Barnaby Joyce, a baby & private matters in the public domain

The deputy PM, a baby & private matters in the public domain

Oh boy. Where to begin?

The front page of Wednesday’s Daily Telegraph in Sydney is a sight to behold. A photograph of a pregnant woman, captured seemingly unaware, crossing the road in her gym clothes. The splash sensationally claims she is carrying the baby of the Deputy Prime Minister, Barnaby Joyce.

This ‘story’ has been alluded to for months. Rumours of an affair and possible pregnancy in Joyce’s office have been rife: on social media, in his electorate, among journalists. There is a reason this has been described as the “worst kept secret in Canberra”.

Why did it take this long for the story to make into print? The absence of concrete evidence for a start. But also the discretion long afforded to politicians’ private lives, and, perhaps more importantly, the dignity extended to their families.

Is there any public interest in the private lives of politicians, or is it merely of interest to the public? In this case, perhaps in every case, the answer isn’t simple.

Certainly it’s not as simple as Barnaby himself repeatedly told Leigh Sales on ABC’s 730 program on Wednesday night. “Private matters ought to remain private,” he implored.

(If that were the case, how on earth are we to reconcile the very public plebiscite Australia endured last year to make a determination about the validity of the private lives of LGBTIQ citizens?)

As deputy PM, Joyce is not a private citizen: he’s a leader. His integrity, his character, his judgement are all matters that directly, and legitimately, concern Australians.

The fact his extra-marital relationship has allegedly taken place with a woman who certainly was at some point a member of his staff compounds the public aspect of his ‘private’ life.

The fact the tide for even consensual extramarital dalliances in workplaces is shifting is another reason some public scrutiny of a private affair is unavoidable.

If Joyce seriously believes the implications of his private decisions do not – in any manner – concern the public, it suggests his judgement may well be lacking.

And yet, this is, without a skerrick of doubt, a story to despair. For Natalie Joyce, Barnaby Joyce’s wife of 24 years and for their four children.

“This situation is devastating on many fronts,” she told The Australian’Caroline Overington. “For my girls who are affected by the family breakdown and for me as a wife of 24 years, who placed my own career on hold to support Barnaby through his political life.”

For the expectant mother, she is not a public figure who has sought a profile for her private life, and yet it is her photo that adorns the front page of a newspaper.

It is not a situation you would wish upon anyone.

And yet it is foolhardy to suggest this is a situation entirely without fault. This is not a scenario that was unwittingly thrust upon the member for New England, like the citizenship fiasco might be cast as.

Joyce admitted to Leigh Sales on Wednesday night that the disintegration of his marriage was the greatest failure of his life. But he also implied that he was among the 40 or 50 percent of Australians whose marriages break down. He quickly added he wasn’t saying that was a point of admiration. But he also didn’t say that his marriage broke down because of the decisions he made. The absence of personal responsibility was conspicuous.

The tragedy here is not merely that a marriage has broken down and that a family is in tatters. That happens. All the time. And for the vast majority of families affected by marital breakdowns they are free for their grief and trauma to play out privately.

In the Joyce family that isn’t possible because of the decisions made by the one member of the family who leads a public life. Barnaby Joyce is responsible for the story on the front page of the Daily Telegraph. Is he the only politician who has ever engaged in an affair or ended his marriage? Certainly not.

But by his wife’s own account he began an affair in his office with a paid employee, an office that places him squarely in the public realm. An office that means he could hardly have sincerely believed there would be no ramifications beyond those walls.

A number of his colleagues have subsequently expressed concerns about his capacity and behaviour towards the end of last year. That is precisely when a private matter takes on a public component

Because of his role and his vocation, his wife and family were unlikely to be afforded the anonymity that private citizens ordinarily enjoy. A role and vocation, it’s worth stating, that weren’t without considerable compromises and drawbacks for those very same people.

After spending 24 years as his loyal and longstanding spouse, raising their four children while he helped run the country, his wife was not offered the dignity of a separation before a new relationship began. Not even the still brutal but far more dignified option of him making a statement to avoid the tawdry tabloid cover.

It is unrealistic and naïve to expect elected representatives to lead perfectly sanitised, wholesome lives. To make superior decisions at every turn. But it is equally unrealistic and naïve for an elected representative to make personal decisions that impact on his own family, with devastating effect, to remain beyond the scope and reproach of the people he was elected to serve.

As a political leader, the deputy PM no less, there are plenty of voters who believe that position comes with a burden of responsibility and duty that is above and beyond what we expect from ordinary citizens. Unlike young footballers who might bemoan being rebuked for their misconduct off the field and insist they’re not role models, Barnaby Joyce cannot seek solace there.

Joyce told the ABC that he is hurt that private issues have been dragged into the public domain. It’s almost as if he hasn’t grasped the fact that has ultimately been his choice.

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