The story of a middle-aged husband and father talking up the “failure” of his marriage to justify his relationship with a much younger and previously childless woman is too clichéd to have much drama. The effect of this on the abandoned wife and, in this case, four daughters, would of course make for a story of genuine poignancy. We may even wonder what caused the younger woman to assume a future with a man who is not only married but an avowed and vocal upholder of traditional family values, whatever they are. (Loyalty, honesty, transparency and kindness could be a start.)
But that’s not where the attention of the public is drawn. Instead – in this version – we’ve heard “failure” as a repeated justification for moving on. And whether it was, indeed, the failure of a marriage that had apparently served this fellow and his career quite well for two decades and more, or just a familiar lust for greater excitement, we can only guess.
We are of course, strongly dissuaded by the man in question from “guessing”. This business is my business, he has repeatedly claimed. His colleagues, primed to attack others for breaches real and assumed, are similarly forthright. “Private” has become the most over-used word of a torrid week. It’s also become the most questionable one.
Is a matter like this private? This is the 21st-century. (And yes, it is the Deputy Prime Minister of Australia, at least at the time of writing.) We have smart phones. We have instant access to alternative and social media. We have eyes and ears, as citizens always have. We also have investigative journalists and commentators who are not beholden to mainstream commercial alliances. The lines between what is public and private are now gossamer-thin and in many instances non-existent. This is especially and justifiably so when the private lives of the people concerned are paid for from the public purse. We, the taxpayers (the “lifters”, Joe Hockey called us) employ politicians. We also employ their staffers. Known and unknown, big and small, they live on our funds.
Politicians’ generous salaries, their perks, their glittering travel allowances and eye-watering superannuation benefits are unmatched in the private sector. Claiming those significant benefits of money, personal influence and power surely disentitles them to the privacy that most of us treasure? It’s a trade-off that’s really not all that difficult to fathom.
After all, which very averagely intelligent accountant in a NSW country town can regularly socialise with Australia’s richest woman, be lavishly feted by the coal industry, have his banal opinions broadcast widely and his job protected? Which can get continuous access to the media and, indeed, lobbyists who rush to flatter him? Which can enjoy a $3m publicly-funded security ‘upgrade’ in a townhouse provided free by a patron not to him only but also to the woman who was, even while she was constantly by his side and soon to become pregnant, apparently not his “partner”? Which accountant, however hard working, can claim up to $565 per night for out-of-session nights in Canberra, way in excess in number of nights (50) of any more senior colleague? And on top of untold other benefits? Which accountant? Well, none. Only in politics. Only in Canberra. Only in and within a government which on this matter, as on so many, has lost all memory of a moral compass.
This is not a “sex scandal”. It is though, and perhaps increasingly, a tale exposing a skewed and soul-destroying sense of entitlement. And the loss of integrity that follows it. That a “social media adviser” – managing Facebook and Twitter posts if you’re wondering – would be eased into a job paying her almost $200,000 a year does and should offend us. That she should be found not one but two unadvertised jobs within government does and should offend us. That she is today a “partner” but apparently was not when employment rabbits were pulled from a bottomless top hat does and should offend us.
All the actors in this drama are paid with our funds, from our public purse. Salaries, perks, claims and more claims: we have every right to wonder how the media adviser’s salary was justified. We know how it compares to earnings in the real world. But in the political world the contagion of personal entitlement goes way beyond money, perks and sexual or employment favours. “The ordinary rules don’t apply to me.” And, “I deserve it,” are two exceptionally dangerous delusions. Entitlement on any scale drives greed, a destructive as well as an insatiable vice. Greed blinds even those who believe themselves to be well meaning. It also blinds those who flatter.
A political leader has privileges beyond everyday dreaming. But he – or she – must be openly and very publicly accountable. We may not be entitled to wisdom from those we elect; we are entitled to integrity. On that measure, it may not be a lost marriage that is this husband and father’s greatest failure but, rather, his own and his government’s erosion of credibility, even dignity in the eyes of a weary, restless Australian public.
Reverend Dr Stephanie Dowrick is a writer and social commentator. You can comment here and also engage with Stephanie on her public Facebook page or via www.stephaniedowrick.com