Barnaby Joyce, Sex and Finance

The insatiable appetite of Anglophone cultures for the prurient is of a different order to others.  But it is an appetite tinged by horror, squeamishness and concern.  Added to that such traditional markers, not to mention such markers as marriage, family and conservative values, and the whole thing becomes indigestible.

Australian politics is awash with only one story at the moment.  There are no grand schemes and visions, only the prospect of whether the Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce did wrong by his family in impregnating a political staffer. (That now former staffer, Vikki Campion, is afforded various names in the relationship argot: partner, girlfriend, assistant, bun-in-oven carrier.)

The nature of this explosive interest, repeatedly advertised as a lack of interest (“we don’t have an interest in his private life”) has a tinny quality to it, largely given the general awareness amongst government members, staffers and the Canberra press gallery about Mr. Joyce’s extra-marital pursuits. The Daily Telegraph, needing copy to fill certain, generally vapid columns, decided to break the tacit consensus.  Where there is sex, there is hypocrisy.

Any “sex scandal” immediately triggers a discussion about how the political figure operates in public, and the world of private endeavour.  Aristotle famously suggested a division between political pursuit and household matters.  The French continue to maintain a somewhat artificial distinction between the two, deeming the transgression of the personal as separate from the political.  As with everything else, this is a matter of degree and weight.  Privacy can be used as an unwarranted cover for abuse.

Parallels have bitten.  The interminably present Michelle Grattan, who knows Canberra’s press gallery circles with a cloying intimacy, compares the Joyce-Campion affair with that of Jim Cairns’ and staffer Junie Morosi. The latter, taking place in the torrid years of the Whitlam government, was different, claims Grattan, because Morosi “was a political player, through her enormous influence on her boss.”

Of Joyce-Campion, Grattan offered a different reading. “No-one suggests Campion, who was deliberately transferred out of Joyce’s office nearly a year ago, was a political mover-and-shaker.”  But Joyce had been, Grattan could sense with razor sharp intuition, “more distracted and difficult, though his citizenship imbroglio was a factor too.”

These observations are, at best, trite.  The exertion of sexual influence can spill over into other realms.  If you gaze long enough at the sexualised politician, the bed hopping political operator, you are bound to see sex and office converge, even conflate.  Pillow talk is political talk; the affairs of the heart are also affairs of the next meeting, the next agenda, the next trip funded by the public purse.  Bedrooms are places of breeding of all sorts, conspiracies included.  The hatchet man or woman, keen to find a story on the linking of the two spheres of public office and private endeavour, is bound to find a link, however forced.

The focus of these revelations has shifted from the softly-softly dimension (respect for privacy; observance for boundaries) to hard political realities, notably those centred on finance.  The sexual, in other words, is becoming political.  Money is starting to talk.

This transformation is an example of political anthropology in action.  Limits are being tested, and these are dangerous to the political parties concerned.  It should be axiomatic that affairs between staffer and politician, often of the extra-marital sort, find form in a distant capital, away from family and domestic comfort.  Animal behaviour, and needs, press on relentlessly, a rage that requires satiation.  Ultimately, Joyce’s profile counts, soaring, albeit laboriously, over others.

The Nationals feel that their primary retail product in politics, one seemingly indestructible (Teflon coated against the gaffe; immune to punishment for such slips ups as his dual citizenship) has been soiled.  The Australian Labor Party smell the prospect of impropriety in terms of finances.  After all, the Australian Prime Minister keeps insisting on “jobs growth”, and Joyce may well have taken this to heart in encouraging colleagues to form a position (or positions) specifically for the future mother of his child.  These include one in the office of Resource Minister Matt Canavan and subsequent to that, the Nationals whip Damian Drum.

Deputy Labor leader, Tanya Plibersek, flagged something of a blueprint for what is to come to the ABC on Sunday.  “I don’t think [Joyce] needs to account for his personal behaviour, his relationships, to the public.”  But “the area of the expenditure of taxpayers’ funds” was a matter of “genuine public interest”, namely, whether jobs were specifically created for Campion, or whether there had been “the expenditure of taxpayer funds on travel.”

Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, whose portfolio oversees the employment of political staff, is clearly asking everyone else to move on – there is nothing to see on that score.  Campion “is clearly somebody who is qualified to do the job and she was hired in certain positions based on merit and there’s nothing really further to add.”

The question on all lips, from press gallery hacks to the morally indignant, is whether Joyce will survive.  Crystal ball gazer and political tea leaf reader Niki Savva feels that the coffin is being readied for Joyce’s political career.  On the ABC’s Insiders program, Savva unequivocally claimed that “his career is over. Maybe not in the short term but certainly in the medium term.”  That, ultimately, will be a matter for the political apparatchiks who are now pouring over the squalid details.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: Read other articles by Binoy.