The latest exercise in selective outrage to descend on the country is the response to the news that Barnaby Joyce and his paramour, Ms Vikki Campion have agreed to sit down for a TV interview and that they will be paid $150,000 for their labours. The said sum will be paid into a trust fund to be established for the education of their son, Sebastian, who must be more famous now than any royal baby. The political and media establishment, apart from Channel 7 which won the bidding war, has embarked on its own bidding war to see who can be the most outraged, shocked and horrified at the Joyces’ lapse of judgment. ‘Tacky’, ‘tatty’, ’vulgar’ and ‘cheap’ were early starters in the Hyperbole Stakes, but they were quickly passed by ‘immoral’ ,’low’ and its offspring ‘ new low’. ’Embarrassing’, ‘unconscionable’ and ’hypocritical’ found strong support from commentators who prefer to have their outrage expressed in four syllables. However, a late dash from ‘disgusting’, entered without a touch on irony by the Minister for Finance, Kelly O’Dwyer, fresh from her courageous defence of the government’s refusal to hold a royal commission into the banks, seems to have won the race. Far back in the field came a steady plodder entered by the Sophistry Society: ‘It is his own business, but I wouldn’t do it myself.’
I do not share this universal outrage and wish to enter a caveat on behalf of Mr Joyce and Ms Campion, even if I am in a minority of one. They may be shaping up as Australia’s own Kardashians but, for all their shortcomings, they are playing by the rules of the game; they are no worse than many others; and if their alleged lapse of judgment is really deserving of new laws, there are far more demanding and urgent candidates for reform.
First, if you were to censure all conduct of politicians that is tacky, tatty, vulgar and cheap, there would not be much left. Politics in now part of the entertainment industry which is inherently tacky, tatty, vulgar and cheap; that is why it is entertaining. The Joyce-Kardashians are only playing their part. The main objective in politics today is to promote yourself, with as much swagger and braggadocio as you can contrive, keeping yourself as close as possible to the centre of the stage, always in the spotlight and performing the role that the entertainment establishment has decreed for you. Look at how the media approve of an up-and-coming politician as ‘a good performer’; what they mean is that he or she is a political performing seal or circus freak, with no substance but lots of colour and movement. It is the same reason why the media is constantly salivating for the change of cast and scenery that comes from a leadership challenge. So why should the Joyces not play the role in which they have been cast and for which they are so eminently qualified?
Secondly, they are no worse than many others who have made money from their public careers. This is the real criticism levelled at our celebrity couple, and not without a tinge of jealousy: that they are making money from their performance. But they have had some great examples of decorum set for them by others. If you are a modern statesman-entertainer these days, your main objective is to keep one eye on the future and the money you will make from consultancies, directorships and the speaking circuit when eventually the impresarios of the political theatre decide the audience is bored with you and that it is time to move on. Kim Beazley retired to become a director of the defence manufacturer Lockheed Martin. Stephen Conroy segued without a blush from communications minister to Responsible Wagering Australia, the lobby group for bookmakers and casinos. The Liberals are just as bad, as they dance a conga line into the boardrooms of telephone companies, casinos, media companies and Chinese developers. The only difference between Joyce and the others is that he is still an MP, and that is why any money received by sitting MPs must be publicly declared, so the public can see who is talking with a forked tongue and who is not, which is likely to be the shorter list. Indeed, it is better to have a Joyce paid for an interview which is declared and in the open, than a retired cabinet minister palling around with a foreign company and making secret representations to his former cabinet colleagues to get a contract or stifle the competition. In any event, all serving MPs are deluged with free tickets to opening nights, sports events, and parties in return for exercising who knows what secret influence. Every day they develop their persona at the public expense and, when they retire, parley this into a valuable commodity where the public will never know what influence in wielded behind the scenes.
Finally, the suggestion has been made that there should be a law to stop MPs being paid for interviews, another doomed attempt to legislate for morality. As Machiavelli showed, the two do not mix and are incompatible. In any event, such a law would leave greater evils untouched. To legislate at all, you would have to do it properly, and ban any former minister or MP from accepting any paid role as a director, adviser, consultant, or anything else akin to it, not just for a few years but forever. The law would have to go further and ban all contact between public servants, former MPs and consultants of any sort. And while we are spreading morality across the board, we would have to ban all ABC employees from going on the lecture circuit while they are still taking a salary from the long suffering taxpayer. Until then, we may as well accept it: the Kardashians have arrived, we invited them in and we enjoy watching them.
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