The return of Barnaby Joyce begs the question: what would it take for a politician to be irrevocably cancelled? While sexual harassment allegations and the scandal surrounding his marital breakdown were enough to see Joyce relegated to the backbench for a few years, almost as swiftly as he fell from grace he has returned to lead the Nationals and be the deputy prime minister.
If allegations of sexual harassment aren’t enough, perhaps repeated lying would see a politician permanently cancelled? The ABC’s Australia Talks survey revealed Australians overwhelmingly think politicians caught in a lie should resign, and yet, as Crikey detailed, leaders including Scott Morrison lie frequently and suffer limited consequences. The ABC’s survey also found that Australians have very little faith in politicians to tell the truth and do the right thing.
It’s as if Australians wish lying politicians would resign but know that in reality such accountability would result in empty chambers of parliament. Taking accountability is inconvenient, and those who hold enough political capital have realised the public is willing to overlook their indiscretions if they are “redeemable” in other ways.
The court of Twitter opinion is nowhere near as forgiving, however.
When it comes to cancel culture, it seems that celebrities are held to a higher standard than elected representatives. Celebrity cookbook author Chrissy Teigen, previously known for standing up against social media bullying, was recently cancelled for a throng of old tweets that exposed her as a former bully herself.
While there is no defence for the horrific comments she made, nor the hypocrisy they exposed, it is interesting to see the public relish in the take down of a (mostly) harmless celebrity. Teigen offered a number of apologies while losing millions of dollars in endorsement deals, while for comparably “cancellable” offences, politicians are increasingly refusing to take responsibility, seeing them keep their jobs and even being reelected or promoted.
The key difference between celebrities and politicians in this circumstance is where they derive their power and influence. The Chrissy Teigens of the world rely on brand deals and the constant approval of the fickle online mob, whereas for Joyce it’s the eternal support of his loyal New England constituents (and 11 out of 21 votes in the National Party room to secure one of the most powerful jobs in the country).
The former is based far more on whims and momentary public sentiment. The latter is more forgiving; it allows for other factors to redeem you, and enough delay for public outrage to dissipate.
Despite the forces that saw him ousted, Joyce was resurrected due to the party room’s preference. His access to power does not rely on adoration of the masses, only that of his party’s base. For Gladys Berejiklian, public approval of her handling of the pandemic was the ticket to escaping cancellation amid the revelation of her relationship with disgraced MP Daryl Maguire. This misstep was spun as a personal misfortune and quickly forgiven, as it became clear Berejiklian is too popular to roll.
Celebrities must constantly navigate the precarious twists and turns of popular opinion, and risk losing it all for putting a toe out of line. Meanwhile, politicians are more resilient than ever, batting down scandals left and right and still performing well in the polls at the end of the week.
Whether it’s the pandemic incumbency advantage that has emboldened them, or part of a larger trend in refusing accountability, it’s certainly a worrying state of affairs when we expect a higher moral code from random celebrities than those chosen to lead and represent us.
The solution to this dilemma is unclear. Cancel culture represents its own insidious and destructive force. The drivers of cancel culture — social media and the 24-hour news cycle (which together ensure coverage of every misstep) — are the same factors that have emboldened politicians to deflect accountability. The news quickly moves on to the next thing, and consumers become desensitised to scandal.
Ultimately, only the voters have the power to definitively cancel a politician, and maybe voters just don’t value ethical fortitude in politicians as much as online trolls and big brands seem to in celebrities.
Perhaps politicians have become so far detached from respectability and morality that we simply expect nothing less.
Josefine Ganko is a final year law and public policy student at the ANU and a former editor at Woroni.