breed already – the notion that someone capable of ascending to high public office must be told who they can and can’t have sex with is distressing. What else must they not do? Eat with their mouths open?

As expected, the ruddy, two-faced Barnaby Joyce – delightfully dubbed the Beetrooter by a Twitter wag – had decided to slip out of politics and will probably be remembered as a hapless, hollow moraliser.

He will leave an unhappy legacy: Malcolm Turnbull’s stricture on ministerial sexual relations provides a fresh excuse for the public shaming of politicians who have affairs when, for the most part, nobody need know.

New Zealander Bernard Lagan is the Australian correspondent for the Times, London.

This is an edited version of an article first published in the March 3, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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