Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and former deputy PM and Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce.

The real question about last night’s Four Corners on political sexual shenanigans is: what took so long?

Not to the ABC team, who obviously fought unprecedented legal battles and political backlash to get the program to air. But why did it take until now for any meaningful follow-up to former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull’s infamous “bonk ban” in February 2018?

At the time, the usual predominantly male, right-wing suspects frothed that it would lead to an avalanche of salacious stories about the private lives of innocent politicians. Yet, surprisingly, nothing. Either there was never anything to see there, or the offending pollies had put it back in their pants.

As if.

I recall at the time of the rumours about Nationals leader and deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce — which were doing the rounds long before a front page photo of his pregnant mistress provided confirmation — I asked around Canberra for the names of the most notorious pants men in the senior levels of government.

The same handful of names came up over and over from press gallery journos to staffers, followed by knowing nods from some pollies when those names were mentioned.

Joyce was the most obvious at the time, even though the public knew nothing. It appears even if you drove down the main street of his home town with a bullhorn shouting about his affair it still wouldn’t make the media.

Once he was exposed and Turnbull instituted the wholly reasonable ministerial code of conduct to rein in ministers sleeping with staffers, it seemed only a matter of time until others were outed. If there was a flurry of staffers suddenly switching between bosses it might suggest something was afoot. Or there might be sacked staffers daring to vent their outrage publicly.

Again, a deafening silence for two years, even when Me Too allegations exploded around the world and everywhere from board rooms to the High Court. 

One of the main obstacles for the Australian media is not just our usual reticence to behave like the sleazy Fleet Street tabloids and run sex stories for their salaciousness — it’s our onerous defamation laws.

If taking on a High Court judge was risky, imagine the problem with the top lawyer of the land, as Attorney-General Christian Porter proved with his libel threats at the ready even as the program went to air.

And Turnbull on Q+A after the show doing his now regular “shoulda woulda coulda” act only highlighted the murkiness.

While Turnbull should be commended for swiftly bringing down the bonking ban over Joyce at great political cost, there have always been questions of what he knew, and when he knew it, about transgressions by senior ministers.

Only a few short weeks ago Turnbull was rushing to defend embattled NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian over her secret affair with corrupt former MP Daryl Maguire.

At the time I mused in Crikey whether the premier would have failed his bonking ban. The usual Gladys defenders pointed out Maguire was not her staffer, even though technically he reported to her as evidenced by the fact she was the one who forced his sacking in the end.

Bonking ban or not, in the corporate world most CEOs would have been required to report such a longstanding relationship with a colleague.

The Gladys affair might not be the last one to damage the NSW government given the long-running threats of a newspaper exposé on another senior member that date back to the time of the Joyce scandal.  

Not that the problem is confined to one side of politics. It was only two years ago that then NSW opposition leader Luke Foley quit over inappropriate conduct towards an ABC journalist. It was a story that was widely known among her media colleagues before it was revealed, but she didn’t want the incident made public.

And female Labor MPs must have been extremely lucky if they have never been hit on by some of the gentlemen of the ALP over the years. 

Then there’s the collateral issue of journos having affairs with pollies. Years ago, a prominent ABC presenter would interview a senior minister very formally in the morning — “Minister, who do you think of this?” — a short time after the two of them had been sitting together at the breakfast table.

I learnt about the double standards very early in my career when, as a young journalist in 1986, I wrote about former prime minister Malcolm Fraser harassing me in New York. I was criticised at the time for breaking the rules on reporting pollies’ personal behaviour.

The Canberra bubble extends far and wide.

Peter Fray

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