This past week marks a watershed in Australian politics. Politicians’ private lives are no longer off limits. We have arrived at the same place as the United States. But unlike the Americans, it isn’t coming from a puritan tradition; it’s coming from the utterly flawed judgement of one of our senior politicians. The Joyce affair has set a dangerous precedent for all politicians, while at the same time doing immense damage to the brand of his own conservative, family values National Party.
In the short term, the collateral damage is the Coalition government’s standing. That is despite Malcolm Turnbull’s efforts in February to quarantine the “world of woe” to Barnaby Joyce, his family and his then pregnant partner. Four months down the track, those efforts were exploded in a paid television interview, salacious in its content, prurient in its appeal and cavalier about its ramifications. Joyce himself told the interviewer he “couldn’t give a shit about the political ramifications”.
In the past, the media discreetly ignored politicians’ family breakdowns, philandering and affairs, and that’s mostly because the offenders were themselves discreet. The old adage “People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones” was also a useful restraint for political opponents and journalists. Sainthood is rare in any of the estates, and the fourth estate is no exception. The other obstacle to fearless reporting is Australia’s particularly restrictive defamation laws.
All of that went out the window when Joyce and his partner, Vikki Campion, accepted a reported $150,000 on the pretext it would “end the circus”. Joyce said it was Campion’s view that if everyone else was making money out of their son, Sebastian, the baby may as well get his share, too. It was as if the pretext of setting up a trust for him somehow exonerates them from charges of venality and hypocrisy. It doesn’t. And the problem for Turnbull and the government remains: this saga is not about to go away.
Joyce has a book to flog. It glories in the title Weatherboard and Iron. He wrote it to show he identifies with the struggles and aspirations of the good, hard-working folk in regional Australia. Maybe he sees it as a chance to reboot his tattered career. This is the most likely explanation for his defiance of calls from party elders, including his predecessors as deputy prime minister John Anderson and Tim Fischer, urging him to think of quitting for the good of his family. He emailed his branch members to tell them he was “still working for New England” and “of course I’m running again”.
But as far as his Nationals colleagues are concerned, last Sunday night’s nationally televised interview was his political death warrant. Kevin Humphries, whose state seat of Barwon is within the boundaries of Joyce’s federal electorate, told Ten Eyewitness News that “for his own sake, Barnaby should move on”. Humphries’ assessment of the damage was chilling for his federal colleagues. He says, “People want consistency in decision-making. You need discipline in government and that’s not currently being displayed, so that’s got to change.”
Joyce’s political nemesis, Tony Windsor, told Radio National he doesn’t believe his rival will last until the election. According to the local paper, the mood in Tamworth, the biggest centre in New England, is very negative towards their federal MP. Windsor says people have woken up to him. The current deputy prime minister and Nationals leader, Michael McCormack, has sniffed the breeze. He told reporters at a news conference with the prime minister during a tour of drought-stricken areas that the decision on Joyce’s future was in the hands of National Party members. That is at complete odds with Turnbull’s claim that he is “looking forward to [Joyce] running again” and believes he’s been a great advocate for regional Australia.
The local members are the people who backed the TV ad campaign in 2016 that none-too-subtly suggested Windsor was having an affair, using the metaphor to frame his support for the Gillard government. Windsor is still furious about it and says it took a toll on his ailing mother and his wife. If they thought running a dishonest smear against a political opponent would resonate in the conservative stronghold, what must they think about their own man parading his infidelity and the prospect of his partner considering an abortion?
On Sunday night, Joyce said he could understand “that people are under incredible, incredible pressure. And Vikki more than most … and I can’t enforce my views on other people.” This is the same Joyce who has been lobbying state Nationals to vote against the bill establishing safe access zones around abortion clinics in New South Wales.
It was the claimed hypocrisy of Nationals in the federal parliament that was the last straw for his colleagues. He attacked unnamed conservative politicians who urged Campion to have an abortion as “absolute scum of the earth people that you can involve yourself with … and that’s your Australian parliament”. If he harbours ambitions to one day lead the party again, it would have to be when most of the current party room are no longer there and those who replace them have no memory.
There are real fears in the Nationals that if Joyce were re-endorsed, he wouldn’t hold the seat. Windsor is keeping everybody guessing about whether he would run, saying he hasn’t made any decisions about his political future. He says there is a credible alternative who could make a good fist of running as an independent. Kevin Humphries says the Nationals have good alternatives of their own. Prominent among them is the member for Northern Tablelands, Adam Marshall, who is a minister in the state government. He has kept a safe distance from the Joyce imbroglio.
Windsor says Joyce will be an “embarrassment for the government for the next 12 months before the election”. Humphries says Joyce needs to pull his head in and stay quiet. No one is counting on that happening. When Windsor tackled Joyce over the scurrilous 2016 whispering campaign, he was told “something snaps in me and I just can’t help it”.
The ructions in the Nationals are more than matched by conniptions on the Senate crossbench. The implosion of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation bloc is a big part of it. Her NSW senator, Brian Burston, is resisting her demands that he quit parliament and “hand back his seat to her”. He is demanding she apologise to him and “retract all the garbage” she’s been saying about him being lazy, untrustworthy and a backstabber. Otherwise he is threatening to refer her to the Senate privileges committee for contempt of the Senate by interfering with the “free exercise” of his vote over company tax cuts.
Worse for Hanson, Burston is seriously considering joining a bloc of four conservative independents. Two of them – he and Fraser Anning – were elected on the One Nation ticket. Another, Cory Bernardi, was elected as a Liberal. Only the Liberal Democrats’ David Leyonhjelm has kept faith with his handful of voters. Some are hoping this show of cynical and deceptive behaviour will encourage voters back to the major parties. But then again, Australians tend to hold politicians in poor regard anyway; self-interested behaviour has been undermining their credibility since Federation. Barnaby Joyce’s saga is just the latest egregious example of it.
The government’s key Senate negotiator, Mathias Cormann, has not given up trying to marshal the numbers for the last tranche of the corporate tax cuts and the 10-year income tax plan. Herding cats would probably be easier, but he’s hoping his determination on the income tax cuts will force Labor to support them. The tactic is clear: if he can hold his nerve and not exclude the most expensive and unfairest element of the package, namely stage three, he can then argue that Labor voted down tax cuts for low- and middle-income earners.
The Greens have decided the full income tax cuts, costing $24 billion by the end of the decade, the largest income tax cut ever, is too expensive to support. The Parliamentary Budget Office shows that by a ratio of 3:1 the overwhelming beneficiaries are men. Twenty per cent of taxpayers at the high end get a lion’s share, with the bottom 80 per cent missing out. Senator Richard Di Natale says Labor has no real choice but to vote down the package if the government refuses to split it.
If Bill Shorten agrees to this, the government can then say Labor voted against tax cuts for lower-paid workers. If, on the other hand, Labor voted for the entire package on the promise it would repeal stage three before it kicks in at the end of the decade, the Greens can claim the Opposition is as bad as the government, favouring the very wealthy. Labor promising to repeal it if it wins the next election is probably as problematic as the Liberals promising to deliver these massive cuts two elections away. Rationality has been deserting the political debate of late.
If one thing in particular is responsible for us not quite noticing, it’s probably the Joyce soap opera. It’s now running for a second season.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 9, 2018 as "The private becomes the political".
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