Sex, Politics and Ethics

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No, I’m not slipping in a sly plug for The Eeks Trilogy – although if you find the title intriguing you’ll probably enjoy The Eeks Trilogy, now available in a single volume titled Goldiloxians.

But right now I’m having my say about the story that’s been hogging the front pages of Australian newspapers for a week or so (it seems longer) and shows no sign of abating. It’s about Barnaby Joyce, who is

  • Leader of the right-of-centre National Party, which represents the interests of the rural sector and is in government in coalition with the Liberal Party;
  • Deputy Prime Minister (a requirement of the coalition agreement);
  • Minister of Agriculture and Water Resources (to the dismay of environmentalists who see this as a conflict of interest);
  • Minister of Infrastructure and Transport (since December);
  • The centre of a storm surrounding an affair with a member of his staff who is now pregnant with his unborn child;
  • Consequently separated from his wife; and
  • In open verbal warfare with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

The story is a gift that keeps on giving to the newsmongers because it irritates so many people for so many reasons.

First, there is a sexual morality issue. Barnaby has been an advocate of family values, invoking them in the recent debate about redefining ‘marriage’ to include same-sex couples. Barnaby was on the losing ‘No’ side of that debate.

Then there is the MeToo aspect. As Deputy PM, Barnaby was in a position of power over Vikki Campion, the humble Media Advisor who became his mistress. To some people this looks uncomfortably like a Harvey Weinstein situation.

Third, in a vain attempt to keep the affair quiet the mistress was transferred to the office of another National Party minister, in a high-paying job that was allegedly created especially for her.

There is Ministerial Code of Conduct that prohibits having one’s partner on the payroll. Barnaby is claiming that at the time of Vikki’s employment in his department she was not his ‘partner’. She was having sex with him, but was not actually and legally his partner as such. The PM has now made clear that the Code of Conduct will henceforth forbid sexual relations between ministers and their staff. This was immediately labelled the Bonk Ban.

To cap it all, it has emerged that Barnaby was staying rent-free in premises provided by a prominent National Party donor and commercial supplier of services to the Party.

In Australia we have a thing called ‘the pub test’. This sweeps away legal niceties that allow obvious rogues to hold up their hands in a gesture of supplication and say, “But I did nothing wrong!” Needless to say, Barnaby Joyce has failed the pub test on a Biblical scale in the eyes of all but his most one-eyed supporters.

One final comment from me… The story runs and runs because it gives sub-editors such wonderful opportunities for punny headlines. A photo of an obviously pregnant Vikki Campion was headlined ‘Bundle of Joyce’. Another headline over the Bonk Ban story referenced a campaign to ban poker (gambling) machines: ‘No Pokies’.

Fairness

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Children develop a sense of fairness from an early age. Hitting someone younger and weaker is unfair. Collective punishments are unfair. Paying pocket money below the going rate, determined by a survey of one’s peers, is unfair.

On Tuesday our Treasurer presented the annual budget to Parliament and announced it to be ‘a fair budget’. ‘Fair’ is now the top buzz-word in Australian politics. The trouble is that the word means different things to different people.

On the left of politics, it means taking more from the rich and distributing it to the non-rich. The exact positioning of the dividing line between the rich and the non-rich is itself a matter for debate of course. Or rather, it is left to each elector to decide which side of the line he or she sits. For most of us ‘rich’ is defined as ‘better off than me’, so policies that involve taking from the rich are generally popular.

But on the right of politics fairness involves allowing people to earn and retain as much as possible of the value of what they produce. According to the Economics textbooks, that value is represented by the wage or profit that the free market assigns. So whether one is a banker, a nurse, a soldier or a casino owner, what you receive is what you’re worth. Obviously it’s unfair to take more from the most productive members of society.

The Economics textbooks support the left-wing view too though. They point out that an extra dollar in a poor man’s pocket does him more good than it would do for a rich man, so the total wellbeing of society will always be increased by redistributing from rich to poor until perfect equality is achieved.

I would rather take ‘fair’ out of the conversation and substitute ‘pragmatic’. The rich always have to pay more (both absolutely and relatively) because, to borrow bank-robber Willie Sutton’s famous quotation, “That’s where the money is.” But the rich are also the most able to find ways to avoid and minimise taxation; or, if paying tax in Country A becomes too onerous, move to Country B.

So it’s a balancing act. Pragmatism is all. To paraphrase a line by Clint Eastwood, “Fair’s got nothin’ to do with it.”