I know there’s already been a lot written about Barnaby Joyce from many perspectives. But I still think it’s worth distilling the whole affair into a sort of Maslow-esque taxonomy – Kay’s hierarchy of deeds. I’ll start with what is actually the least important and work up to the main game.
7. The Affair. In itself this is not really important, though it’s the only aspect of the whole saga that has attracted LNP – or was it Lucy Turnbull’s – attention with the bonk ban. Sex between senior and more junior staff in an office often creates tensions in the workplace, as it did in Joyce’s office, but sex is not the real issue here. Conflict of interest is. You can’t stop consenting adults having sex; outlawing it only makes it more fun. But you can at least try to eliminate the potential for conflict of interest by requiring staff to declare their involvement with each other, and prohibit a senior staff member from advantaging a junior partner in terms of work allocation, promotion or whatever. If you are ashamed of the liaison and don’t want it made public – like you already have a partner and kids – that’s tough, and maybe you should re-think the whole situation. But you only have to tell one person in confidence – in this case the Prime Minister, and refrain from advantaging your partner.
6. Hypocrisy. If you campaign on traditional ‘family values’ and oppose the equal rights of others in the community to marry, while all the time you are two-timing your family, then you deserve to be called out on it. Joyce’s comment that introducing the Gardasil vaccine might result in ‘an overwhelming backlash from people saying, “Don’t you dare put something out there that gives my 12-year-old daughter a licence to be promiscuous”’ didn’t help either.
5. Perks. Conflict of interest. See above. I won’t go into all the job moves, the non-jobs and the paid stress leave of Joyce’s partner. But people are entitled to know what was done for her. That Turnbull’s office didn’t know about it is beyond belief – why else were there crisis meetings about it before the New England by-election, as revealed by Sharri Markson. Turnbull’s assertion that they weren’t in a relationship so that the Ministerial Code wasn’t breached doesn’t pass either the Centrelink or the pub test. And his decision to kill the investigation into Joyce’s perks once he had resigned sounds pretty much like a deal: you go and I’ll stop the investigation. Though it may have been a National Party ultimatum after the new(ish) formal complaint of sexual harassment. Who knows? What a train wreck.
4. More conflicts of interest. The undeclared free apartment has raised questions about Joyce’s relationship with rich mates, and focussed attention on other potential conflicts of interest. These include moving the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority into his electorate at a cost to taxpayers of $25.6 million (meaning they would stay in his mate’s hotel) and the purchase of land adjacent to the inland railway route, Joyce’s pet project, which may or may not have raised the value of that land. Joyce denies any conflict of interest, but then he would, wouldn’t he. (Never mind that the railway won’t generate a commercial return.) When the conservative premier Tommy Bent did something similar in the early twentieth century, they called him for what it was: Bent by name and bent by nature. And who could forget Gina Rinehart’s $40,000 ‘award’ that Joyce had to give back?
3. The press cover-up. This comes higher in the hierarchy because a properly functioning press is a prerequisite for a properly functioning democracy, and we don’t have one. Since news of the affair was published in the Daily Telegraph, journalists from all sections of the mainstream media have fallen over themselves trying to justify why the story – which was clearly well known in Canberra – wasn’t reported before the New England by-election. The argument that it was a private matter simply doesn’t bear scrutiny; the hypocrisy and conflict of interest issues were there clear to see, and were matters of legitimate public interest. Accusing the public of being prurient for wanting to know such information is a pathetic reaction from people who couldn’t – or chose not to – do their jobs. Sharri Markson’s admission that the story wasn’t revealed as part of a vendetta against Joyce and was expected only to run for a couple of days is peculiar but revealing; did the Daily Telegraph really think people wouldn’t care about anything but the affair, news of which, if that was all there was to it, might indeed have quickly vanished without trace?
But it’s so much more than just an affair; it has legs and was off running as soon as it was revealed. People don’t care about the sex but do care about the rorts. Maybe the full story might have damaged Joyce’s chances at the by-election, or maybe it wouldn’t. But given that the LNP’s majority was at stake, it looks awfully like a cover-up, just in case. Politically motivated or just protecting other insiders? Bit of both maybe, but political coverup seems more likely. And the Murdoch press has form – lots of it.
2. The secret coalition agreement. This looks like a bit of a jump from the Barnaby Joyce affair. But there are significant connections. Turnbull had to sign it to get the Nationals to support him as Prime Minister. It apparently prevented him from sacking Joyce; only the Nationals could do that. It also apparently covers the allocation of portfolios, giving Joyce responsibility for water resources, then resources and Northern Australia (his friend Gina Rhinehart’s pet project), then infrastructure and transport. And it presumably has policy implications about what issues the government can or cannot tackle, and how they should do it. Turnbull’s weakness allowed Barnaby to do as he wanted – in matters large and small.
1. Bad policy. Allowing – and maybe even actively supporting – water theft in the Murray Darling Basin. Positive support for coal, opposition to renewables and inaction – or waste of money on Direct Action – on climate change. Pork barrelling in rural electorates. These policy disasters stem from the same sense of entitlement that Joyce showed in the conduct of his affair, but have much more significant results. They are the real legacy of Barnaby Joyce.
I’ll leave you with a comment from a local in Joyce’s electorate quoted by The Monthly:
“He’s a climate change denier, Barnaby Joyce, and I just find such people disturbing, and we lost him because he had sex with someone, I just find that also disturbing, we should be losing him because he doesn’t think properly.”
By Kay Rollison