Bill Henson is said to be mortified that he is the centre of another moral outrage. If so, it suggests someone wholly out of touch with reality. To not know that a revelation that he procured models by visiting primary schools suggests a particularly ethereal sensibility.

Indeed, the photo of Henson gazing, seemingly smugly, out of weekend newspapers as we learnt how he had cruised playgrounds for talent, seemed calculated to push parental buttons in a big way. This took the debate out of the vexed area of free speech and art and into our schools being used for purposes both commercial and of debatable artistic value.

The fact that nobody bothered to check with the parents of the St Kilda Park Primary kids Henson would be assessing for their value as models is the killer. News Ltd’s beat-up that Henson “scoured schools” was wholly unnecessary, and missed the point that the relevant school principal’s judgement was at fault, not the artist’s.

Parents will now rightly wonder who else has been permitted to enter school grounds, which are supposed to be a safe, non-commercialised and non-judgemental environment, to appraise the commercial value of their children without their being informed. If artists want models, nude or otherwise, they can stick an ad in the paper, not wander schoolyards with fawning principals in tow.

The political reaction has been unanimous. And there are some who’ll find in Malcolm Turnbull’s reaction, altogether more hostile than during the earlier controversy, a basis for criticism. Peter Craven, in an impressively clueless op-ed in The Age that compared Henson to a football coach, laments Turnbull’s change of heart. More surprisingly, Glenn Milne has an unsubtle dig at him today and frets that, despite his backflip on Henson, he might take the Liberals too far to the left.

There are two issues with Turnbull’s response. First is that this is a different issue entirely. There’s no contradiction between supporting Henson’s work as genuine artistic endeavour that should not be the subject of police raids on galleries, and objecting to schools facilitating the procurement of models without parental approval. You can hold both views without engaging in some form of puritanical doublethink.

The second is that, as Opposition Leader and, in Brendan Nelson’s ceaseless self-referencing, “alternate Prime Minister”, Turnbull is held to a different standard than that which applied when he was shadow Treasurer. As the alternative national leader, Turnbull has to reflect mainstream views in ways his colleagues are not. Hypocrisy? No, it’s both a politically expedient tactic and a requirement of the job.

When Mark Latham became Labor leader, he declared an end to the sort of crude attacks he was famous for launching at media and political opponents. In doing so he was reflecting the fact that what was acceptable from a backbencher or shadow Treasurer was inappropriate from someone who aspired to lead the country. No one accused Latham of hypocrisy or inconsistency. It was a wholly appropriate decision for a man who was seeking the Prime Ministership to suppress an element of his own make-up because it didn’t fit with the job.

Leadership exacts a personal price in that way, and that is one of the reasons why Turnbull won’t take his party to the left as much as his enemies fear or his fans would hope.

Peter Fray

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