Barnaby Joyce is having a baby with a former staffer at a time of crumbling trust in Australian institutions. Of course it matters

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A new report reveals the trust Australians have for politicians and the media is at fresh lows.

The 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer, a global survey across 28 countries, shows Australia’s least trusted institutions are government and the media, with trust for both falling over the past 12 months.

Trust in government is down 2% to 35%, while trust in the media lost 1% to 31%.

Both organisations will be giving thanks that those views were canvassed before today’s Daily Telegraph revealed that Nationals leader and deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce is living with one of his former staffers, Vikki Campion, in Canberra. Campion is 17 years Joyce’s junior and they’re weeks away from having a baby.

Joyce has four daughters with his wife, Natalie. They’re aged between 21 and 16. They featured in stories about his life as recently as March 2017, and during previous election campaigns, but not during last December’s by-election.

In December, as the debate over same-sex marriage reached its climax, and Joyce had just been re-elected by voters in New England following his resignation because he was a dual citizen, he stood in Parliament and revealed his 24-year marriage had broken down, saying “I acknowledge that I’m currently separated, so that’s on the record”.

Joyce opposed same-sex marriage as a Christian social conservative, but hinted at his flaws.

“I don’t come to this debate pretending to be any form of saint, but I do believe in the current definition of marriage, which has stood the test of time,” he told fellow MPs.

“Half of them fail, I acknowledge that.”

But marriage, he said, was “a special relationship between a man and a woman, predominantly for the purpose of bringing children into the world”.

In the end, he abstained from voting on the same-sex marriage legislation.

Today’s revelation that Joyce was having an affair, and will now have a child with his partner, has many debating the credibility and ethics of a senior government MP, as well as calling into question the media’s culpability in this issue.

There’s a broad rule in Australian political circles that a politician’s private life is just that, although some today were quick to point out a double standard, including commentator Julia Baird, who pondered what would have happened if Barnaby had been “Barbara”.

Others had similar views:

There’s no doubt women are treated differently on this front. Yet here we are, in a new year after the revelations of 2017’s #metoo movement, still grappling with male privilege and the risks of workplace behaviour.

This is not to suggest Joyce’s behaviour involved harassment in any way, but had the relationship soured, then it would have left the public service and the government facing a range of potential legal problems and as any observer of workplace relationships knows, they can go horribly wrong. Just ask Seven West Media CEO Tim Worner and his former executive assistant, Amber Harrison.

Joyce’s perceived hypocrisy, especially given his defence of “traditional” marriage, is a common theme to criticism today, but the heat is also on the media as to why what many in the Canberra press gallery are now admitting they were aware of this “open secret”, but did not report it earlier.

Rumours about Joyce and his extra-marital activities swirled around social media in the leadup to last year’s by-election, but were largely ignored. The closest anyone went near them involved the same journalist who broke today’s story in Sydney’s Daily Telegraph, Sharri Markson. On October 20 last year, under the headline “Barnaby Joyce battles vicious innuendo“, she reported the Nationals leader “is in the grip of a deeply personal crisis” and “has for months struggled with issues that have affected his marriage of 24 years”.

She reported: “A senior Nationals source said there are concerns over a scandal in Mr Joyce’s personal life and a dirt-file upsetting the conservative voters”, adding the source said the issue had “come to light in the last few weeks” as the party prepared for the by-election.

Campion, 33, a former Daily Telegraph journalist, left Joyce’s office in April last year. She appears, heavily pregnant, on the front page of today’s paper. She is no longer employed by the government.

In a statement to The Australian today, Joyce’s wife, Natalie, said the affair “started when she was a paid employee”.

“I am deeply saddened by the news that my husband has been having an affair and is now having a child with a former staff member. I understand that this affair has been going on for many months,” she said.

Natalie Joyce hinted at the betrayal the family felt by the situation, saying it was devastating on so many fronts.

“Our family life has had to be shared during Barnaby’s political career and it was with trust that we let campaign and office staff into our homes and into our lives. Naturally we also feel deceived and hurt by the actions of Barnaby and the staff member involved,” she said.

After years of being dragged into the public spotlight in the name of her estranged husband’s political career, Natalie Joyce has requested privacy for herself and her daughters as they come to terms with what’s happened.

Fairfax Media’s Jacqueline Maley today said the only reason The Sydney Morning Herald didn’t publish the story was because they couldn’t verify it.

Politicians agree…

Today, government ministers are insisting the issue is a private matter and they will not comment about who knew what, when. In general all sides of politics suddenly find themselves in furious agreement.

And some are arguing Campion should be left out of it. Maley has sympathy for the heavily pregnant Campion’s plight, describing the front page photo of her in gym gear at a petrol station as “a huge invasion of her privacy”.

Greens MP Adam Bandt agrees:

He subsequently told Sky News: “I don’t really care who Barnaby Joyce or anyone else is sleeping with. Unless it impacts on his job”.

And that’s the question that needs to be asked.

You may recall that Labor’s Tony Burke came under scrutiny for expenses claims in 2015 involving his staffer Skye Laris, with whom he began a relationship after his marriage of 26 years had ended.

Burke’s view today is that Joyce’s private life is “none of my business”.

Even putting aside the exploitation of privilege and position by so many middle-aged white men, an issue that dominated 2017’s headlines and debate, here was a politician at the height of their power in a relationship with a staffer. If Joyce’s wife is correct, then for several months amid the betrayal to his family, the arrangement also involved some form of deception.

After leaving Joyce’s office, Campion went on to work for two other senior Nationals. She was a public servant, employed by taxpayers, who was pregnant with the deputy PM’s child when she finished up in December. As Markson reported, senior Nationals apparently became aware of something a few months earlier.

The Daily Telegraph describes the duo as “madly in love”, but you only have to look at the legal action between Worner and Harrison to see the costs and reputational damage if a workplace fling fails. This goes to Joyce’s judgement, and he left taxpayers potentially exposed to some risk here.

As one Canberra insider told Business Insider today:

If public funds or policy outcomes are connected to one’s (compromised) personal life then that personal life and conduct absolutely is a matter of public interest.

He’s a politician. She was a senior staffer. Presumably when together they crossed the personal line backwards and talked policy and politics.

They are both paid by the taxpayer. In the corporate world a relationship like this would be market disclosable.

Just a month after Joyce appeared at Canberra’s annual Mid-Winter Ball with his wife, two senior AFL executives resigned due to what CEO Gillon McLachlan called “inappropriate relationships with younger women that work in the AFL industry”.

And Westpac has a code of conduct that saw an employee dismissed for failing to disclose a relationship with a colleague.

When a football code and major bank hold higher standards of accountability for their leadership than the nation’s legislators, the country has a problem.

Is it any wonder why our trust in institutions is falling?

* This is an opinion column.

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