Let us not speak of Barnaby Joyce.
Let us not speak of a man who turned protection against HPV and cervical cancer into a ‘licence to be promiscuous’, demonstrating poor medical, psychological and moral reasoning. A man who defended ‘the current definition of marriage’ in parliament, ignoring not only John Howard’s recent changes to the law, but also that the de facto Australian definition is now wholly at odds with his own. A man who blundered in all these ways—and, we now know, so many more.
Let us not speak of Barnaby Joyce, then. Let us, instead, speak of hypocrites and the deluded: those who deceive others, or perhaps just themselves. Those who say one thing and do another, either because they are deceitful cynics, or because they are too foolish to see their own contradictions.
It is well known that some politicians are liars or fakes; that they prefer popular semblance to whatever nasty reality they have encouraged. It is well known that many are hopelessly compromised by power. But how is this ‘well known’? Sometimes the contradictions are public: between Julia ‘misogyny speech’ Gillard’s commitment to gender equality, for example, and her treatment of single mothers. But other times the contradictions are private, and suddenly hypocrites or jelly-backed manipulators are less obvious. How can we know that someone’s public commitments are bunkum, when the only proof is in a locked office or hotel room?
The demand that politicians’ private lives are suddenly for public judgement—this is iffy stuff. It is dodgy because it often irrelevant to their jobs. Whatever sordid, embarrassing, pathetic things a leader might do behind blackout blinds, unless they’re illegal or contravene some professional code, we ought to leave them alone. If only for pragmatic reasons, we should recognise that someone can be seemingly quite weird or even awful and also excellent at their calling. More importantly, there are also ethical reasons: privacy is a genuine good, and ought not be violated without proof of greater harm to the public.
But politicians and other leaders are not quite so neat about their private lives. Their families, for example, become symbols of authenticity. Children and spouses become avatars of good political virtues. Politicians use their families as anecdotes or moralising talking points. Daughters are especially helpful for male public figures: they provide some nebulous proof of understanding or goodwill. Whole arguments can be prefaced on phrases like ‘as the father of three daughters’, as if progeny magically justify bad laws or campaigns. In short: politicians are fine with their domestic lives becoming public, as long as these lives are good publicity.
Given this, here is my limited and cautious argument for selective scrutiny of their private lives.
If you are going to force other citizens to submit to your policies, using your family as a kind of personal guarantor of authenticity, then expect to have your familial conduct judged. This is not about your family or friends’ behaviour; not about your spouse’s shortcomings, your lover’s failings, your parents’ transgressions. A public figure’s screw-ups are no license to harass, embarrass, or otherwise intrude upon their family. But they do warrant an interest in that figure’s honesty or integrity, and the degree to which these are enrolled in political debates. You want to champion the institution of marriage in order to exclude people? Sure, let’s see how committed you actually are to this institution. Put simply: don’t sell us legislation with advertising you yourself don’t really believe.
At the very least, the point of this scrutiny is to distinguish the genuine ethical and political participants from the jaded hacks and parasites. Governing a country is serious business, and we need to know who is treating their much-lauded ideals with some basic respect. Yes, politics is about strife: ideas and values are contested, and we should accept disagreement on what is worthwhile, and how to realise it. What we should not accept are frauds wearing a moral certainty they shrug off as soon as they’re behind closed doors. We cannot necessarily vote them out, but we can at least dismiss their bullshit for what it is.
If we must speak of them, let us not heed them.
Damon Young is a philosopher and author. www.damonyoung.com.au