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When principles matter no more – that’s the real scandal, says Simon Longstaff

If there is public scandal in connection with Barnaby Joyce, then it has nothing to do with the fact that the Deputy Prime Minister had an affair with a media adviser who now bears his child. That is a ‘private’ scandal – even though it has damaged a cast of thousands – especially Mr Joyce’s devastated wife and children.

The public scandal arises out of two other quite different things.

First, is the way in which tax-payer funded staffing positions are alleged to have been used for the convenience of Mr Joyce, his lover and the political fortunes of a government that would have suffered electoral misfortune had the public known of Mr Joyce’s affair prior to last year’s New England bye-election. Others are investigating the details around these and other arrangements made to help Mr Joyce manage the consequences of his choices.

Second – and I think by far the worst – has been the scandalous behaviour by the Turnbull ministry in its cynical manipulation of language to distort the plain meaning of the Ministerial Code of Conduct.
“No wonder our society feels ashamed of those who serve in politics. That it has come to this is not just a scandal. It is a tragedy.”

In helping Mr Joyce evade responsibility, our government has put yet another nail in the coffin of Ministerial (and personal) responsibility. Our Prime Minister and Cabinet have made it clear – personal obligations extend no further than obeying the strict letter of the law. If there is a loophole, exploit it. If the regulations are silent, then do whatever you feel like. Forget issues of ethics, of integrity, of basic decency. Exercise no judgement. Do not hold yourself personally responsible. Just comply. Just meet the minimum legal standard. Just don’t get caught.

No wonder our society feels ashamed of those who serve in politics. That it has come to this is not just a scandal. It is a tragedy. The practice of politics was originally conceived to be a noble calling, the arena in which a citizen might work to build a good society. How tainted has that ideal become?

Do our political leaders really not understand what their example is doing to the nation? Do they truly have no idea of the corrosive effects of their hypocrisy? They rail against the rest of us for not being accountable for our actions, they hold our feet to the fire. But never, not ever, if it is one of their own… unless, unless there is not a nanometre of wriggle room left to be exploited.

No wonder we have so many laws and regulations in this country. A society led to believe that principles do not matter only has the strict letter of the law to rely upon. So, as life becomes more complicated, as the loopholes and exceptions multiply, so the legislation and regulation expands to fill the ever widening gap. It is unstoppable – because nothing else counts.

That is the lesson taught to us by political leaders from across the ideological spectrum.

That is the public scandal of the Barnaby Joyce affair.

*Simon Longstaff AO is Executive Director of The Ethics Centre, where this article was first published: