Are pollies’ kids fair game in political journalism?

The publication of a toddler’s photo simply because of the colour of her dress might well mean it’s time for campaign strategists to reconsider the role of MPs’ children in political life.

We already know the line between public and private has become impossibly thin since the advent of the internet and our avid uptake of social media.

Potential employers can not only check the veracity of jobseeker claims, but also what they do after hours, the “type” of people they associate with, and the extent to which they’re more diligent at skolling beers than getting to work on time. The same goes for people looking for that one special person (or not, as the case may be) and parents checking up on their kids or keeping in touch with extended families.

Enhanced privacy settings have certainly helped to reduce any unwanted snooping that this online exposure can invite, but selective access to one’s social media profiles can be a two-edged sword if you’re a politician trying to engage online.

Any parliamentarian worth their salt knows online engagement is a two-way exercise. It’s not just about broadcasting the latest press release or speech on Twitter or Facebook, but making a genuine connection with voters. This interaction requires participating in real, unscripted conversations, which is a risk in itself. However the more savvy MPs seek to heighten the authenticity of their online presence by posting photos of themselves – often accompanied by their families – doing “normal” things to demonstrate how in touch they are with the “real world”.

This of course exposes politicians’ family members to a level of accessibility and scrutiny unknown before our lives went online. During John Howard’s time as PM, we barely saw his children other than on the podium on election night.

The tendency of Rudd and Abbott (or their campaign strategists) to impose their families on voters has been grasped by some elements of the political media as justification for treating politicians’ partners and kids as fair game.

This changed as political strategists on both sides of the fence, increasingly enamoured with US-style politics, started to emulate the Yanks’ habit of wheeling out politicians’ wives and children to increase their candidates’ “family credentials”. Hence the appearance of Kevin Rudd’s wife Therese spruiking her husband’s wares at a Labor campaign launch. The Rudds took this tactic even further during one of Rudd’s non-challenges against his successor Julia Gillard, when voters were treated to magazine articles and social media blitzes from both Therese and their daughter Jessica.

To date, only Tony Abbott has emulated the Rudds’ family-campaign efforts, rarely being seen on the election campaign trail without one or more of his telegenic daughters in an apparent effort to improve his standing with female voters.

This tendency of Rudd and Abbott (or their campaign strategists) to impose their families on voters has been grasped by some elements of the political media as justification for treating politicians’ partners and kids as fair game.

So we were treated during the last federal election campaign to an “expose” based on a Facebook photo of Rudd’s son smoking a cigar, apparently undermining the increase in cigarette tax that had ostensibly just been imposed to offset the burden placed by smokers on the health budget (as opposed to being a relatively painless tax grab).

And the intrusion into Frances Abbott’s private academic files (at the encouragement of senior colleagues and a media outlet) could arguably have had much less media cachet if she’d not been an almost permanent fixture alongside Tony Abbott during the election campaign, thereby becoming a proxy for attacks on her father.

In both these instances, a case can at least be made for the private lives of political children to be exposed to media scrutiny in the name of the public interest.

Yet there is no similar justification for the splashing of a toddler’s photo in the news media today simply because of the colour of her dress. The photo was apparently sourced from the public Facebook page of Greens Senator Larissa Waters, and published in order to demonstrate Waters’s alleged hypocrisy by equating her concern about gendered toys to being a “war against pink”.

While the photo was indeed in the public domain, its use in this way bordered on the irresponsible.

The actions of a child do not invalidate the political positions of their parents and it is nonsense to suggest so.

To reduce any future temptation to make that allegation, perhaps it is time to reconsider the role of MPs’ children when it comes to election campaigning and ongoing political life. Even US President Barack Obama may be inclined to rethink the merit of including his daughters in “benign” photo opportunities since the Thanksgiving Turkey incident.

Having a politician for a parent is tough enough: parliamentarian parents are rarely at home and even when they are home they’re either on the phone, glued to the television, or simply tired and cranky. MPs’ kids shouldn’t have to contend with specific media attention because they’ve been used to enhance their parent’s political brand, nor should they be used in an attempt to bring a politician down.

It’s time to end the use of kids as political props, and for campaign strategists to concede the value of doing so is outweighed by the additional burden it places on politicians’ families.