Leading article Australia

Bucking Barnaby

24 February 2018

9:00 AM

24 February 2018

9:00 AM

Something doesn’t quite add up. On the one hand, the Prime Minister’s spouse, Lucy Turnbull, proudly announces via a soft TV interview that she gives advice to her husband on important political matters. Fair enough. Many a successful Prime Minister, from Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan to John Howard, has similarly looked to their better half for advice. Which figuratively speaking, if not literally, makes these hard-working husbands and wives important ministerial advisers. Although technically not on the payroll, they may as well be courtesy of the perks of office they inevitably receive from the taxpayer.

But at the same time, the advice that Mrs Turnbull so eagerly gave her husband last weekend, which he hastily acted upon, is that members of his Cabinet no longer be allowed to sleep with their advisers (or any other staff).

So let’s get this straight: it is morally ‘shocking’ for a Deputy PM to be in a sexual relationship with Person X who happens to be employed to give him advice, but it is morally praiseworthy for a PM to seek professional advice from Person Y with whom he happens to be in a sexual relationship.

This is of course the sort of rabbit hole that politicians fall into the moment they start creating codes of ‘morality’ for each other, or for the public at large.

Mr and Mrs Turnbull’s new Ministerial Code of Conduct takes the flaws of the previous code (spouses may not be employed in a politician’s office) and magnifies them. And it does so purely for reasons of political expediency (to humiliate and get Barnaby off their back) rather than from any point of principle, notwithstanding the efforts of Turnbull supporters to present the new rule as some ‘modern’ business-like approach to staffing matters.

The Code was flawed from the beginning. After all, why should spouses be denied the opportunity to work formally within the office of their political partners at taxpayer expense, so long as it is ‘above board’? In many instances – as with the Turnbulls, by their own admission – the success of one political career is actually built on the teamwork of two individuals. So long as there is transparency and the spouse is up to the job, it is a nonsense to rule them out of contention for a paid role. Indeed, within the world of small business the husband-and-wife team is frequently the backbone of innovation, industry and success.

The flipside is also true. Traditionally, you could count any number of successful marriages and sexual partnerships where the romance first flourished within the confines of the workplace, often even where a so-called ‘power imbalance’ existed. Again, so long as the relationship is transparent and other staff do not object, then why not? It is only the abuse of such work-sex relationships that is the problem, not the relationships themselves.

But in this ‘MeToo’ era of endless outrage and virtue-signaling on steroids, the assumption, certainly from the politically-correct and the Left, is that any such relationship is by definition ‘abusive’. Indeed, Mr Turnbull’s attack on Mr Joyce craftily appeared to draw on the current angst about workplace harassment, implying that Mr Joyce’s affair with Ms Campion was due to an old-fashioned and improper culture. ‘It is not acceptable for a minister to have a sexual relationship with somebody who works for them,’ the PM declared. ‘It is a very bad workplace practice.’

Yet it is laudable, perversely, for the PM to employ for political purposes the suggestions and judgments of his own wife.

Meanwhile, in another part of town, former Prime Minister Tony Abbott made a speech at the Sydney Institute that laid bare the political issues that should be dominating the headlines. Some highlights:

‘There’s something fundamentally wrong when a country with the world’s largest readily available reserves of coal, gas and uranium has some of the world’s highest energy prices; when a country with so much space has big city property prices rivalling London and Hong Kong; and when some of the world’s best funded schools have test results on a par with Kazakhstan.’

‘Hence the insiders versus outsiders chasm now bedevilling the politics of the West: a talking class that’s never had it so good; a working class that’s trying harder and harder just to keep up; and a welfare class with a strong sense of entitlement.’

Great speech. But – shock horror! – what if his wife helped him write it?

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