OPINION

Why we need a universal sex register for politicians

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian after giving evidence at the Independent Commission Against Corruption on Monday. Picture: Getty Images
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian after giving evidence at the Independent Commission Against Corruption on Monday. Picture: Getty Images

I have a cure for what ails Gladys Berejiklian. I mean, it won't save her now. Nothing can save her now, except the lack of viable alternatives.

Let me be clear, there is nothing to be said to defend the NSW Premier's choice of numero uno. She is the Premier of Australia's wealthiest state and her conduct has to be irreproachable, unimpeachable. Instead, we discover her numero uno Daryl Maguire is a shonk by his own admission. It isn't the first time women have been let down by bad boyfriends, lazy lovers or horrible ex-husbands, although it doesn't usually involve premiers.

So what should Gladys Berejiklian and others like her do about their relationships?

There is, for this reason, something to be said for marriage (don't hector me about heteronormativity - everyone gets to marry these days if they want to).

It keeps romances out there. Public. Obvious. Well, except in the case of Barnaby Joyce. For years, we thought we knew where his romantic interests lay. Then it turns out we didn't, but we should have. It might have given us more insight into Barnaby's spending patterns as an MP. Which turned out to be perfectly OK, by the way.

Beyond forcing everyone to get and stay married, Malcolm Turnbull's idea of a bonk ban between politicians and staffers had merit. I was not the only one to think it was useful. As former Howard staffer and knife-sharp political commentator Paula Matthewson wrote at the time: "The sensible sanction will improve workplace conditions and help to lift the standard of behaviour in ministerial offices."

But trust me, my innovation is better than either of these two options. It's the equivalent of a pecuniary interest register for a bit on the side, or the main course, or anything in between.

It's the Love List. The Close Personal Relationships Register. Or we could just have it all in the same place: the Pecuniary and Other Relationships Register, also known as PORR. Sex, money, the whole damn thing.

Don't immediately discount it! While we have all understood the conflict of interest politicians have when it comes to financial gain, the route (sorry) more travelled has not been investigated. What is the influence of the "close personal" relationship on decision-making?

I thought it was so genius I asked some very experienced academics in law and politics for their views. They didn't instantly discount this.

Maria Maley, a political science academic at the Australian National University, has been researching the hidden networks in politics for years, with particular focus on staffers. Yes, listing love and other catastrophes is fine, but let's also examine forensically the entire work network. What else plays into decision-making?

"What are the private relationships which politicians have? Who have they worked with before? What are their different links?" Maley asks.

As we know now, politics is all about the secret and the semi-secret.

"Politicians owe people, they have obligations and loyalties. That becomes problematic when it causes people to act in ways which are not in the public's best interest," Maley says.

She reminds me that the issue with Barnaby Joyce and Vikki Campion was not Joyce's infidelity but the perceived conflict of interest. Was Campion the best person for the various jobs she was offered? Or was it because of a close personal relationship?

Maley says it would be hard to make all of these factors public. I mean, there is not even a public list of staffers - and they are the absolute worst. They go from working for politicians to working as lobbyists and there is neither track nor trace of what they take with them or what they tell. I reckon there'd be plenty here which could go on a conflict of interest register, alongside sex and money.

"They are trading on their personal relationships, and what can be bought and sold, and no one keeps track of where they have gone," Maley says.

So that's the politics side of it. What about the legal aspects?

George Williams, former dean of law at the University of NSW and constitutional law whizz, tells me the concept is tricky.

"What about a one night stand? How do you define those close personal relationships, those very short-term things? Do we expect our leaders to list every sexual encounter, past and present?" he says.

I am beginning to see where this is leading.

"Will we have a Bill Clinton-style defence?" he asks.

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As Williams points out, we already have a place to list conflicts of interest. It's a shame not everyone understands what that is.

University of Queensland law professor Graeme Orr sees the existence of such conflicts across more than just politics. He says they also appear in academia, where a senior person is appointed to a job and their spouse also gets a gig.

Sadly, he's not a big fan of my Love List.

"What would the French say? How can you regulate something which is not regulable?" he says.

But he has much in common with both Williams and Maley when he says the problem is much bigger than just politics. It is across every industry and every sector, and it probably has a harmful impact on our lives every day.

"Sex could be less meaningful than old school mates and ties," he says.

Orr also says that we must all do a better job of working towards transparency and accountability. How many journalists knew of the relationship between Barnaby Joyce and Vicki Campion, knew they worked together, yet never reported it until the Bundle of Joyce?

"We have an obligation or role to play in uncovering the webs," Orr says.

For that purpose, I reckon my PORR is the way to go. I mean, it could be amazing! Enough data to do a network analysis which would display every single connection and possible conflict of interest.

It's too late for Gladys, but it might save others from hot water. Or toss them straight in it. Which is pretty much what Dodgy Daryl did to Gladys at ICAC on Thursday.

  • Jenna Price is an academic at the University of Technology Sydney and a regular columnist.
This story Why we need a universal sex register for politicians first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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