The #bonkban doesn't fix the real problem with Barnaby Joyce

The #bonkban doesn’t fix the real problem with Barnaby Joyce

I imagine I’m not alone in feeling like I know more about Barnaby Joyce’s private life than I ever wanted to. If I never had cause to read another word about the Deputy Prime Minister I’d be thrilled.

And yet, here I am, along with hundreds and thousands of other Australians, ten days after news of his affair first broke, absorbing every morsel of the unrelenting coverage of the sorry saga. And sadly it can’t be dismissed as merely salacious, voyeurism or schadenfreude.

The reason commentary abounds is because Barnaby Joyce is embroiled in a scandal that raises a number of very serious questions about his conduct in public office. The fact he had an extra-marital intimate relationship with a staff member is, frankly, the least of it.

The fact several well-remunerated, taxpayer-funded jobs were seemingly created to provide alternative employment for a person he was intimately involved with is problematic.  So too is the fact the Ministerial Code of Conduct appears to have been either evaded, breached or barely adhered to.

The fact free accommodation has been provided to the deputy prime minister by a local businessman, Greg Maguire, with various financial interests in Joyce’s electorate, is problematic.

The fact he has either mislead parliament about this arrangement, or Maguire, who provided him with the rent-free property, lied to two journalists, is problematic.

The fact Joyce charged taxpayers to spend 50 nights in Canberra when Parliament was not sitting in 2017 – more than any other cabinet minister – is problematic.

The fact it is unclear when and how the prime minister was made aware of Joyce’s personal situation –  that had very clear public ramifications – is problematic.

From a public office perspective, these are among the reasons that Joyce’s affair is far from private.

Which brings me, somehow, to the #bonkban. Yesterday afternoon the Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull did a couple of things. First he excoriated the deputy PM who he encouraged to take a week’s leave or ‘poured petrol on a political bonfire’ as the Guardian’s political editor Katharine Murphy put it.

“Barnaby made a shocking error of judgment in having an affair with a young woman working in his office,” Turnbull said. “In doing so he has set off a world of woe for those women and appalled all of us.”

Turnbull continued before introducing a new provision in the ministerial standards that reads ‘ministers, regardless of whether they are married or single, must not engage in sexual relations with staff’.

Turnbull made the case for the new provision, and flagged he will be making more to ensure the code speaks clearly about the value of respect in workplaces.

“[This raises] some very serious issues about the culture of this place. Of this place. Of this parliament. And there has been a lot of discussion of the ministerial code of conduct. It is a document that was drafted a long time ago, and it gets amended from time to time, but the truth is, that it is deficient. It is truly deficient. It does not speak strongly enough to values that we all should live, values of respect, or respectful workplaces. Of workplaces where women are respected.

“And I recognise that respect in workplaces is not entirely a gender issue, but the truth is, as we know, most of the ministers, most of the bosses in this building if you like, are men. And there is a gender, a real gender perspective, here.”

His words were – and are – welcome. It’s a sentiment plenty of women – and some men – have been making for a long time. It reflects, to some extent, the shift that is happening in corporate Australia and the shift that #MeToo has made clear needs to happen in workplaces around the world.

I need no convincing of the importance or merits of fostering workplaces and workplace policies and practices that genuinely respect and support women. But I am entirely unconvinced that banning consenting adults from engaging in intimate relationships is the mechanism by which that will be achieved.

For starters, the extent to which any law or rule can be enforced goes to its efficacy. How exactly is the #bonkban going to be policed? It is clear, from Turnbull’s position on Joyce, that individual ministers are able to decide if they comply with the code or not. And it’s hard to imagine they will ever be entirely objective about their own adherence.

Banning ministers from having sex with staff members strikes me as the lowest-hanging fruit of the Barnaby Joyce fiasco. The fact a ban of this nature is deemed necessary is a poor indictment on the perceived judgement of our elected representatives. Is it too much to hope that men and women who occupy public office might be capable of exercising adequate judgement in these matters?

But critically it ignores the fact sex itself is not the problem, or as the hashtag aptly states: it’s the #rortingnottherooting that is most problematic.

Frankly I’d have preferred Turnbull to address the real issue here and that is whether Joyce has misused his position or public funds in the past twelve months.

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