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.