18 May 2012

Adultery suffrage

I doubt that Australian conservatives have a more thoughtful commentator than Paula Matthewson. Certainly, there are other conservatives who wear their learning less lightly than she does (e.g. Christopher Pearson), or who are more bombastic (Bolt, Akerman), or simply nasty (Paul Sheehan, Miranda Devine), or who are just toe-ing the line (any Coalition MP). Unlike those people, in her articles for The Kings Tribune and her blog and elsewhere, you have to think about the issues that Matthewson raises. She cannot be lightly brushed aside as those others can. The fact that conservative publications don't publish her is an indictment on them.

She raises some good points in this article, but some of her assumptions about politicians, the media and voters simply cannot be sustained.

Media coverage of politics and government is facile and inadequate as it is. There is too much focus on politicians at a time when individual MPs have never been more tightly controlled by their party machines than they are today (and therefore, the behaviour of the individual MP is less important than Matthewson might imagine).

It is no longer true that parliament is the only aperture between the opaque and arcane workings of government and the people whom they regulate and govern. Journalists concerned with public policy need not be parked in the press gallery processing gossip, which is much of what they do today. They would serve their employers and the public better if they reported on issues and then weaved political announcements/actions into that narrative, rather than presenting politicians in all of their flaws and pettiness and attempting to represent that as "the national debate".

There are two things Matthewson is saying in her article: firstly, that there should be more coverage of politicians' sexual infidelities, and secondly that Australians should not vote for adulterous politicians. I think both are happening anyway. I question whether that's necessarily a good thing for all concerned.

When I started as a staffer at the NSW Parliament in the late 1980s, I mixed with experienced staffers and journalists who would furtively tell me over a drink who was rooting whom, who was gay, who was a drunk, who was a nightmare to work for, who was flat-out weird and creepy, etc. The gossip covered not only politicians but staffers, lobbyists and journalists. Over time different people would move between those classifications, as well as in and out of particular relationships. I would be surprised if Matthewson did not experience something similar in her days at the Federal Parliament.

In the case of Thomson and Slipper, Abbott is ramping up the pressure on them because he regards them as weak links standing between him and the Prime Ministership. If the country fails to collapse utterly after 1 July, if the government develops a reputation for being not too bad and getting things done, he's finished. Abbott's tried the noble agree-to-disagree, we're-all-human thing, he even tried some feeble attempts at policy - now two he has less than two months to bully two guys into dropping the ball, or his chance will have passed. I wish journos would report more on that, and less on what Matthewson would have them cover.

Experienced reporters falling on each morsel of scuttlebutt about Peter Slipper diminish themselves by their admission that they've known what he was like for years. The HSU shenanigans are five years out of date and took place outside Parliament: never again does a journalist have any excuse for refusing to cover a story because of "old news".

As to the question of whether or not people should vote for adulterers, the evidence is clear that they don't. Two prominent examples, happily from either major party, bear this out.

When it was revealed that Cheryl Kernot and Gareth Evans had been having an affair, both were diminished. Evans, the more powerful of the two and a man, had left Parliament and was a private citizen living abroad. Kernot had passed her peak and would go on to defeat by a man who played up his family credentials, but who has little else to recommend him. This story must have been well known at the time within the politico-media context and it is possible that the career arc of both would have been different had the affair been disclosed earlier.

Consider how political history might have been different had Gareth Evans been leading the ALP in 2001.

Ross Cameron had the air of an up-and-coming politician when he was elected in 1996. He had closely studied US Republican politicians and inherited his father's commitment to the rhetoric of "muscular Christianity", family and conservatism. I heard rumours at the time that Ross was a pants man, and it all came out before the 2004 election. Cameron invited his electorate to take him as he was: someone who talked about family and faith but didn't practice much of either. He had trashed the central idea of who he was. Re-electing him threatened to be confused with validation, and he lost his seat just as Kernot had lost hers.

There is a case to be made that infidelity should only become a public issue where there is a clear double-standard. If a politician preaches faith-and-family but doesn't practice it, as Cameron did, that would be grounds for exposure - but not if the same happened to someone who wasn't such a tub-thumper in this regard, who refused to use their family in campaign literature and otherwise played down their private lives. This would mean that conservatives would be held to a higher standard than non-conservatives, and some might regard that as unfair. Would a conservative even recognise the breakdown of a gay/lesbian relationship, with or without legal marriage?

There is, of course, the issue of where an extramarital relationship has an impact on the decisions or perceptions surrounding a senior politician in the execution of their duties: the Profumo Affair in 1960s Britain is a prime example of this, but a) I've had to go back fifty years to another country to get a cogent example, and b) the press gallery have no ability to do investigative journalism (unless you consider 'investigative journalism' to be clicking 'Send/Receive' on your email to check whether minister's office has sent you a press release).

Consider also long-standing relationships that are not concluded in a legal marriage, but which are no less real and which break down as surely as marriages do. Are they worthy of reporting? Consider the politicians who are single, hooking up here and breaking up there - are their personal lives to be covered in the same vacuous way as those of celebrities (at the expense of public policy reporting)?

The tangled but non-adulterous relationship of Michael Lawler and Kathy Jackson is far more interesting right now than any MP. As one of the commenters on Matthewson's article said, where does it end?

One weakness of Matthewson's piece is that she makes no mention of those who are intimately but incidentally involved in a relationship breakdown, but who are not public figures. The role of spouses and families in the lives of politicians is fraught when it comes to public exposure, but with the breakdown of a relationship their public role and a "right to know" becomes tenuous at best. Consider the following individuals involved in recent incidents of the type Matthewson refers to:
  • Professor Merran Evans (wife of Gareth)
  • Gavin Kernot (Cheryl's then husband)
  • Genevieve Cameron (as she then was)
  • Edna Campbell (wife of David, former NSW Transport Minister)
  • Dawn Coulson (wife of Mal)
  • Zoe Arnold (Craig Thomson's wife)
  • Inge-Jane Hall (Peter Slipper's wife)
None of those people appear(ed) prepared for the storm of publicity surrounding the infidelities of their spouses. None of those people has to answer to me, you, Paula Matthewson or any journalist about what does (not) go on within their family lives. It would be glib to declare that being subject to the odd media cyclone at a time not of your choosing is simply part of the lives they had chosen for themselves. It would be the mark of a cynic to declare that such people don't matter.

I still think that would-be candidates for public office should, with their spouses/partners, be led to a quiet room and be forced to sit through that scene from The Right Stuff where the astronaut's wife refuses to speak to the press pack surrounding her home. After watching the scene, the couple should be left to discuss what they had seen and relate it to their own lives; and if the candidate chose to withdraw from nomination, any application fees should be refunded in full.

The motives of a journalist in going after a politician would be as opaque as they are today. After the revelations from the UK, and after my limited experience in dealing with journalists, I am not sure there is much value in them exposing and picking over the messy lives of other people.

Matthewson's link between political infidelity and sportspeople taking performance-enhancing drugs is not strong. Her portrayal of Julia Gillard's position on the carbon price as a uniquely bad breach of faith with the electorate is laughable, particularly when the main alternative admits that he too runs off at the mouth and can't always be trusted.

If you're going after US examples, never mind Anthony Weiner - what about David Vitter? All the publicity anyone could want but still got re-elected, and by conservatives. Clearly, the US is not a strong parllel to Australia in that regard: maximum publicity, wrong result.

Infidelity is a failing among people; not universally, but common enough for it to join the ranks of human flaws. How people deal with it such weaknesses forms part of their character. It isn't true that she's trying to solve a non-problem, but I suspect Matthewson is trying to solve a problem that is either less than she imagines, or would do so in a way that would make the situation worse. Voters are better judges of character than people such as Paula Matthewson credit them; but that failure of credit and trust is part of being a non-populist conservative, I suppose.


  1. Terrific article. Cogent, thought provoking and the best writing I've read all day.

  2. Paula Matthewson sounds like a collector of unwashed 'unmentionables '..... ie she gives snow droppers a bad name.

  3. American at least prefer speaking well of fidelity to voting for it. Compare FDR, Kennedy, Johnson, and Clinton to Jimmy Carter. Newt Gingrich might still be in Congress (as also Livingston and a few others) if he hadn't yielded to the temptation to go after Clinton, and so had his own wanderings brought to light.

  4. An interesting debate. And one we must have, regrettably.... it seems. God/Dawkins forbid we should go down the same path as the Americans, with all their disingenuous breast-beating over Christian values. In any event, I'm on the side of keeping well away from the whole sordid thing and just getting on with the business of government.

    1. Azrael the Cat20/5/12 1:51 a.m.

      I don't think we'll see a (re-)emergency of Christian values campaigning in Australia. That stuff was fringe at best, and even the fringe died out electorally a long time ago.

      It also poses a questionable equivalence between conservative 'out of the boardroom into the bedroom' politics and a nation's religiousity. If the two were related in that way, we wouldn't be in a situation where the near-universally Christian US has a leader openly supporting gay marriage, to majority support from a democrat base that is almost as universally religious as the conservatives over there, while we have an atheist unmarried PM actively opposing gay marriage.

      Some people take that as a contradtion indicating that Gillard can't be speaking truly - but there's enough party and popular support for the issue for her to easily support gay marriage if she authentically believed it - the 'she's opposing it for party reasons' doesn't wash in this case, especially given her manouvering to avoid it being debated at conference and her internal party opposition to the issue.

      What we are seeing is a growing secularisation of both conservativism and prejudice. It was always absurdly utopian to hope that just because people give up their personal collection of fairy tales, there was going to be any meaningful change to world or local politics. Even the Drum has a regular stream of commentators saying variations of 'I'm atheist and a strident homophobe' (well, more along the lines of the recent poster 'I'm no godbother and I can't stand christians or muslims, but gays just aren't natural').

      Religion in the west has long shifted from a doctrinaire institution to a consumer product. In the US there is a church for every single possible collection of political, moral and personal beliefs - including for those whose religious belief is essentially secular (I have in mind the wing of anglican theologians who deny the existence of a personified god, argue that heaven/hell are entirely metaphorical, and that the whole thing should be viewed as a search for the sacred in the natural world - something that could be equally held by many atheists). I'm not saying the latter kind of view is all that common (though it is hardly a freak few either), but that people in the West no longer take their beliefs - whether ontological or moral - from their churches. They choose their churches to match their beliefs.

      If they want a church with an openly gay priest, the anglican church has plenty. If they want one with an openly gay Bishop (i.e. upper management) they might need to move districts, but there's quite a few of those in the Anglican church of the US as well. And that's without getting into groups like the Uniting church, who spent decades conducting gay marriages in protest against the legal prohibition of such marriages in the US and UK.

      Alternatively, if they want to a church that supports their bigotry and tells them that just because they dropped out of school in grade 8, they're still smarter than the geek they used to bully who went on to become a respected scientist, they'll find that too.

      My point is that with religion already a consumption product, taking away religion at this point does nothing. The days of religion governing thought had already passed when Nietzsche described the remaining churches as the tombstones and sepulchres of god.

      I'm atheist, but I couldn't care less whether or when religion dies, because it isn't going to make a lick of difference, aside from possibly the loss of one more institution to bring people of differing classes together. There'll be no shortage of secular bigots just aching to get on in and make some poor kids life miserable.

      And the longer we associate homophobia as a religious phenomenon, the less equiped we are to deal with their secular replacements.

  5. That Wixxy link is a cracker. I can't help but feel you've buried the lead on this one.

    1. Yes, it is. It was either this or another rant about how crap the media are, which may yet come forth.

    2. I`m with m0nty, wixxy`s a cracker.
      Another rant about the crap embedded media sounds great Andrew, there is plenty to go round.

    3. I`m more in your camp than Dragonistas on this one. Hawke and Keatings marriages broke down after they left politics (and were probably breaking down while in office) I really don`t see why their spouse`s needed to be stressed more.

      On the media side, I screeched a fair bit on Dragonista`s wordpress blog

  6. Alphabajangodelta19/5/12 11:20 p.m.

    A colleague of mine was closely involved in the Whitlam govt. The rule back then was do whatever you like, but 'don't put your root on the payroll' and applied both in a specific and general sense [see Jim Cairns]. Paula Matthewson only obliquely alludes to the problem the media face in that in many cases it would be impossible to separate 'politicians lives' from 'journalists lives' whether in a direct sense or a general 'lest ye be judged' form. A little like global thermonuclear war - the only winning move is not to play.

    Finally, I think you're being charitable in your appraisal of Matthewson. I've usually been underwhelmed by her pieces, including the one you refer to. Don't lend your own cred cheaply.

    1. I was comparing her to other Australian conservatives. Name me one better, go on: sweeping denunciations of all conservatives will be read as a cop-out.

      Her piece on political analysis is spot on.

  7. Thanks for the wixxy link - most illuminating

  8. The epitome of perverse, Mr Abbott is considering putting Ross Cameron up again in Paramatta. It personifies the sort of 'Muscular Christianity' both men practice, where the muscle is between their legs and certainly not in their skulls. Whilst at one and the same time putting on a show of rectitude and piety in order to hoodwink 'the mob' into believing they are something they are not.

    Wonder if it will work for Mr Cameron? If it does it will certainly suggest that the Australian electorate has crossed-over to his beloved Republican milieu, of which you speak.