I am not here to moralise.
Turnbull, 15 February 2018
This creeping notion that women need protection from men, that we are weak creatures against men’s rampant desire for sex, is not good for women. It’s regressive.
Gay Alcorn, Guardian
Over the last couple of weeks political journalists have been conducting a debate on the ethics of reporting Joyce’s private life that has perhaps been a little pompous as ultimately the decision of what they write about and get published will depend on the newspapers and media outlets that generally employ them.
There has been humbug. Some claimed that there was public interest just as there would be if Turnbull had had an affair. Well yes. There would have been prurient interest in it, no doubt, but attempts to apply that to the usual meaning of “public interest” are unconvincing. There were rumours that Curtin had long-running affairs while he was married, but would knowing the nitty grits of him and Belle at the Kurrajong Hotel have been needed to judge his competence as wartime Prime Minister?
In reality the debate is reflecting a broader one: how do political journalists cover politics that is unravelling, and how far do they follow it down the rabbit hole of reporting on the sex lives of the generally unattractive occupants of Capital Hill?
The Nationals exemplify that unravelling, being a party that more than the other major parties has long ago lost its role but remains at the centre of the political establishment. The Country Party, as it was then called, was formed in the 1920s to represent rural business interest diverging from their metropolitan brethren, especially on tariffs and devaluation, but by the 1970s and early 1980s the slashing of tariffs and floating of the dollar had made it redundant.
Having lost its role representing sectional interests, the Country party did what political parties usually do, become an ideological cause and try to find an audience for it. In the 1980s it changed its name to the Nationals, posing as a social conservative bulwark against the Labor government and the Peacock leadership on issues like AIDS and immigration. This ballooned to farce with the Joh for PM push in 1987. After that fiasco, the Nationals leader Ian Sinclair was dumped and his replacement toned down the rhetoric and tacked closer to the Peacock Liberals.
That was even less successful, and the leader lost his seat at the following year’s election in 1990. There then followed a series of leaders who no one can remember the name of. This has not stopped the rot, and the Nationals have seen the loss of formerly safe seats to independents and other parties – just as Labor is now also experiencing.
The destabilising impact of established parties losing safe seats cannot be over-estimated. It erodes the whole system of internal patronage and central control. It has left National MPs to fend for themselves and rely increasingly on a personal following. Hence the rise of the “maverick” or “retail” National politician, like Joyce, that begins to resemble the independents that threaten to replace them. This comes less from any real connection Joyce has with the electorate but rather a distancing from the political elite with their la-di-dah articulateness and effete ability to string a sentence together.
Bringing Joyce to the leadership was intended to lend what is a fairly obtuse conservative cause some “retail” and the impression that it is backed by real Australians out there, somewhere. This might work on a local level but as another major party found out, putting someone who pitches himself as against the traditional political class into the leadership can be fraught. It has left Joyce isolated and vulnerable to two symptoms of a broader unravelling.
The first was the breakdown in the long running Parliamentary consensus to ignore the citizenship requirements of Section 44 (i) of the Constitution, which forced him to the New England by-election. The second was the breakdown of consensus not to delve into senior politicians’ private lives which held until very recently, and curiously only ended after the recent by-elections when the Prime Minister’s Office was assured that its slim majority remained intact.
Some commentary has suggested that Turnbull’s attack on Joyce has backfired and Joyce has now dug in. But that’s what was happening already on the hope it was going to blow over.
Even stranger has been the argument that Turnbull has damaged the relationship between him and Joyce with Joyce having backed him against the Liberal right. It forgets that Joyce was never a fan of Turnbull taking over from Abbott and immediately after he did so applied conditions to the continuing of the Coalition, which we may never know but can surely guess. It also over-estimates how much Turnbull needs Joyce’s protection from the right even if it exists. It is another example of the under-estimation how damaged the right is, presumably because it is mostly down to an event that neither the right nor left want to acknowledge, the vote for same sex marriage – a disgraceful assertion of public will that last week a committee in the Senate, that pinnacle of Australian democracy, assured us would not happen again if it can help it.
By turning all the issues swirling around Joyce into an old-fashioned morality issue, Turnbull has not only deflected attention away from the more awkward accusations of rorting, but now put the Nationals and the social conservatives on the Liberal right, like Andrews, in the position of having to defend the last thing they want to defend.
But what was more interesting was how Turnbull did it.
It’s been forgotten that the idea for the “bonking ban” wasn’t raised by Turnbull but independent MP Cathy McGowan, and supported by the Greens, following a similar move in the US House of representatives in response to the “Me Too” campaign.
But any connection between Joyce’s affair and what the Me Too is supposed to be about is incomprehensible. There is not the slightest hint that Vikki Campion is having a baby with Joyce and living with him under anything but full consent, precisely the consent that has been denied in the rape and sexual assault allegations that prompted the Me Too campaign.
Unfortunately, instead of posing any real institutional challenge that couldn’t be accommodated in a Hollywood awards ceremony, the direction of Me Too has turned inwards onto one of personal behaviour and morality. This is what Greer and Deneuve warned about, resulting in two leading feminists from a generation that risked a lot (Deneuve her career and imprisonment) and achieved a lot, especially on abortion, being condescendingly ticked off by today’s media feminists who in Australia have not achieved very much at all, especially on abortion.
With his purple ribbon on, what Turnbull did in the Parliamentary courtyard was to take the left-feminist approach approved by McGowan and the Greens and fuse with it good old fashioned moral conservatism to expose Joyce and the Nationals on their own ground. As Gay Alcorn has nicely noted in the Guardian, the result is something that could have been written in the fifties, with the codes of conduct and the protection of helpless women that Greer and Deneuve did so much to break down and today’s regressive feminists have now helped to restore.
The right may still wreak revenge on Turnbull for what he did last week, but they have been further weakened by it. Joyce is clearly finished and the “retail” experiment may be over. But what will the Nationals then replace him with?