She raises some good points in this article, but some of her assumptions about politicians, the media and voters simply cannot be sustained.
Media coverage of politics and government is facile and inadequate as it is. There is too much focus on politicians at a time when individual MPs have never been more tightly controlled by their party machines than they are today (and therefore, the behaviour of the individual MP is less important than Matthewson might imagine).
It is no longer true that parliament is the only aperture between the opaque and arcane workings of government and the people whom they regulate and govern. Journalists concerned with public policy need not be parked in the press gallery processing gossip, which is much of what they do today. They would serve their employers and the public better if they reported on issues and then weaved political announcements/actions into that narrative, rather than presenting politicians in all of their flaws and pettiness and attempting to represent that as "the national debate".
There are two things Matthewson is saying in her article: firstly, that there should be more coverage of politicians' sexual infidelities, and secondly that Australians should not vote for adulterous politicians. I think both are happening anyway. I question whether that's necessarily a good thing for all concerned.
When I started as a staffer at the NSW Parliament in the late 1980s, I mixed with experienced staffers and journalists who would furtively tell me over a drink who was rooting whom, who was gay, who was a drunk, who was a nightmare to work for, who was flat-out weird and creepy, etc. The gossip covered not only politicians but staffers, lobbyists and journalists. Over time different people would move between those classifications, as well as in and out of particular relationships. I would be surprised if Matthewson did not experience something similar in her days at the Federal Parliament.
In the case of Thomson and Slipper, Abbott is ramping up the pressure on them because he regards them as weak links standing between him and the Prime Ministership. If the country fails to collapse utterly after 1 July, if the government develops a reputation for being not too bad and getting things done, he's finished. Abbott's tried the noble agree-to-disagree, we're-all-human thing, he even tried some feeble attempts at policy - now two he has less than two months to bully two guys into dropping the ball, or his chance will have passed. I wish journos would report more on that, and less on what Matthewson would have them cover.
Experienced reporters falling on each morsel of scuttlebutt about Peter Slipper diminish themselves by their admission that they've known what he was like for years. The HSU shenanigans are five years out of date and took place outside Parliament: never again does a journalist have any excuse for refusing to cover a story because of "old news".
As to the question of whether or not people should vote for adulterers, the evidence is clear that they don't. Two prominent examples, happily from either major party, bear this out.
When it was revealed that Cheryl Kernot and Gareth Evans had been having an affair, both were diminished. Evans, the more powerful of the two and a man, had left Parliament and was a private citizen living abroad. Kernot had passed her peak and would go on to defeat by a man who played up his family credentials, but who has little else to recommend him. This story must have been well known at the time within the politico-media context and it is possible that the career arc of both would have been different had the affair been disclosed earlier.
Consider how political history might have been different had Gareth Evans been leading the ALP in 2001.
Ross Cameron had the air of an up-and-coming politician when he was elected in 1996. He had closely studied US Republican politicians and inherited his father's commitment to the rhetoric of "muscular Christianity", family and conservatism. I heard rumours at the time that Ross was a pants man, and it all came out before the 2004 election. Cameron invited his electorate to take him as he was: someone who talked about family and faith but didn't practice much of either. He had trashed the central idea of who he was. Re-electing him threatened to be confused with validation, and he lost his seat just as Kernot had lost hers.
There is a case to be made that infidelity should only become a public issue where there is a clear double-standard. If a politician preaches faith-and-family but doesn't practice it, as Cameron did, that would be grounds for exposure - but not if the same happened to someone who wasn't such a tub-thumper in this regard, who refused to use their family in campaign literature and otherwise played down their private lives. This would mean that conservatives would be held to a higher standard than non-conservatives, and some might regard that as unfair. Would a conservative even recognise the breakdown of a gay/lesbian relationship, with or without legal marriage?
There is, of course, the issue of where an extramarital relationship has an impact on the decisions or perceptions surrounding a senior politician in the execution of their duties: the Profumo Affair in 1960s Britain is a prime example of this, but a) I've had to go back fifty years to another country to get a cogent example, and b) the press gallery have no ability to do investigative journalism (unless you consider 'investigative journalism' to be clicking 'Send/Receive' on your email to check whether minister's office has sent you a press release).
Consider also long-standing relationships that are not concluded in a legal marriage, but which are no less real and which break down as surely as marriages do. Are they worthy of reporting? Consider the politicians who are single, hooking up here and breaking up there - are their personal lives to be covered in the same vacuous way as those of celebrities (at the expense of public policy reporting)?
The tangled but non-adulterous relationship of Michael Lawler and Kathy Jackson is far more interesting right now than any MP. As one of the commenters on Matthewson's article said, where does it end?
One weakness of Matthewson's piece is that she makes no mention of those who are intimately but incidentally involved in a relationship breakdown, but who are not public figures. The role of spouses and families in the lives of politicians is fraught when it comes to public exposure, but with the breakdown of a relationship their public role and a "right to know" becomes tenuous at best. Consider the following individuals involved in recent incidents of the type Matthewson refers to:
- Professor Merran Evans (wife of Gareth)
- Gavin Kernot (Cheryl's then husband)
- Genevieve Cameron (as she then was)
- Edna Campbell (wife of David, former NSW Transport Minister)
- Dawn Coulson (wife of Mal)
- Zoe Arnold (Craig Thomson's wife)
- Inge-Jane Hall (Peter Slipper's wife)
I still think that would-be candidates for public office should, with their spouses/partners, be led to a quiet room and be forced to sit through that scene from The Right Stuff where the astronaut's wife refuses to speak to the press pack surrounding her home. After watching the scene, the couple should be left to discuss what they had seen and relate it to their own lives; and if the candidate chose to withdraw from nomination, any application fees should be refunded in full.
The motives of a journalist in going after a politician would be as opaque as they are today. After the revelations from the UK, and after my limited experience in dealing with journalists, I am not sure there is much value in them exposing and picking over the messy lives of other people.
Matthewson's link between political infidelity and sportspeople taking performance-enhancing drugs is not strong. Her portrayal of Julia Gillard's position on the carbon price as a uniquely bad breach of faith with the electorate is laughable, particularly when the main alternative admits that he too runs off at the mouth and can't always be trusted.
If you're going after US examples, never mind Anthony Weiner - what about David Vitter? All the publicity anyone could want but still got re-elected, and by conservatives. Clearly, the US is not a strong parllel to Australia in that regard: maximum publicity, wrong result.
Infidelity is a failing among people; not universally, but common enough for it to join the ranks of human flaws. How people deal with it such weaknesses forms part of their character. It isn't true that she's trying to solve a non-problem, but I suspect Matthewson is trying to solve a problem that is either less than she imagines, or would do so in a way that would make the situation worse. Voters are better judges of character than people such as Paula Matthewson credit them; but that failure of credit and trust is part of being a non-populist conservative, I suppose.