Terry Barnes advised Tony Abbott when he was a Cabinet minister in John Howard’s government. He is also a fellow of the Institute of Economic Affairs.
If ConservativeHome readers think British politics are a soap opera, they should try Australia’s. On Friday, Barnaby Joyce, the Deputy Prime Minister resigned his post after intense pressure over his complicated love life.
This is a first in Australian politics, where a ‘what happens in Canberra, stays in Canberra’ ethos long has prevailed over reporting politicians’ private lives.
Last year, Joyce left his wife for his press secretary, and got her pregnant. While this was widely-known in political circles for months, it was only splashed publicly by a Sydney newspaper a fortnight ago, and since then it’s been the only political story in the country: think blanket Brexit coverage, with testosterone and steroids.
Like so many politicians before him, not least in Britain, Joyce’s leadership image was founded on his wholesome family, backed by a loyal wife who suppressed her own life ambitions to further his.
A staunch, socially-conservative campaigner for family values, and defender (while admittedly declaring ‘I’m no saint’) of traditional marriage in Australia’s same-sex marriage vote late last year, Joyce’s plight was neatly summed up this week by US-based British satirist John Oliver: ‘You might think that that is hypocritical, but in reality Joyce has such incredible family values that he can’t restrict them to just one family’.
With media coverage becoming ever more histrionic, Australians salivated over the rush of sordid but salacious details of the affair: the pregnant partner and the anger of Joyce’s repudiated wife and their daughters, who certainly were not standing by their man.
By Friday it had got to the point that Malcolm Turnbull, the Prime Minister, whose majority hangs by a one-seat thread and whose Liberal Party is in a brittle coalition with Joyce’s Nationals, could not bring himself to express confidence in Joyce, a week after the pair had a very public tit-for-tat brawl about the Government’s handling of this self-inflicted political crisis.
Turnbull’s puritanism over Joyce’s situation, highlighted by his ludicrous and unenforceable ‘bonk-ban’ decree prohibiting sexual relations between his ministers and their special advisers, made Theresa May’s recent treatment of her now-departed deputy Damian Green look highly gracious by comparison. That he sought approval from his own wife in imposing it made it look even sillier.
It was notable that, in resigning, Joyce did not feel obliged to tell Turnbull, who is in Washington meeting Donald Trump (and who could give him some pointers on managing sex scandals), but merely advised the Acting Prime Minister back in Australia. Relations between the governing coalition partners, and their leaders, have got as poisonous as that, and the Corbyn-esque Labor opposition watches gleefully.
Until this scandal broke a fortnight ago, Joyce was the Boris Johnson of Australian politics: a colourful and entertaining individualist, with a Teflon factor that somehow protected him and his indiscipline from the consequences of foibles and misjudgements that would have ended the career of any ordinary politician, and which endeared him to the Australian public in spite of everything. His consequent belief in his untouchability ensured his downfall.
This overhyped scandal, and his and the Government’s bumbling response to its public exposure (incredibly, Joyce seems to have assumed it would never be revealed), has transformed him from a Johnson into Ukip’s Henry Bolton, just another pathetic middle-aged male politician who loses everything in a mid-life crisis. And unlike, say, Cecil Parkinson once, or perhaps Green now, there seems no way back to high office for Joyce.
The conservative side of Australian politics is in disarray, its modest poll recovery has been torpedoed by Joyce’s antics and the Government’s appalling management of the political storm they caused. Turnbull’s prospects of being competitive at the general election due in 2019, let alone winning it, likely have been dealt a fatal blow from this testosterone-driven fiasco.
As for Australia’s political culture, which unlike the UK largely has been blissfully free of private life ‘gotcha’ moments for public figures until now, the new, post-Harvey Weinstein puritanism and prurience frenzy that stormed Westminster last November has now reached Down Under. As journalists and gossip columnists now ferret furiously for proof of ministers breaching his ‘bonk-ban’, it now remains to be seen how Turnbull reaps the whirlwind of l’affaire Barnaby.