Friday, February 09, 2018

Barnaby Joyce and the question of public versus private morality

In my 16 December 2017 round-up, A chaotic three weeks in Australian politics!, I wrote in part:
Saturday 2 December saw the New England by-election. This had been a nasty campaign. 
From the social media feeds, I learned far more of Mr Joyce's personal life than I ever wanted to know. I kept wanting to say stop. Mr Joyce is a public figure, but what you are doing is not fair on anybody else.
I deliberately did not provide details. However, over the course of the campaign the twitter feeds provided accumulating material and detail. Not all this material was correct. An apparent example is the story that one of Mr Joyce's daughters drove down Tamworth's Peel St in a car with “Barnaby Joyce” branding, yelling at people not to vote for him through a megaphone. However, core details were fleshed out at interminable length. As the campaign proceeded, the tone became increasingly angry with anger directed in part at the mainstream media for not reporting. To drive this point home, many of the tweets were copied to journalists. If you just scroll back through the #NewEnglandVotes twitter feed you will get a feel.

Following the by-election, the matter rested until the newscorp media decided to run the story. Mrs Joyce confirmed basic details but asked for privacy. Fat chance. Now the barrier has been breached, the story has run and run. I don't know what the Joyce family is going to do, although their Tamworth home is reportedly for sale. It's hard enough managing a deeply personal thing like a marriage breakdown, harder still in the withering glare of national publicity.

The local media in particular were placed in a difficult position, something covered in part by Jamieson Murphy's piece in the Northern Daily Leader. They had to balance questions of proof, the right to privacy. the question of public interest in a frenetic campaign. I'm not sure how I would have handled it had I been an editor. I would have been conflicted.

Some of those who oppose Mr Joyce are arguing that the failure to report affected the election outcome. That's possible, although I'm doubtful. The matter was widely covered on social media and was the subject of considerable local gossip. Press coverage might have cost him some votes, but might equally have gained him some from those believing that this was part of an already perceived campaign against Mr Joyce.

While reporting might not have affected the election result at the time, I do think that the current controversy will have some adverse political effects on Mr Joyce and the National Party. Of more importance, however, is what the case might mean for the dividing line between public and private morality. Are the Daily Telegraph and  the other newscorp outlets in their role as "defenders" of public morality taking us down the path previously followed by the British tabloids with their sometimes salacious coverage of moral, generally sexual lapses, by British public figures? Alternatively, will Australia follow the route that the US seems to be going of outright bans on  sexual relations between elected officials and their staff? Or maybe both, since the second is likely to lead to the first anyway?

I don't know. I can't answer these questions. The current sometimes febrile debate around relationships suggests a continuing shift in attitudes towards morality, the emergence of new views on what constitutes acceptable behaviour, new views increasingly enforced by various forms of social and legal sanctions. The effect appears to be a progressive widening of the scope of public morality at the cost of private morality.  


Anonymous said...


My first reaction was like yours, though perhaps I overlooked some of Mr Joyce's "family values" alignments which bring him closer to Ross Cameron territory.

Now I'm not so sure. You say:

"The matter was widely covered on social media and was the subject of considerable local gossip. Press coverage might have cost him some votes, but might equally have gained him some from those believing that this was part of an already perceived campaign against Mr Joyce."

What I think that understates is the extent to which press coverage tugs at any loose threads. Joyce knows this, which is why he did his best to keep a lid on it. [Mixed metaphor alert.] It looks as though Shari Markson was party to this with her pre-election stories about him being "harrassed" when surely she knew full well the true story waiting to break. In this case, the loose threads are probably the way in which the political class lives high on the hog and smooths its way with actual or perceived entitlements. And though Joyce hasn't said anything to parliament, if he is undone it will be by the secondary steps taken that he comes undone rather than just because he left his wife. There will certainly be voters out in New England now who regret that they gave him the benefit of the doubt now that they know the wool was pulled over their eyes, if not attribatably to Joyce ("living with his sister" [!]) then still at his behest.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, marcellous.

I'm not convinced about the pulling wool bit for two reasons. The first is that with the exception of the Greg Maguire accommodation donation, most of the story including Ms Vikki Campion's move to Senator Canavan was known. A qualification here though. As the story broke through social media I did a fair bit of my own investigation. So I'm almost certainly better informed than many in the electorate. The second is that the story was breaking quite late. If the MSN had run with it then I think that I am right in terms of local reactions.

I said that I though that the stories would do damage to Mr Joyce and the NP in the longer term. The damage here runs at two levels. The first is the extent to which the minute inspection now going on turns anything up that shows a breach in the rules. I suspect that Mr Joyce is alright here, but I don't know.

Assuming that no hanging offences turn up, then we have the question of the impact of the whole story. At a local level, my contact/friend network has a bias towards Mr Joyce's opponents. Here there is outrage. However, this network misled me at the start of the last general election because it turned out to be unrepresentative of local opinion. So while I am sure that there is discomfort, I'm actually not sure how this is playing out locally.

More broadly, the effect is at best a total distraction, at worst it will leave a tarnish that holds regardless of the detail.

Anonymous said...

The minute inspection fuelled by flames of outrage after publicity in the press can do a lot more harm than well-informed people like you with an interest in the subject already knowing much of the story. I still think there will be members of the GP who will think there was some wool pulled.

In some ways, as in all such affairs, it is not just the affair which is the problem, but what it reveals to ordinary punters about the insider high-life, which tends to incite a certain amount of envy and rage.

Incidentally, if you caught it, I didn't think much of Paul Barry's take on this on Media Watch. Didn't amount to much more than "the public's interested so it's in the public interest." That's just scratching the surface. He should have spent a bit less time on the hair loss story.

Anonymous said...

"He should have spent a bit less time on the hair loss story"

Nothing wrong with the occasional scalping, marcellous. And I'm not sure I agree with your "ordinary punters" or "members of the GP" comments either?

Nowhere mentioned in this is the press gallery's (PG's?) need to maintain lines of communication with the parliamentarians - no doubt causing some to turn a blind eye to personal failings they are also aware of, and probably participate in.

Anyway, like the #metoo witch hunt, I expect we'll now see more of this salacious stuff, on both sides - instead of any actual real analysis of our country's problems.


Anonymous said...

Well, yes, kvd, one reason this sort of stuff has stayed out of the public eye most of the time in Oz (compared, eg to the UK) is that the journalistic and political pool is relatively small which can inhibit pissing in it.

Did you actually catch PB's "analysis" on Media Watch? "Threadbare" comes to mind.

Personally I'm absolutely no fan of BJ but I'm not enthused by the argument that his downfall is justified because of his claimed hypocrisy on the basis of stated attitudes to marriage (predictable and laughable but not particularly inconsistent with leaving his own - it's not as if marriage isn't subject to divorce or separation even if confined to heterosexual couples as before) or Gardasil (affair with a thirty-something year-old not inconsistent with disapproving of young girls being "promiscuous").

Anonymous said...

marcellous I believe you will find that Jim considers me the foremost nonfan (unfan?) of BJ on this blog - not that I would discourage your own contributions :)

No, I think I'm in agreement with you on his ssm and Gardasil efforts; it's more of a worry to me that he seems to have passed his parcel around between several willing assistants, each of whom are earning a Queen's shilling or three, that annoys me.

I did not watch MW, but will take your analysis as correct, as it fits with past experience. I get my daily 5 minute fill of virtuosity from a quick browse of the Guardian website these days.


Anonymous said...

That said, you have to admire the language involved here.

By far the best, and most reasonable, comment was reported earlier today from a Qld Nat who said something like "you don't shoot your best stallion just because he's jumped into a neighbour's paddock".

This is why I love Australia :)


Jim Belshaw said...

Hi both. I haven't commented further on this one, in part because I am waiting for the story to unfold, in part because I find it so depressing. I couldn't help noting the irony that the ABC is running a two part doco on Bob Hawke at the same time. Graham Richardson's comments on Mr Hawke were illuminating if somewhat elliptic. I think that Mr Hawke was a very good PM, but I also think that Richardson is right that he could not have survived current scrutiny and attitudes. I note Peter van Onselen's comment this morning that one difference was that Mr Hawke did not get anyone pregnant.

I hadn't watched Media Watch although I did so once marcellous referred me to it. I agree that the summary if the public is interested its in the public interest. Mr Barry displayed a certain unseemly glee in arguing this. Perhaps he should stick to hair treatments?

The story has now reached the point that it's going to be very difficult for Mr Joyce to survive as leader. My best guess is that he will probably stand down but remain as member for New England. However, the local media is already talking about who might run if he resigns as MP.

I may talk about the winners and losers in all this later when the dust has settled. I do think that a line has been crossed that cannot be recovered. I think that the damage extends beyond that.

Looking back, I think that Mr Joyce should have released key details himself during the election campaign instead of relying on the privacy argument. The scale of social media coverage during the campaign suggested that the story would break sooner or later. By acting then he might have lost the election, I suspect not, but it would have minimised the consequent collateral damage especially for those directly involved.

It's all very messy.

Anonymous said...


A friend emailed me a reference to an opinion piece by Stephanie Dowrick (Issues of Integrity, Not Sex) on the blog it's worth a look.


Anonymous said...

I read Stephane Dowrick's post. It implies Joyce was a country solicitor, whereas his last occupation pre-politics was as an accountant. The basic thesis seems to be that because politicians are paid a lot and more than they might have earned otherwise they lose their right to privacy. She says it is not a "sex scandal" but still has a swipe at Joyce and the woman in question for their conduct. However I think she is on to something about the "sense of entitlement" perhaps because I was already banging on about that in my earlier comment when I referred to "what it reveals to ordinary punters about the insider high-life, which tends to incite a certain amount of envy and rage."

Anonymous said...

Hey Jim

There are so many important issues here... what can I say?
this is so much your area. Please comment.


Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Sue. I'm sorry for not responding. I delivered a lecture in Armidale Saturday as part of the opening weekend for the new permanent exhibition of the Hilton collection at NERAM and so have been otherwise engaged. I thought Stephanie Dowrick's piece was a bit silly. It's an example of just how muddy and mixed things can become.

Because its a long comment that over-ran the Google comment character limits, I am breaking it into two parts.

This business started with the affair between Vikki Campion and Mr Joyce. I don't know when the affair began, although it seems to have gone in phases. Normally one would say the those details were not or should not be a matter of public interest, but all the surrounding issues have given dates an apparent importance. This SBS piece gives some of the reported dates. Note that some care has to be taken in the imputations attached to dates and movements in this and other stories such as Miranda Devine's.

I know of no evidence that the affair was other than consensual. I can imagine how it might have happened in the pressure cooker atmosphere where both were working and travelling together all the time. Ms Campion is clearly a very able woman. The suggestion that Mr Joyce took advantage of the power relationship strikes me as a little silly. I have no idea who made the first pass.

At the time Ms Campion moved to Senator Canavan's ministerial office, April 2018, she was clearly not Mr Joyce's partner. That did not happen until much later after the pregnancy and the final marriage break up. There was no breach of the ministerial guide lines as such.

On 25 July 2017, Senator Canavan resigned as minister. SBS reports that Ms Campion moved briefly back to Mr Joyce's office before moving shortly after (a few weeks)to National Whip's Damian Drum's office in August. On 27 October, Mr Joyce was ruled ineligible to sit in Parliament, triggering the New England by-election. That same month, Ms Campion takes stress leave from her job in Mr Rum's office.

The move to Mr Drum's office was presented in part as part of the redeployment of Senator Canavan's staff. This one is a little more problematic, but I doubt that there was a breach of the ministerial guidelines since the evidence is that Ms Campion was still not Mr Joyce's partner.


Jim Belshaw said...

Comment part 2

Ms Campion's baby is apparently due in April 2018. This suggests that she became pregnant some time in July 2017. Presumably Mr Joyce and Ms Campion became aware of the pregnancy some weeks later, almost certainly after she moved to Mr Drum's office.

I have the strong impression from the time line that the affair stopped and then started up again. certainly some of the comments from Mr Joyce's suggest this. Whether the couple saw it in quite that way is unclear. What is clear that some time after the pregnancy was confirmed they chose to have the baby and be together.
Was Ms Campion's job in Senator Canavan's office a job for the girls? The short answer is I don't know. What is clear, I think, is that Ms Campion's work history, demonstrated skills and value to the party meant that she was eminently suited to do the work. If you want to use the private sector analogy so beloved by the PM, it may be that the job re-deployments where as (has happened in the private sector) designed to resolve an office romance where both parties were of value to the firm.

The question of ministerial entitlements and probity has come up. After detailed investigation, two issue seem to have identified.

One is the number of days Mr Joyce claimed in Canberra. I also saw a reference to TA claimed for staying in the electorate. At this point, there is no evidence that Mr Joyce breached the rules. The argument comes back to perceptions about what is right.

The second is the free rent in Armidale received by Mr Joyce which, it is suggested, conferred a benefit on Mr Maguire because some APVMA people stayed at a motel owned by Mr Maguire. Again, there is no evidence at this point that rules were breached. Given the range of accommodation in Armidale, it was inevitable that some would stay there. We are also talking about a reported $6,000 in APVMA bookings versus rent foregone of $14,000.

I will write something more on all this in due course when further facts are known. At this point, I would note that there are no no wins or winners in all this, just losers at personal and governance levels.

Faced with another Party over which he has no control and a situation where Ministerial guidelines do not appear to have been breached, an outraged PM has responded by introducing what has been called the bonk ban forbidding any sex between ministers and their staff. In doing so, his supporting comments as well as the responses from others mean that the private lives of politicians and indeed anybody else of some prominence are now effectively open slather so long as you can mount a case that the public is interested.

The dividing line between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour in both the private and public sectors, in Australian life in general, has been pushed to the right, further diminishing the acceptable private space.

As I said, I will write more on this later. In the meantime, I must say that I felt quite uncomfortable tracking through all this, but that just reflects the way the whole situation has evolved.

Anonymous said...

Very much agree with your summation Jim - and share (or at least identify with) your "discomfort" in having to 'timeline' another human's personal affairs to identify any public - as opposed to private - matters of interest. And they say pollies are underpaid?

To my mind, the only item of interest is the "warehousing" (not my word; it's been used elsewhere) of Ms Campion in other offices during/before the first trimester. And I deliberately write that knowing, accepting, illustrating, just how far down the civility pole we all thus find ourselves.

The nonsense of Shorten's attack on benefits accruing to BJ's mate in providing motel accommodation to members of a department under his control illustrates just how little actual "dirt" his opponents have been able to dig up.

The PM bonking ban is an overreach - an unenforceable, unacceptable intrusion on the private lives of his fellow parliamentarians - interesting only in what might be reported should he lose the next election, when Bill Shorten will have to review the unrealistic standard imposed. Or maybe that's the point?

I read that Dowrick piece, and the comments, and came away embarrassed by the inability of all to divorce ill-formed personal opinion from clear analysis of what, if any, problem was being discussed - and yet I've read somewhere that that blog platform is a respected voice? Infantile stuff, I thought.


Anonymous said...

Hi Jim
Thank you for providing those helpful comments. As you say, there are no winners.


Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Sue and kvd. As you both realise, I find all this very depressing. I am also not in a position to throw stones in any case. I met my wife when she was working for me.

Mr Shorten kinda blows in the wind. Now he suggests that Labor will not overturn bonking bag and that the Joyce matter supports the creation of a federal ICAC even though nothing so far discovered would probably trigger ICAC action.

In fairness to Mr Shorten, I have just listened to his comments on the change ministerial code. He is dismissive of it's importance but will just let it stand.

I guess that we have to wait and see how all this will evolve!