It’s time we all got over our hang-ups about political spouses.
For the first time, the leaders of our two largest political parties have spouses who are successful and prominent in their own right. Thérèse Rein established an internationally successful Australian company. Lucy Turnbull is a former Lord Mayor of Sydney — she was a politician before her husband — and a company director, author and lawyer. You’d expect nothing less given the sort of men they’re married to.
The contrast with Janette Howard, who had no career but lived vicariously through her husband and pursued her own manipulative conservative agenda using his political success, is stark.
However, we’re still stuck with the template of political spouses as doormats, inseparable from their partners.
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John Hewson was the first to face this issue when he led the Liberal Party. How could his wife remain an investment banker if she was sleeping the Prime Minister, critics whinged.
Thérèse Rein sold her domestic interests rather than endure constant speculation about her husband’s conflict of interest. Rudd’s former Chief of Staff David Epstein copped similar criticism from the Opposition because his wife was a lobbyist, despite observing protocols to avoid conflict of interest.
The idea seems to be that no role in business is compatible with being married to a senior politician because spouses — and let’s face it that always meant women — were not separable from their husbands. Women should surrender their own careers for the good of their politician spouses. The public interest demanded it.
If that’s the case then we’ll further narrow our political gene pool, because successful couples, unless they’re both in politics, will steer clear of public office. Australia has a relatively small class of business, political and community leaders and there’s a high chance of intermarriage within it, particularly when politicians, public servants, journalists, lobbyists and business people cycle through two or more of those roles over the course of their working lives. There’ll be more and more power couples across politics.
Over the weekend Turnbull was the recipient of the inverse of this — confected outrage that he had dared to point to Ms Rein’s wealth to make a point about her husband. The source of the Rudds’ wealth is a legitimate topic for debate, as is the Turnbulls’. It is not somehow off-limits just because, traditionally, politically-quiescent spouses were not considered fair game for point-scoring. But the ALP pretended that Turnbull had resorted to the lowest political crime of all.
Politicians and their spouses with their own high-profile careers have a significant conflict of interest issue to manage, but it is indeed manageable, just as politicians have always had to manage — with varying degrees of success – conflicts involving friends, business partners and other relatives. If Bob Hawke could regard himself as Sir Peter Abeles’s closest friend without challenge over its impact on his decision-making, then most power couples should be able to conduct their affairs without criticism. It does, however, require an element of maturity on the part of fellow politicians and the media, and that’s not necessarily a given — even now.