Australian politics these days feels like a story in People magazine. Political journalism, indeed Parliament itself, has been reduced to a forum for rumors about sex.
It all began in February with the sensational news that Barnaby Joyce, then deputy prime minister, had been having an affair with an aide, who is now pregnant. Eventually Mr. Joyce resigned from his leadership post and retreated to the backbench. But the government’s response to the scandal ensured it would linger on.
Having initially insisted that Mr. Joyce’s predicament was a private matter, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull swiftly changed his view and introduced a formal ban on sex between ministers and their staff.
This might seem like a straightforward acknowledgment of the power imbalances within a government official’s office. But in truth it has meant that what might have been a footnote in Australian political history has instead set off the degradation of the country’s political culture.
A consensual sexual relationship between a minister and a staff member has become a firing offense, like corruption or a conflict of interest. Every rumor of intra-office sex is now fair game for inquiry from the press and Parliament. Sex is now officially a matter of public interest.
This could only have a deleterious effect on politics. And sure enough, that’s what has happened.
Days after Mr. Joyce’s resignation, Michaelia Cash, the minister for jobs and innovation from the conservative Liberal Party, was being interrogated in a hearing (unrelated to the Joyce scandal or intra-office sex) when she declared that Bill Shorten, leader of the opposition Labor Party, has been the subject of rumors for years concerning (presumably sexual) relationships with his female staff members.
This outburst could only have occurred in the context of the Joyce matter. The home affairs minister, Peter Dutton, made this explicit when he defended Ms. Cash in a radio interview: “We’ve sat here taking a morals lecture from Bill Shorten in relation to Barnaby Joyce over the last few weeks and people know that there’s a history of problems in Bill Shorten’s personal life,” he said. “And to be lectured by the Labor Party really sticks in the craw.”
But the truth is that the “morals lecture” came from Mr. Turnbull. Labor’s response throughout Mr. Joyce’s travails has been studiously amoral, focused on questions of whether his relationship had led him to abuse public funds, or whether the prime minister approved the transfer of Mr. Joyce’s former employee to other ministerial offices. Only when the prime minister made the affair itself a civil wrong by changing the office code of conduct for ministers did he make Ms. Cash’s comments a politically meaningful smear.
The real problem here is not that Ms. Cash and Mr. Joyce exercised poor judgment. Politicians have been doing that for centuries. It’s that within this new political culture, Mr. Joyce could expect punishment for a consensual affair, and that Ms. Cash was saying something squarely relevant. Every political journalist now has a duty to explore sexual rumors, and politicians have a duty to investigate them.
In just the past few days, we’ve seen the National Party of Australia decide to quiz prospective candidates about their sex lives — including visits to “brothels” or “swingers clubs” — and any relationships that could “compromise” them if they became public.
Mr. Turnbull’s attempt to deal with the power imbalances inherent between ministers and their staff was probably well intentioned. And concern about sex and power in ministers’ offices is utterly reasonable. But we can’t regulate office sexual conduct in a way that doesn’t transform sexual behavior into a matter of public interest. Any rules will be impossible to police except through the most corrosive and intrusive means.
And that is before we even consider that to impose a ban like this is to dismiss the agency of the staff members. And it ignores the many perfectly sound relationships to come from such unbalanced circumstances.
Already one independent member of Parliament is proposing that the ban on office sex cover all politicians, not just ministers. But why stop there? There is often a power imbalance between people of different ages. Should we start regulating relationships characterized by an age gap? Or relationships characterized by a class disparity?
It is unlikely that Mr. Turnbull will ever reverse the sex ban. He has taken too strong a moral stand on it, and the ban has enough public support to make revisiting it a risky political move. Even the Labor Party, which had criticized the policy, wound up pledging to keep it if it takes control of the government. That is a shame.
A policy that makes office sex a legitimate focus of journalistic and even political energy promises to do a major disservice in the long run. Australian politics might have become a little more sensationalistic through all this. And it has gotten a little smaller, too.
Waleed Aly is a columnist and broadcaster and a politics lecturer at Monash University in Melbourne.