Troy Buswell, what were you thinking?

As West Australian Treasurer, overseeing a booming mining economy, you had it good — money, power and the surprisingly wide variety of perks and freebies available to the average state or federal politician. And then you had to go and sniff a female colleague’s chair. And then you had to “squirrel grip” a colleague within the WA Parliament. And then, as if to lightly sprinkle cinnamon over the crepe of your indiscretions, you went and spent taxpayer funds on cars and hotels for the occasional saucy rendezvous with Greens MP Adele Carles.

Troy, a political career can survive the odd bit of biff. It can also (unfortunately) survive the occasional outbreak of sexist or racist behaviour. What a political career often can’t survive is a sex scandal. There’s just something about getting off on the public dollar that acts as Kryptonite to political aspirations.

When most of us think of sex scandals, we think of the Profumo Affair — the classic standard in ruining careers and damaging governments. John Profumo was the Secretary for War in Harold McMillan’s conservative government in Britain in the mid-sixties. A well-connected, decorated war hero married to an actress, Profumo had it pretty good too. Then, in 1961 he had to go and sleep with Christie Keeler, a London call girl. Now, such an act in itself wouldn’t normally be enough to scuttle his career — one might say it was the sixties, after all.

However, Profumo stuffed up in not investigating who else Keeler might have been seeing. As it turns out, Keeler had also had dalliances with one Yevgeny Ivanov, a senior Soviet naval attache. At the height of the Cold War, this was bad, bad news. When the connection between Profumo and Ivanov was revealed during an investigation into a separate criminal matter involving Keeler, bells started ringing.

Keeler was dragged in for heavy questioning and the media fell into a frenzy. Investigations continued but Profumo somehow managed to deny any allegations of impropriety until June 1963, when the release of a government report forced his hand. Profumo resigned and was followed a month later by McMillan. Stephen Ward — the fellow who had introduced the pair and who had occasionally been thought of as something like her pimp — committed suicide.

Keeler,  who had had a portrait of herself photographed at the height of the scandal that sold like hotcakes, became a national sensation and still trades off the affair half a century later.

We also see a steady stream of political careers felled by extra-curricular bedroom actions among our American brethren. Democratic Presidential candidate Gary Hart’s run for the White House was scuttled in 1988 following the revelations he was cavorting with model Donna Rice aboard a yacht called — get this — Monkey Business. New York governor Eliot Spitzer was brought down in 2008 after an investigation found that he’d been using the services of an escort service called Emperor’s Club VIP, revelling in the delights of one Kristen. He was unlucky enough to be ratted out by his bank.

We’ve already discussed South Carolina Governor Mark Sandford on a previous Lessons From History, when he disappeared in 2009, supposedly whilst hiking the Appalachian Trail. Turns out, he’d opted to go and get lost amongst the peaks and valleys of his Argentinean lover, María Belén Chapur. And perhaps most significantly, there’s the affair that just keeps giving.

John Edwards — John Kerry’s folksy, down-home family values running mate with the impeccable hair who was revealed to have fathered a child with an aide, Rielle Hunter, all while his wife suffered from cancer. Closer to home, politicians have also got themselves into hot water with an ill-considered dalliance. Former Democrat leader Cheryl Kernot was revealed to have had a five-year affair with ALP frontbencher Gareth Evans, the most prominent figure in her wooing towards Labor, in 2002. This could be said to have put an end to their political careers, following the end of their respective terms in office.

However, not everyone seems to be so vulnerable to the dirt thrown about by a s-x scandal. President Bill Clinton survived his impeachment over the Lewinsky affair by 10 votes. FDR, despite receiving a severe rebuke as Assistant Secretary for the Navy back in the teens during the Newport Sex Scandal, went on to become President of the United States. And Strom Thurmond, that gnarly old segregationist Senator from South Carolina fathered a child by an African-American maid as a teen and kept it hidden for most of his life.

Troy, looking at the list of politicians felled by and those who survived s-x scandals, it becomes clear that those who tend to cop it are those from the conservative side of politics. Talk a lot about family values and the public will turn on you should you stray from that path. If there’s one thing you could take from this, Troy, it’d be this. You may have just got away with it if you’d been from the other side of the chamber. Just something worth thinking about.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey