At some point, we need to understand politics as a workplace. As a workplace, the participants have obligations towards each other to ensure that the workplace remains welcoming, inclusive, and healthy.
‘Remains’ is perhaps the wrong word. It’s more accurate to say that the workplace is unhealthy, exclusive, and discouraging. But the bigger point is that we should want people to feel like they could seek a political job if they wanted it.
Trashing people’s private lives just because they’re politicians actively works against this goal. Trashing the lives of private people just because they’re associated with politicians actively works against this goal. Forcing the family of politicians into the public light actively works against this goal. Politics should be an attractive job to get ‘normal’ people involved: why are we trying to stop this?
The story about Barnaby Joyce’s affair was broken with a front page picture of somebody who was not Barnaby Joyce. For all the claims that Barnaby’s love life is fair game, the young woman was the face of the story. Soon, journalists were seeking comment from Barnaby Joyce’s wife and family about their separation. Then the partner’s estranged father was uncovered and thrust into the public debate. People have started harassing the partner’s ex-fiance.
The rationale for reporting on the story makes very little sense. Some people have argued that the public needed the story about the affair prior to the by-election last year that returned Joyce to parliament. Apparently the electorate needs to approve of a candidate’s sex life when they go to the polls. Others have argued that the media should have revealed the ‘hypocrisy’ of Joyce’s championing traditional family values during the marriage equality debate while having an affair and child out of wedlock. But what precisely is the hypocrisy? Barnaby himself states that the failure of his marriage is a personal failure of his. Nobody arguing against marriage equality claimed to be a moral saint.
Perhaps a better case is about public funding, but even this is unclear. She held a job as a staffer and the relationship started. What should occur in this situation? It seems unreasonable to expect the workplace situation to continue. Is this what people are expecting to be the outcome? Or that she just resign? Instead, she used her professional networks to get a job in another office. This happens all the time even without affairs being involved. Known quantities are extremely valuable in politics, particularly for staffers.
So what is the story? Is it just fodder for moral police to regulate the sex lives of celebrities? Some have argued that the relationship was an abuse of power, but there’s nothing suggesting that the partner was coerced.
As for the argument that journos have spilled the beans on other politicians — particularly women — isn’t the point that this past behaviour was bad? If the behaviour is bad, it should not happen and the media should be chastised. The behaviour isn’t bad because it is inconsistently observed.
There’s nothing in the specific situation that seems to merit it being in the public domain and, worse, reporting this kind of story is bad as a general principle because it trashes politics as a workplace.
If we want better politics, we need to have greater respect for the line between a professional life and a private life.