September 5, 2009
The Canberra Times

The daddy of all fools

There is just one thing I want to know about John Della Bosca and his young lover. Did the 26-year-old call the ageing MP “Daddy”? Given the 30-year age difference and the fact that she’s young enough to be his daughter, it’s not out of the question. And given Della Bosca allegedly told the girl to say she was his “niece” if anyone in Parliament asked, it’s fair to say there is a hint of a “daddy” complex going on.

But sadly for the hapless Della Bosca, the “daddy” thing isn’t working for him in the same way it does for Italy’s Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi. At almost 73, Berlusconi’s extramarital dalliances tend to strengthen his hold on power, not weaken it. Back in May, news suggesting yet another Berlusconi affair – with an “aspiring model” who had just turned 18 – sent his approval rating skywards. The fact that young Noemi from Naples called her hero “Papi” didn’t seem to bother anyone too much. Except perhaps Berlusconi’s long-suffering wife Veronica, who issued a press release saying her husband was “consorting with minors”.

Not long afterwards, a highly paid hooker – and former “actress” – complained to the media that Berlusconi spent the night with her and failed to leave the cash on the table. Word from Berlusconi at the time was simply that he never “paid for sex”. Of course not. Why would he? He’s Berlusconi. And he’s in charge.

But not so for Della Bosca. Now he’ll never be in charge. And like an honourable Aussie trooper, he fell on his own sword. It was excruciating, yet riveting television on Tuesday morning to see the contrite powerbroker look limp and vulnerable as he told the media he was resigning his position as New South Wales Health Minister. “I’ve made some poor decisions”, he said. “I’ve taken my medicine”. But it was his punch line, thick with self-styled heroism that sealed it. “You have to live up to the consequences of bad decisions”, he told the media with all the earnestness he could muster. Right then you could hear mumbles of approval right around the nation. Then we turned to the matter of the scorned wife, and began musing over scary Belinda Neal and her capacity for revenge.

There is something quaint about how Australians respond to political sex scandals. We’re really not too bothered by them. Steamy revelations about Della Bosca having sex with his young lover on the couch in his parliamentary office, or when he was supposed to be on official business cutting ribbons and opening hospitals, doesn’t faze us much. Should the Labor heavyweight, resign over the affair? Apparently not – if online and radio talkback polls are anything to go by. But should he resign if he’s found to be incompetent? Absolutely.

It’s not the sex, illicit or otherwise, that worries the Australia voter. It’s the job. Can the tarnished politician get on with the business of doing his or her job? That’s the prime criteria by which we judge those extracurricula scandals. Which, let’s face it, are disappointingly dull here in the Antipodes. Former prime minister Bob Hawke confessed his dalliances and the public forgave him. Paul Keating and his wife, Anita, split acrimoniously, and no one has been rude enough to probe why. Australians cheered when tourism minister John Brown’s wife left her sexy knickers in the office ashtray, after engaging in marital relations on his desk. And many of us felt embarrassed for John Hewson, after his aggrieved first wife aired the couple’s dirty linen on prime time television.

But ultimately, it’s all pretty tame stuff in Australia. We just don’t have the perverse bondage and spanking type of scandals that leak through the cracks of Britain’s House of Lords. Our politician’s penchant for leather, fishnets and Shirley Temple curls has never really progressed beyond Alexander Downer and “that” shot in stilettos (which was in fact an innocent plug for an arts festival). Unlike France, we haven’t enjoyed gripping headlines about our head of state’s love child. (Although we did momentarily have Tony Abbot’s long-lost love progeny. But even that turned out to be a mistake). Nor do we have those tearful, “I have sinned” media performances so common in the US. No wonder we were all transfixed by Bill Clinton’s claim “I did not have sexual relations with that woman”. But far from blame him, I suspect most Australians felt sorry for him.

When it comes to sex and scandal, Australians are admirably reluctant to pass judgment. Perhaps it’s something in our cultural DNA that makes us more inclined to delineate between the private and the public – even when the two are enmeshed and messy.

But then again, it’s hard to get indignant over news that an ageing egomaniac with a wife who might eat bricks for breakfast, was besotted with a young blond who thinks he’s powerful, and calls him “a spunk”. It’s hardly scandal – just an embarrassing spectacle.

As for that now dumped daddy’s girl, who sought her revenge through a media outing, well – she’s the biggest spectacle of all.

Virginia Haussegger is a Canberra journalist and director of the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation at the University of Canberra.

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