In the interests of transparency, political private lives should be public*


*This post was initially published in Despatches, a daily newsletter written exclusively for my Patreon supporters. A few of those supporters have asked that it be made more broadly available to add to the public discussion. You too can receive Despatches every parliamentary sitting day for as little as $1 a month.

Wednesday’s front page expose of Barnaby Joyce’s messy personal life is the latest example of a journalist or media outlet choosing not to stick to the generally unstated tradition that politicians’ personal lives are off limits when it comes to reporting political matters.

The stated exception to this practice is if the relationship is “in the public interest”. Laurie Oakes would have invoked a justification along these lines when he went public with the relationship between former Democrats leader Cheryl Kernot and senior Labor minister Gareth Evans. 

Let’s be clear why this tradition exists – it’s not necessarily because journalists particularly respect the private lives of politicians and their families (although it should be stressed that some really do).

But it’s also because any wholesale public scrutiny of the interconnected personal lives within Canberra’s parliament house would potentially uncover many other relationships between politicians, staff and also members of the media.

No, I’m not suggesting that our parliament is the modern equivalent of a roman orgy, or that the media runs exclusively on pillow talk. I am suggesting that undisclosed relationships between journalists (or commentators) and politicians or their staff can be an unseen influence on what or how that journalist reports. And voters deserve to know about that influence so they can take it into account.

I’ve been interested to hear and read today that some journalists have claimed the Barnaby Affair (sorry) couldn’t be reported because the rumour could not be substantiated. However that doesn’t seem to stop the some elements of the media reporting unsubstantiated information in the form of anonymous leaks.

As for any politician involved in an extra-marital relationship, I’ve written before that it’s in the public interest to know this because it goes to their character. It may also go to their state of mind; we now know that Joyce has been under considerable stress for many months as a result of his marriage breakdown. 

That stress may have contributed to the Deputy PM’s poor (let alone juvenile) decision to dump well-performing Darren Chester from the Cabinet. [Some of Joyce’s colleagues have made similar comments to the media. And this subsequent article claims senior staff left Joyce’s office because of the relationship with his staffer.]

Yes, yes, I know – marriages break down, and relationships can and do form in close working quarters. None of that is new, and in most cases it should not be newsworthy. But when this happens to a politician, voters deserve to know. It’s in the interests of greater transparency in our political system and better public understanding of what influences the political news they consume.

Perhaps there’s even an argument that our polity would benefit from voters having a greater appreciation that politicians’ lives are as complex and challenging as their constituents’ lives – with conventional or unconventional families (as we saw with Labor’s Susan Lamb today), tidy or messy personal lives, and a broad range of lived experiences.

12 thoughts on “In the interests of transparency, political private lives should be public*

  1. Well put and a convincing response to the self-serving nonsense dished out by several high profile members of the press gallery over the past few months.

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  2. I put that “public interest” question to some journalists on twitter (yes, not the best medium) and they became very testy. I don’t quite understand why this is getting such an emotional response from some quarters.

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  3. I would add … especially when the politician concerned has used ‘family values’ as both part of a campaign strategy, as well as defending any policy initiatives in which they have been involved. I won’t even begin to question the appropriateness of a staff relationship of this nature where the power dynamic is never equal.

    PS. On a personal note – keep writing.

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  4. Outing the hypocrisy of the personal life of a politician is fine by me. Perhaps the public will not have such unrealistic expectations. If a politician creates the illusion of electability because
    ‘ I have a beautiful, supportive wife and children, a Model family, in line with my religion. I am socially conservative which means I love the status and status quo of being a community leader and legislator and role-model speaking on podiums…
    The sanctity of life means I resist allowing females their autonomy when deciding to have an abortion. It’s so selfish! I have the duty and power to trade in weapons, go to war, dig up the earth and pollute the air – that’s what turns me on.
    Our dutiful chaste wives live in a nice home and hardly ever see us. It’s only natural to be drawn to others you spend a lot of time with. Even PM Chifley knew he could do a better job if he had the convenience of sexual relations with his Secretary. You’ve got to keep a clear head’.
    If it’s not a secret there’s an opportunity for the ex-wife to get her share of what they’ve built together and move into a nice unit or something.

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  5. I take it that your view is also that all gay MPs should be outed, and in the era when it would have been impossible for someone of alternative sexuality to be elected we should have done without the enormous contribution some of them made. It goes to character doesn’t it?

    Today perhaps being gay would not kill a candidate’s changes, but what about other sexual matters. Does the electorate have the right to know if an MP is in a consensual non-monogomous relationship? If they have any particular kinks?

    There’s an argument for release in this case because of the MP-staffer nature of the relationship, and because of his hypocrisy. I’m not sure I agree with those, but I can see the point. But the idea that the public should know about an affair is very dangerous indeed.

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    1. Does “dangerous” include the outcomes of the revelations of the Mandy Rice-Davies, Christine Keeler, Stephen Ward, John Profumo affair, or three Australian examples I can think of?
      It is vital that we know about the behaviours of those who would rule over us.

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  6. Yet you argue there is a public interest in knowing who they are having sex with. We’ve had plenty of gay politicians who got married as cover. If their spouse was not aware of this then that’s cruel, but I am not sure finding out through the media is the appropriate route. Yet often the spouse did know – plenty of gay men and lesbians getting married to cover for each other. But your rule would have seen those cases dragged into the spotlight because “For any politician involved in an extra-marital relationship, I’ve written before that it’s in the public interest to know this because it goes to their character.” Similarly, there was an attempt a few years ago to smear one politician on the basis that, allegedly, she had an open relationship with her then husband. I have no idea if it is true. I do know it is none of my business. But plenty of people would say it “goes to character”.

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