Barnaby Joyce prefers the cone of silence over his affair, but who benefits most?

HERE’S an exercise for you after a week of Barnaby Joyce, his staffer, their baby and what the Prime Minister knew about the affair in 2017.

Imagine you’re a journalist and someone rings to say a politician hasn’t been living in his electorate because he’s had an affair with a parliamentary staffer and his long-term marriage has ended. What, if anything, would you do?

It happened to me a few years ago so I rang the pollie. If an MP isn’t living in his or her electorate anymore then the people he or she represents have a right to know, is my way of looking at it. The pollie confirmed he was separated but denied living outside the electorate or having an affair. He insisted he was still living at his family home. And then, completely unprompted, he denied rumours he’d fathered a child to the parliamentary staffer. She had a baby but it wasn’t his, he said.

I wrote an article putting all of the above on the record – mainly because too many people had contacted me about it and he said he was sick of the rumours and wanted to set the record straight. But I didn’t think much of it. I had no reason to doubt what he said was true.

A bit later I had a phone call from a man who was a friend of a man who had been the parliamentary staffer’s partner. The partner knew his relationship hadn’t been the best but believed he was the baby’s father until he caught the pollie and his partner at his home one day. The friend wanted to know if I wanted to report that.

And remember, I didn’t ask him about a baby in the first place. My initial call was about where he was living. What happened after that was a pollie own goal with twist, half pike, pirouette and back flip.

I answered pretty bluntly that the only way we would be able to report something like that was if he could supply me with documents confirming the baby’s paternity and various other essential points, and even then we would have to think about it. Get any of the above factually incorrect and you’re handing someone a defamation settlement on a plate.

He said he’d get back to me. And so he did, with the documents.

Ask yourself what you would do from that point if you were the journalist and the pollie had clearly lied.

In my case I rang the pollie. He not only confirmed the baby was his but agreed that he had lied to me – and by default the public – about the whole matter.

His exact words were “Of course I lied. I lied to protect [the woman], the baby, my children and my family, and because I didn’t want it in the media.’’

And remember, I didn’t ask him about a baby in the first place. My initial call was about where he was living. What happened after that was a pollie own goal with twist, half pike, pirouette and back flip.

He retired after that, although it wasn’t a straightforward exit. He’d told me in earlier phone calls that he was sick of politics and planned to announce his retirement from his safe seat at a party meeting a few weeks later.

Going back to the exercise of imagining you are the journalist, what else do you do in this situation? I rang the parliamentary staff member and attempted to make contact with the pollie’s wife. You can argue that was an intrusion on their privacy.

I’d like people to consider this. Male politicians outnumber female politicians across all levels of Australian governments by a large factor. If we have a political scandal in this country, particularly one that features an affair, marriage break-up and baby, it tends to feature a male pollie and a younger woman – often a more junior staff member. In many cases the male pollie’s family has relied on the wife either putting her own career aspirations on hold or not working at all to accommodate the pollie’s long absences.

The veil of privacy is invoked whenever a pollie scandal of the affair/marriage break-up/baby kind unfolds. The supportive but betrayed wife is silenced behind that veil, usually for good. The political juggernaut moves on, the male pollie regularly emerges a little bruised (metaphorically), but we’re encouraged to act as if nothing has happened.

We can’t control relationships. Certainly any suggestion of a US-style ban is ridiculous, unworkable and like any prohibition response to a difficult subject, doomed to failure.

But Australian politics has a history of silenced women who have supported husbands, raised children, smiled and endured endless political events, only to have the rug pulled out from under them when the affair is revealed, whether in public or not.

I attempted to contact the two women in the pollie-who-lied-about-the-baby case to warn them that an article was about to appear – because it had to, he had lied – and check if they would like to say something. The veil of privacy has been invoked in the past by the male pollies and it’s been accepted by journalists and the public, but based on no evidence at all that the pollie’s wife might want to stay silent.

I made the call and reached a work colleague of the pollie’s wife who passed my message on. The reply was that she did not want to comment. Neither did the staffer.

I’m pleased Natalie Joyce made a statement about the impact of her husband’s affair on their family, including four daughters. I’m pleased she made it clear she had “placed my own career on hold to support Barnaby through his political life”.

Barnaby Joyce is leader of a party that appeals to the traditional, conservative end of the spectrum, with women making up only 15 per cent of its federal MPs by 2016, compared with 45 per cent for Labor and the Greens. The party that likes to keep its women at home, or in jobs where home and family can be prioritised so the men can lead, is headed by a man who shat in his own nest and expects us to act as if nothing has happened, because that’s what we’ve always done.

That’s not private. It’s a line in the sand for all of us.