The spectacle of a national leader being forced into the humiliating disclosure of a profoundly personal episode in his private life prompted in me an uncomfortable flashback to one of the most bizarre rituals of the Soviet Union, my home before finding freedom and a new life in Australia. Private? There was no such thing under the system I fled. Barnaby Joyce must be sharing much the same thought at the moment.
The voyeuristic and salaciously detailed public airing of a guilty couple’s creased and sweaty bed linen — how dare they succumb to erotic urges and rebel against Party discipline by enjoying an unsanctioned roll in the hay! — was the main attraction of otherwise tedious Communist Party meetings. The atmosphere at these, almost pornographic, gatherings was quite peculiar. In deference to other agenda items received with confected and pro forma enthusiasm, the baring of others’ scandalous affairs whipped those present to raptures of prurient curiosity. Shouts of “Details! Give us the details!” would fill the room as sexual improprieties and unorthodox liaisons were aired.
Public humiliation was the grim reward for private dalliances and indiscretions, the airing usually prompted by the wives of unfaithful husbands. Their accusations were underscored by the assumption that two people pursuing a relationship outside the State’s supervision were guilty not merely of libertine tendencies but of eroding the very foundation of the Soviet Union. After the torture of devastating humiliation, the illicit couple would be punished with demotion or expulsion, the female usually bearing the brunt of collectivist disdain. As for the male, publicly crushed and theatrically repentant, he would be returned to the mercies of his family, forever after knowing that his entire future within the system had come to depend on his wife raising no further complaints against him.
Given my memories of the old Soviet Union, let me say that the indecent haste with which the press and some of Barnaby Joyce’s own colleagues are attempting to hound a deputy prime minister out of his job, and quite possibly out of the Parliament itself, pose several simple questions, none of which has been answered.
Question one: Do we want Australia’s political arena to replicate the Soviet Union’s Communist Party meetings and ring to the ritual humiliation of those engaging in unsanctioned relationships?
I hope such is not the case. But if it is, let us be consistent and demand further details, not merely about Joyce’s indiscretion but those of all the politicians who have put hotel rooms to nefarious purposes. If office desks were involved in illicit horizontalism, let us have those juicy details too.
Question two: Since when does the relationship between two consenting — the key word is “consenting” — adults figure in any civilised conversation about an individual’s fitness or otherwise to hold a job and fill a prominent position?
Some people might disagree with me, pointing out how Joyce was an adamant defender of the “family values” during the recent same-sex marriage debate. Therefore, they argue, his personal actions make him a first-class hypocrite. Not in my book. To accuse Joyce of hypocrisy in this regard is to willfully ignore the dividing line between his public and personal lives. Are all political leaders to be judged on what goes on behind closed doors? If so, Bob and Blanche, to name but two, might have an opinion worth hearing.
Question three: Since when are politicians required to emulate the lives of saints? The eternally pure and unfailingly chaste do exist, but it would it be absurd to suggest these pristine souls represent a majority. Why don’t we add to the sainthood the Joyce case suggests is a prerequisite of office the insistence that all candidates be able to walk on water or cure leprosy with a prayer?
We have been further told that Joyce accepted free accommodation from a businessman who might be seen by some as hoping to extract favors in return. If this is true, Barnaby has to own up to this lapse of judgement and repay the accommodation cost from his personal funds. But is it a hanging offence? Methinks not. Does he deserve a reprimand? You bet. But to grind him to a dust? To kick the man when he is down? To take delight in his misery? One needs the lupine instincts of an irredeemable political operator to react that way.
We are also told that he wangled a job for his paramour as his mate’s staff member. Let me pose all you morally outraged men and women yet another question: did you ever do something, perhaps the bend the rules a little, for the one you love. No? Really? Hmmm … I believe every word you say.
Barnaby Joyce is human, with everything that implies. He is not perfect; nobody is. His personal life, which is none of anyone’s business, should not be dragged into the public arena for the delight and edification of voyeurs, wowsers and impatiently malevolent. Rather than a paragon of virtue, my preference is to have an ordinary human, with the frailties and shortcomings that condition implies, as a deputy prime minister. There is something to be said for a human whose foibles reflect those of the voters he represents.
The self-righteous, sanctimonious outrage expressed by some of Joyce’s colleagues and political opponents is not a valid reason to destroy a good man who has done a cracker of a good job for Australia. His recent re-election at a time when the scandal of his private life was common local knowledge suggests that I am not alone in my acceptance of the rather obvious fact that humans are imperfect by nature.
Who is without the fault? You, perhaps, but certainly not me.