We know of no spectacle so ridiculous as the Australian public in one of its periodical fits of morality. — Thomas Babington Macaulay, 1851 (adapted).
Last week, I had Canberra Press Gallery journos all up in my social media mentions asking me what I knew about political shagging during my time at APH.
Ye Gods, I thought. It’s happening. The Gallery’s omertà on reporting consensual sexual shenanigans has come to an end. Bemused British friends—treated to amused (and amusing) reports on the BBC about Bonerby the Beetrooter and his two new pet dogs ‘Schaden’ and ‘Freude’ (purchased at great expense from Johnny Depp)—peppered me with incredulous questions about why Australia, hitherto free of the breathless reporting that convulses the UK’s Red Tops on at least an annual basis, was now going to indulge the same nonsense.
And yes, of course I know things. The giant Aztec temple that is Parliament is a hothouse, isolated not only from Canberra as a city, but from the country as a whole. Sitting weeks are very peculiar. Politicians, staffers, and reporters circle each other warily but also socialise, aided and abetted by alcohol and forced bonhomie. Parliamentary suites are properly private, too. Any journo who barges into one unannounced is apt to be reported to the Black Rod and risks his gallery pass.
Get ready for Australia’s very own Profumo Scandal. It’s not a case of ‘if’, but ‘when’. And believe me, by comparison with what Brits have managed historically, Barnyard’s escapades fail to finish, let alone win a place. If Australians think they’d never elect anyone whose corpse is later found naked except for a pair of stockings and suspenders, with an electrical cable tied around its neck, a black bin liner over its head, and orange peel in its mouth, then I’m here to tell ‘em they’re dreamin’ (that was Tory MP Stephen Milligan, by the way).
Just as Britain is turning away from the practice of exposing MPs indulging in late night sexual forays on Clapham Common, Australia has decided it wants a piece of the action. The bonkban is quite possibly the stupidest thing Malcolm Turnbull has done as PM, and his collection of idiocies is already large.
There’s a case to be made that Barnaby Joyce’s ‘jobs for the girls’ and free constituency accommodation amount to nepotism and evince conflicts of interest. The public do have a right to know about things that could influence votes or policy. A related point—made by many LGBT folk—is that Joyce shouldn’t have been sounding off about morality while commenting on other people’s sexual arrangements during the same-sex marriage plebiscite. Bill Shorten, while refusing to endorse the ministerial bonkban, has made similar suggestions: understandably so in his case, lest skeletons start waltzing out of his cupboard, too.
However, by imposing an all-encompassing—and specifically sexual—prohibition on his ministers, Turnbull has invited media scrutiny of MPs’ private lives of a peculiarly British sort, the kind the French decry as leading to une scandale anglo-saxonne. As someone who had a ringside seat to this sort of thing for the best part of two years, I feel a bit sorry for the NSW factional powerbroker who told me during the week ‘if any moderate Liberal told the truth on this, all would fall, gay and straight. Jesus, the Right’s intra-factional f–king is bad enough. Sexual availability is a Young Lib’s career move.’
Then there’s the fact it satisfies the sort of public interest test that puts eyeballs in front of shows like Married at First Sight.
I remember thinking, when news of the Gareth Evans-Cheryl Kernot affair first broke, there was potential for the Press Gallery omertà on consensual sexual affairs to unravel, but it didn’t. I do still query the merit of Laurie Oakes’ revelation so long afterwards. This time, because of Turnbull’s stupid blanket rule, I think it will unravel. And that’s bad.
Also last week, I read Theo Barclay’s just published Fighters and Quitters: Great Political Resignations. Barclay is a British political historian and between his book’s covers is a splendid highlights reel of twentieth-century Westminster fallings-on of swords. And while the feeling of schadenfreude he elicits in the reader is often piquant, his stories illustrate two things.
First, people of talent and ability—what Barclay calls ‘great political characters’—are driven from public life thanks to unconventional sexual tastes or a penchant for off-colour humour. He recounts how up and coming politicos now plot their ascent from youth and scour their social media history for potential embarrassments. Their caution is understandable, palpable—and unimaginably dreary.
As I write, for example, the Times reports Winston Churchill had a mistress before he became PM. Now of course people with even the faintest knowledge of history know Churchill was complex and capable of authoring impressive foul-ups (Gallipoli, anyone?), but can you imagine the man who led the country while Britain stood alone being brought down by a sex scandal?
Secondly, Barclay discloses just how consumptive of political will, time, and energy sex scandals really are. Politicians run about like mad things doing rounds of interviews, telling silly whoppers, and surreptitiously briefing against each other. Governance goes out the window. And, in case you needed reminding, governance is why we put them there.
The situation has been made worse in Australia’s case because Bonerby-the-Beetrooter’s misadventures have coincided with the moment a censorious and judgmental form of feminism is in the ascendant. This feminism, like Catholicism and Islam, places impossible constraints on normal human sexuality and will almost certainly founder for the same reasons. Newsflash: men like rooting. A lot. Human beings of both sexes will also put an enjoyable root above many other things, including moral demands attached to their ministerial portfolio.
I’m with Eleanor of Aquitaine on this one, referring to her legendarily promiscuous husband, Henry II: ‘Henry’s bed is Henry’s province. He can people it with sheep for all I care, which on occasion he has done.’
Helen Dale read law at Oxford and was previously Senior Adviser to Senator David Leyonhjelm. She won the Miles Franklin Award for her first novel, and will tour Australia later this year for the release of Book II of her second novel, Kingdom of the Wicked.