Peter Dutton au pairs
Peter Dutton (Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

What is the go with the au pairs? Clearly, some top-notch memes and a lot of schadenfreude — after all, this Senate inquiry wouldn’t be happening if Peter Dutton hadn’t unsuccessfully challenged for leadership, brightening the spotlight on these cases. But there’s something more at play here.

Political nanny scandals, be they pay- or visa-related, are surprisingly (or unsurprisingly) common, particularly enraging, and deeply damaging. Why? They sum up everything we hate about politicians: money, status, entitlement, and hypocrisy.

Nannygates and au pair faux pas

Of course, in US politics, they have a name: nannygates. Bill Clinton is linked to one, as he is to many a “-gate”, though they weren’t his nannies. In 1993, not one but two of his picks for attorney-general, Zoë Baird and Kimba Wood, were found to have employed undocumented immigrants to care for their children.

It was an unfortunate side-effect of Clinton’s determination to tap a woman for the role — career-oriented women often rely on household help in a way men do not — but an unforgivable infraction in the eyes of the media. This was heightened by the fact the AG would have been in charge of the Immigration and Naturalization Service — not a power you want in the hands of someone who thinks they’re above it.

So high profile was the first case that the idiom “to have a Zoë Baird problem” became common parlance. As hiring undocumented help was not abnormal, suddenly nannygates were everywhere.

Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer was overlooked for the 1993 vacancy because of his “Zoë Baird problem”, though he was appointed to fill the next one. George W. Bush’s presidency was likewise plagued by nannygates, from Secretary of Labor-nominee Linda Chavez to Secretary of Homeland Security-nominee Bernard Kerik. Obama’s nominee for Chief Performance Officer, Nancy Killefer, withdrew over a failure to pay employment tax on her household help. Frankly, it’s bizarre that Trump hasn’t faced one, though it’s likely a nannygate would pale in Trumpland anyway.

On the other side of the Atlantic, British Home Secretary David Blunkett resigned after fast-tracking a 2004 visa application for a lover’s nanny. In 2006, trade minister Maria Borelius and culture minister Cecilia Stegö Chilò both resigned from the Swedish cabinet at once, after it was revealed they had each hired a live-in nanny without paying taxes.

Australia has started its own spate of nannygates, or au pair faux pas. During the 2016 election, Greens leader Richard Di Natale came under fire for the alleged underpayment payment of his family au pairs (though Fairfax’s reporting came under scrutiny from the Press Council, and Di Natale called the story a “beat up”). One wonders if Dutton was worried about his own actions surfacing when the words “au pair” first dominated the headlines.

Class and contempt

It’s not just Dutton-freude. These scandals reflect the entitlement of rule-bending politicians, the belief that they and their friends are “above the law” — or what Bernard Keane last week called “a government of the mates, by the mates, for the mates”. There’s also a noxious dose of double standards, with politicians like Dutton publicly arguing for stringent border protections, while hiring or approving cheap childcare (of the European variety) on the sly.

But it’s also that nannies are a reminder of how out-of-touch our politicians really are — that they belong to an affluent class that can afford to hire “help”, while their constituents struggle to budget for daycare and daycare workers lobby against “a government that’s not done anything for them”

It’s especially repugnant to Australians, many of whom would rather pretend they live in an egalitarian society where class doesn’t exist. It’s also why the increasingly “populist” Dutton was so quick to point out that the first au pair he granted a visa to was not his, and that “our family does not employ a nanny” (note the less obnoxious “nanny”). But his favours for those who do are perceived as just as bad — a reminder that he’s a member of Australia’s interconnected circle of elites, too — from regular mates to AFL bosses.

The Senate inquiry is now looking into whether Dutton profited from his favours. But, in the eyes of the Australian public, his help with “the help” is gross regardless; representative of the casual back-scratching going on in Canberra, something voters have come to resent.

This outrage is inherently class-fueled, so it’s a shame there’s not more attention being paid to class the rest of the time. Politicians deserve to be called out and investigated for their hypocrisy, but there are also larger conversations about immigration and inequality to be had: foreign workers paid wages so low that locals don’t want them, the vulnerability of visa-holders (or undocumented workers) at the mercy of their live-in employers. And these are truths we ought to be addressing, even once the scandals die down.

Will Peter Dutton’s brush with a nannygate do him true damage? Let us know at [email protected].

Get Crikey for $1 a week.

Lockdowns are over and BBQs are back! At last, we get to talk to people in real life. But conversation topics outside COVID are so thin on the ground.

Join Crikey and we’ll give you something to talk about. Get your first 12 weeks for $12 to get stories, analysis and BBQ stoppers you won’t see anywhere else.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
12 weeks for just $12.