How the left has facilitated moral panic about Barnaby’s affair

Over the past couple of days the Barnaby Joyce affair-with-his-staffer saga has dramatically shifted. Most importantly the discussion has moved somewhat away from discourse about allegations of potential corruption, and well into the arena of a discourse about the character and judgement of a man who would cheat on his wife and family in this way.

Yesterday afternoon Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced a new #bonkban in response to the “shocking error of judgement” from Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce. Turnbull announced that he will change the Ministerial code of conduct to ban Ministers from having sex with staffers, although it is unclear both how this will be policed, and more importantly how it will be enforced.

Let us be clear. Banning consensual sex between two adults is never acceptable. While the Barnaby saga raises questions about conflicts of interest that occur when employers and employees have sex, bans will always have a detrimental impact. This ban can only lead to a few outcomes — (1) when Ministers and staffers do inevitably have sex it will go underground, likely leaving the staffer — the one with less power — to be pushed aside at the expense of the Minister who is harder to get rid of; and (2) it will turn the media into the police officers of consensual sex, leading to potentially frenzied sexual panics whenever someone is caught out. Potentially more importantly with no actual mechanisms for enforcement, when scandals do break (or are about to break), it will likely always be the staffer who bears the brunt of the attack, as it will be much easier to fire a staffer than to sack a Minister.

Bans on consensual sexual activity always hurt those in a less powerful, or more importantly, a less socially acceptable position in society. This ban will only increase a frenzied discussion about sexual activity in Parliament, one which will help facilitate and justify the sort of sordid and disgusting front pages of The Daily Telegraph and The Herald Sun we’ve seen in the recent week.

While it is no surprise that this ban has been implemented by Malcolm Turnbull, primarily as a way to deal with those forms of headlines, and to distract from the allegations of corruption that have been leveled at Barnaby Joyce, what is disappointing is that the left has in fact, even unwittlingly, facilitated the moral panic about Barnaby’s affair that has led us to this situation.

Yes, it is true that many on the left have insisted that it is not about the affair, it is about the corruption.  But intermingled with the attacks on Barnaby for his six months of free rent, and the way in which his partner, but not technically his partner, managed to receive a new high paying job, has been a carefully construed narrative from the left, which while not framed as moral panic, has in fact very much facilitated it.

Look for example at this article from leading feminist Clementine Ford. In the article Ford argues that Barnaby ‘does not understand’ marriage, pointing in particular to his hypocrisy regarding his position on same-sex unions. Yet, intermingled with this is this cracking quote:

This is where the cliche comes in. Because really, a 50-year-old man leaving his wife to start again with a 33-year-old isn’t a love story. It’s a midlife crisis.

In the name of feminism, Ford has decided which relationships are valid, and which are simply a ‘mid-life crises’, in turn deciding which deserve public judgement and which do not (hint: relationships that involve older men dating younger women deserve public judgement). I wonder if Ford has told Vickie Campion that Joyce clearly does not love her, given that the two seem to be continuing a happy relationship and look to be raising a child together?

These narratives have been strong in recent days, in particular intermingling attacks on the affair with the #metoo movement, despite there being no evidence that Barnaby sexually harassed his new partner (there are other allegations of lewd, drunken and sexually harassing behaviour at an event a number of years ago. This event should be interrogated, but as far as I am away do not seem to be related to Barnaby’s affair). While there is a genuine debate about the power dynamics that can be involved in these sorts of relationships, as well as the conflicts of interest that can occur, linking this directly with #metoo places a blanket judgement onto the relationship (and any other like it), an approach that in particular judges Campion’s very capacity to engage in it consensually without knowing the ins and outs of anything she thinks about it.

The stronger way in which the left has facilitated moral panic about the affair has been through claims of hypocrisy. Yes, it is true that Joyce’s affair seems to be deeply hypocritical — the man has previously attempted to block the HPV vaccine as it would lead to an increase in promiscuity amongst young women, and he has vehemently opposed same-sex marriage for his entire career. A man who is having a child out of wedlock now leads one of the most socially conservative parties in the country.

Yet many in the left have used Joyce’s hypocrisy not as a way to have a discussion about the role that conservative moral values play in our public policy, but instead as a way to justify judging and critique Barnaby’s character and private life. Leftists joyfully shared this cartoon from Pat Campbell, which argued that Barnaby made the bed he now lies in when it comes to the exposition of his affair, justifying, even unwittingly, an obsessive on the details of what occurred. This has opened up what Katherine Murphy calls a national debate on character, one which some in the left seem willing and excited to engage in.

Even the constant stream of jokes that run along the lines of “ewwwww I can’t believe Barnaby has sex” has helped feed the fires of this narrative. While at times hilarious, the jokes play into the mantra that some sex (in particular that which involves older people) is just simply too gross to think about, and therefore is something that is worthy of public derision, scorn, judgement, and eventually regulation.

Brought together these moments seem disparate, and certainly do not amount to the sort of moral panic that has been deliberately facilitated by the likes of The Daily Telegraph and The Herald Sun. But whether we like it or not, the left has certainly intermingled concerns about corruption, the use of public funds, and potential conflicts of interest, with public judgement about the type of sex that Barnaby was engaging in, and that future Ministers will inevitably engage in. Even if unintentionally this has helped Malcolm Turnbull use his #bonkban as a solution to the problem (although it doesn’t seem to be working), something that the left is helping even further with many supporting the idea as a policy that should be considered blindingly obvious.

Let’s reiterate: bans on consensual sex are never a good idea. They will always result in those in less powerful positions facing reprimands, and they will always result in increased policing of those who have sex that don’t fit standard social norms. This ban could lead to the Australian media policing the sexual activities of Ministers and their staffers, giving the likes of The Herald Sun and The Daily Telegraph permission to publish stories that more than anything else will attack women such as Vickie Campion. Whether we meant it or not, through intermingling concerns about corruption with talk about what this affair says about Barnaby’s character, the left has helped facilitate this policy.

You may not like Barnaby Joyce, and you may think what he has done is pretty shitty. But personal lives are often shitty, and people often get hurt. While it may be satisfying now, the public judgement of Barnaby has only helped facilitate a moral panic about marriage and sex, a panic that in the long run will hurt women, queers, and sexual deviants (of the legal kind) the most.

Three Billboards, I, Tonya, and the value of a complex narrative

In the past few weeks I saw two of the best movies I’ve probably seen in many years. Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, and I, Tonya (both movies with commas in their names) are both frontrunners for a number of Oscars and have been big hits this summer. 

Both have also been controversial! Three Billboards has been critiqued as being racist and portraying short statured people in a reductive way, while I, Tonya has been criticised for valourising a criminal at the expense of the real victim, Nancy Kerrigan.

In doing so I actually think these two films also have a lot in common. Dealing with issues of sexism, class and racism, the critiques of both films highlight some of the weaknesses of a purist form of identity politics, and in turn highlight the value of complex narratives when it comes to issues of identity and oppression.  

Before we go ahead beware that there are spoilers for both of these movies contained below, although for I, Tonya it is less relevant as I only write about historical facts that are already in the public domain. 

Continue reading Three Billboards, I, Tonya, and the value of a complex narrative

Sport builds strong communities. Why therefore do so many on the left scoff at its importance?

Denmark’s Caroline Wozniacki celebrates after defeating Spain’s Carla Suarez Navarro during their quarterfinal at the Australian Open tennis championships in Melbourne, Australia, Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2018. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)

The Summer of Tennis in Australia is once again over. This weekend brought us two epic grand finals – with Caroline Wozniacki taking out Simona Halep in a three set cliff hanger, while Roger Federer beat Marin Cilic in a surprisingly competitive five-setter.

I love tennis. Every year I spend weeks up late at night watching matches, and always get sad when it’s over. This year I went to the Australian Open for the first time, and felt chills run down my spine as the first balls were hit. It was great fun.

What has always interested me about the tennis is how so fleeting it is in the Australian conscious. Tennis is a sport that grips us for one month and then leaves us just as quickly – departing to foreign shores with coverage only occurring if there’s a scandal, or if an Australian manages to win a Grand Slam. This is the very nature of the structure of the sport. Of course we are more obsessed with the sport while it is on our shores, and it is certainly harder to follow when players take off overseas to compete in the myriad of tournaments across the corners of the globe.

But watching the Australian Open this week I also think there is something a little more to this.

Continue reading Sport builds strong communities. Why therefore do so many on the left scoff at its importance?

This is a huge win: let’s celebrate it

It’s official. Australians have voted in favour of marriage equality!

The yes campaign won a huge victory today, with Australians voting 61.6 – 38.4% in favour of passing legislation to legalise same-sex marriage. A total of 7,817,247 people voted yes.

There has been a lot of negative feelings about this process. Large marriage equality organisations and most prominent marriage advocates opposed to use of any form of public vote to help decide this issue. It has certainly been a tough process for many, and one that many do not want replicated ever again. It is one many would simply like to forget.

But as we come to the end of this process, it’s worth reflecting on this moment for exactly what it is: a huge victory.

Let us think about the significance of what just happened. Over seven million people voted in favour of equality for lesbian and gay Australians. That’s millions of people who ignored the fear mongering of conservatives, and took an active step to vote in favour of equality. People voted in favour across the country — from small towns to large cities, from poor areas to rich. Every state and territory voted yes, while 133 of Australia’s 150 electorates returned yes votes.

While in some ways this vote means very little in legal consequences, this is actually very important. This is a sign of huge changes that have occurred in our community. It’s easy to forget that it was only just over two decades ago that Tasmania became the last state in the country to decriminalise homosexual activity. Now, Tasmania voted in favour of marriage equality legislation 63.6 – 36.4%. I cannot think of any other social issue that has seen such a significant shift in such a short time.

For those of us who are concerned about the impacts this vote have had on vulnerable queer people this is especially important. Growing up queer can be an isolating thing, particularly for those in rural and remote communities. It can often feel like you have supporters nowhere. Now however we have the first ever real indication of the real level of support that queer people have in our community. Of course a vote for same-sex marriage does not mean someone is not a homophobe, but it is a strong start. Now through this campaign, and through this successful vote, we’ve seen millions of people publicly voice a growing acceptance of LGBTIQ people. In Ireland this resulted in a sharp spike in numbers of young people coming out, and we can expect such an outcome in Australia as well.

It is a real possibility, in fact almost a certain potential, that looking back on this campaign many will see it as a difficult moment we should all want to forget. This could easily be seen as something that above all else highlighted the intense bigotry queer people face. Of course that bigotry is still there, and we saw it sharply through this process. But what we also saw were acts of kindness, solidarity and justice — ones that clearly outweighed their counterpart.

It is these acts, and this vote, that we should remember. They are acts of a changing society — one that is clearly becoming more embracing of LGBTIQ people, and more willing to publicly voice that.

Yes this process was hard. But, change is hard. It requires struggle. When you get to the end of the struggle, and you win, you have to celebrate, not lament how hard it was to get here. Let’s do that today!

Growing up Queer

This is a talk I did as part of ACT Fair Day, in conjunction with Noted Festival. The topic from the event was ‘growing up queer’, and in doing so I spoke about the process of learning about what it’s like to be queer before coming out. Thanks to Noted Festival for organising the talks, and for the team at Canberra Spring Out for organising Fair Day.


Hi everyone and thank you for having me up on stage today.

The theme for today’s talks is simply ‘growing up queer’. When asked to talk about this my immediate thought was to go straight to my coming out experience. I came out, strangely enough, at the behest of Ian McKellan. I wish I could say he did so personally, but in reality it was much more boring than that. I watched an interview with him in which he talked about his coming out process, and somehow it pushed me to do it. I’d told my parents within a week.

Coming out is one thing that all queers having in common – it’s something we’ve all had to do, something we’ll all have to do again and again.

I was thinking about what it was like in those days as a teenager – the fear of rejection, the potential of bullying and taunting, and the feelings of vulnerability that I know many queers face. That’s again something we can all talk about.

Yet, after all the negativity of the past few months, I thought, why not do something different? Because while these things of course happen – while they still happen far too often – we are all here because managed to survive them.

We’re here because we managed to be queer kids, and queer teenagers, and queer young adults, and we were able to take those experience and not just survive, but also thrive, because of them. We did so through sheer resilience and immense creativity.

Continue reading Growing up Queer

Queer Stories: Poly Love and Great Sex

This talk was presented at Queer Stories in August. Queer Stories is a monthly queer story-telling event held at Giant Dwarf in Redfern, Sydney every month. The event is really great, and I encourage everyone to head along. You can get tickets to the next event here.

You can listen to a podcast of this talk, alongside all the others at Queer Stories here. 


“I have two boyfriends actually,” I said to the man who was flirting rather aggressively with me on Grindr.

“Oh, I couldn’t do that” he replies. “I would never be willing to share you.”

He meant it to be sweet. As if having a random wanting to possess me would make me flock into his arms. It was, however, not sweet at all.

“Don’t worry” I replied “I’m never going to be yours to share.”

While this chat ended, these comments from gay men so common from gay men it’s not funny. When it comes to my relationships many like to judge, seeing that my and my partners sex lives make us ‘too queer’ to fit in anymore.

Continue reading Queer Stories: Poly Love and Great Sex

Do some queers subconsciously want to lose the marriage equality vote?

Earlier this week the vote yes campaign received some amazing news. New polling from Essential Research highlighted a significant enthusiasm gap between yes and no voters. As The Guardian wrote:



Continue reading Do some queers subconsciously want to lose the marriage equality vote?

Is our response to the plebiscite making us more vulnerable than the existence of the plebiscite itself?

“Stop the fags”

This week, many of the direst predictions of those opposing the marriage equality plebiscite came true, as an awful anti-equality poster appeared in parts of Melbourne. The poster, which spread across social media, was pointed to by many as an example of the sort of hate-speech so many have feared with a plebiscite campaign.

This is not the first time a flyer or statement of this sort has received this sort of attention. In fact, especially since the decision by the Coalition to have a plebiscite, it feels like every instance of homophobia such as this ends up making big news, with queers spreading material across social media, lamenting how terrible this sort of stuff is for the mental health of our community.

While there are certainly discussions to be had about whether sharing this material is good or not, we also have to ask ourselves, are our collective responses to this sort of homophobia, and even the plebiscite itself, making us more vulnerable as a community?

Continue reading Is our response to the plebiscite making us more vulnerable than the existence of the plebiscite itself?

The Handmaid’s Tale is a relatively accurate depiction of modern sexual relationships – just not in the way you think

Last week the TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale was released on SBS. In doing so the show has revilatised Margaret Atwood’s classic 1985 novel, being considered in many ways a prescient story to tell in our current political climate.

I’ve watched the first four episode of The Handmaid’s Tale so far, and am thoroughly enjoying it. I’ve found the storytelling really engaging, and in particular am loving the juxtaposition between Offred’s internal monologue versus the society in which she has found herself. It is often rare to see an example of a dystopian future where a character has moved so cleanly from society to the next, and I think the Handmaid’s Tale has portrayed that transition exquisitely.

However, there is another reason I’ve found the show so fascinating — that is how clearly it describes, even if in an exaggerated manner, the deep roots of sexual relations, and in turn sexism and women’s oppression, within liberal societies. It does so however in a way opposite to what many think.

Continue reading The Handmaid’s Tale is a relatively accurate depiction of modern sexual relationships – just not in the way you think

Freedom and the injured subject

Over recent times, particularly since the plebiscite and Safe Schools debates within Australia, I have noticed a strong narrative of ‘suffering’ and ‘vulnerability’ within large parts of the queer community. Mainstream queer discourse has increasingly turned towards defining queer people as ‘vulnerable’, ones who have ‘suffered’ a great ‘injury’, and whose main quest is for those injuries to be fixed in some way. I have spoken about this issue in my podcast Queers with Benjamin Riley, and in Archer Magazine Fury wrote spectacularly about the same issue, stating that:

we queer folk have only been given the option to understand ourselves through the lens of pain. Because of this, it’s hardly a surprise how much we judge and police queerness by its proximity to suffering.

Fury continues, stating:

Oppression and its relevant experiences have become an important tool to define what makes us different to the mainstream and to each other. This, in its turn, has been important to ferry resources to the most in need. However, it is not without its downsides. It is easy to process the conversation around oppression like it, in itself, is a tangible metric instead of a shared context which yields statistical trends.

Given this recent turn I thought it would be interesting to have a quick look at one of the key texts I have discovered for my PhD over the past months, Wendy Brown’s “States of Injury”. Written in the 1990s, this book is a collection of essays , asking the provocative questions, how has injury become the basis for political identity in contemporary life, and how have law and other state institutions come to be seen as redressing such injuries rather than as perpetrating them? It would be possible to go through each and every essay with a blog post (maybe not a bad idea!). But for today I want to start by looking at the first chapter, which as an introduction presents Brown’s thesis as a whole.

Continue reading Freedom and the injured subject