July 14, 2004 | Jeff Wall

Private lives – public interest. Where does the boundary lie?

THE recent media feasting over details of Mark Latham’s personal and political lives has probably not harmed his chances of being Australia’s next Prime Minister, but is the cause of getting the best candidates to seek public office the real loser?
I fear it is. And that does not augur well for a parliamentary democracy, and public office, already held in low regard by many, if not most, Australians.
I thought the Channel Nine “expose” on Mark Latham was dissapointing, and, in terms of the lead-up promotion give to it, misleading. Virtually every matter covered had been reported on months and weeks earlier by various media outlets.
Last weekend’s profile which trawled through his upbringing, his university days, his bucks party, and even a family party, was more like we used to read in the unlamented “Melbourne Truth” rather than in the respected daily press.
The next round of opinion polls will give some idea of what the “mob” think, and I suspect they won’t think much of it at all. At this stage in the political cycle, the citizenry seem more interested in who’s in, and who’s out, in Big Brother (and who’s being “outed” in Big Brother) or, rightly, more interested in the rugby league state of origin or the state of the AFL ladder.
But it does raise a serious question that all sides of politics, and the media, need to give careful consideration to – where does the boundary line between the right of a politician, or any public figure for that matter, the basic privacy and the right of the voter to know lie?
In the UK, and increasingly the US, there is no boundary line at all – and both democracies are poorer as a result.
The “in depth” exposure of the private lives of Australian political figures does not have a long history, with rare exception.
The politician I admire most in Australian political history is Henry Edward Bolte, Liberal Premier of Victoria from 1955 to 1972. Henry Bolte was as tough as they come. He had a predilection to strong drink, he smoked, as I recall, Ardath unfiltered fags, and was not only a keen punter, but a successful race horse owner.
He gave no quarter and asked for none. He dished out as much to the Country Party as he did to the Labor Party – and I suspect he hated the former considerably more than the latter.
I recall having lunch at Tattersalls Club in Brisbane when I was in my early 20’s with Clive Stoneham, the long time Labor Opposition Leader in Victoria when Bolte was Premier. The late Ansett Executive, Kevin Crawford, who died just a week or two ago, brought him along and the lunch extended well into the afternoon (as they often did in those days).
Naturally I quizzed Mr Stoneham about the man he sat across the Chamber from for so long. Now while he did say that Bolte was an “old c…”, he hastened to add that he was totally without malice, and never delved into the personal lives of his opponents (though Clive did say Henry knew more than he needed to about his Ministers).
After a few more drinks, he conceded that he actually liked Henry Bolte, and wasn’t even angry with him for giving him a walloping in three or four state elections in a row!
But there are few “Henry Bolte’s” in politics today and we are the poorer for it.
Reading all the gossip about Mark Latham – for that is what it really is – reminded me of an incident during a by-election many years ago. I won’t name the seat to protect the guilty.
The by-election was in a regional seat, and Keith Livingstone, David Watts and I were seconded from Liberal Party headquarters to run the Liberal campaign in a three cornered contest by-election that attracted wide media interest.
Our Labor Party counterparts, including the late Bart Lourigan and the late Jack Stanaway, stayed at the same hotel as we did. There was nothing unusual about that because Labor House and Liberal Headquarters were then both located in Edward Street and we often drank together at either the Exchange or the Victory, both conveniently located half way between the two offices.
Naturally we met after a hard days campaigning for a drink or two, or more, with our Labor opponents. I recall as if was yesterday Bart Lourigan buying a round of drinks, sucking on his pipe, and then telling us “if you have trouble finding your candidate in the morning, he’ll be outside the ………Club at 5 to 10 waiting for the doors to open”.
“I think he might have a serious drinking problem,” Bart added.
“But we are not going to make anything of it in the campaign”.
We were genuinely surprised. We knew our candidate did not mind a drink, but it had not occurred to us why we could never find him in the mornings (and that is not helpful in an election campaign).
Within a matter of days we discovered our candidate – who had a distinguished war and business record – was an alcoholic. Our Labor opponents knew that as well.
By that stage nominations had closed and the option of changing candidates did not exist. We “staggered” through (and so did our candidate)……and he won the seat.
He had not been in Parliament two weeks when the late Brian Harris, the “Telegraph’s” veteran state political writer rang me to say that he thought our new Member had a “problem”. Brian used to have a couple of drinks at a certain hotel, well away from Parliament House, on his way to Question Time.
He noted that the new MP popped in, went to the very corner of the bar, and had two pots with rum chasers in about 10 minutes! (We subsequently discovered he had two pots with rum chasers at 2 other pubs each morning as well).
The whole press gallery knew our MP’s “history” within days – but it was never published, or even alluded to. The late Tom Aikens, veteran Independent MP for Townsville South, was “tipped off”, but old Tom told me that as he was a reformed drunk himself he would not do anything about it.
Haven’t times changed? But have they changed for the better?
The Labor Party would have been entitled to raise questions about the fitness of our candidate – he was clearly unfit for public office – but did not do so. Our opponents accepted we knew nothing about his “problem” when he was endorsed……………..but that is often the case with alcoholics.
Of all the gossip that has been written about Mark Latham, how much of it has been of genuine public interest, or benefit?
Not much, in my view. Perhaps some of his record as Mayor of Liverpool is of genuine public interest and relevance, but what happened at his bucks party, or his sisters birthday party? Give me a break!
I believe the boundary line needs to be drawn very firmly, otherwise the quality of the men and women seeking public office will diminish even further.
The private lives of politicians, and would-be politicians, ought only be exposed to public scrutiny when aspects of the private life directly impact on their ability, or suitability, for high office.
If, for example, a candidate has a record of business failures that harmed a lot of innocent customers, suppliers or investors, the there is surely an entitlement for that to be made public.
The other area – and this is a difficult one – is where the private behaviour of a candidate or politician is in total and hypocritical contrast with his or her public views and voting record.
I will give two examples, one contemporary, – again leaving out the names.
In the early Bjelke-Petersen Cabinets there was at least one gay Minister. The Opposition new about him, and so did the media. It was common knowledge around town at the time.
Even though the Bjelke-Petersen Government was notorious for its gay bashing and “moralising”, the Minister concerned never participated in it, and was generally a model of, shall we say, discretion.
Most fair minded people would agree he was entitled to his privacy.
But today there is least one Federal MP whose hypocrisy absolutely reeks. In his electorate, the MP has a long history for being homophobic and aligning himself, for political advantage, with Christian groups noted for their intolerance. He espouses traditional family values.
But in Canberra he is in a form of a “relationship” with a young male staff member. It must be a turbulent affair because the MP occasionally sports a black eye!
The fact that he and his wife have separated may be a mitigating factor…………but if he continues to espouse homophobic views in his electorate the way he has done for years, is his entitlement to privacy forfeited?
I think the “outing” of public figures, including sporting figures and show business personalities, is wrong……………..unless, of course, they “out” themselves.
The MP concerned may well be an exception.
The people of Australia will, when the election is actually called, judge Mark Latham, and John Howard, on their policies, and their performance. I doubt whether any of the gossip and scuttlebutt reported so extensively over the last 10 days will make a fig of a difference to the outcome.
And that is how it should ever be!

Posted by Jeff Wall at 10:48 pm | Comments Off on Private lives – public interest. Where does the boundary lie? |
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