One of the more peculiar literary artefacts of the pre-democratic world is the ”secret history”. These secret histories purported to expose sex, incest, murder, and conspiracy in royal courts. The first and most famous concerned the Roman Emperor Justinian. It was borderline pornographic, and endlessly imitated.
Of course, the stories they told were almost entirely fictitious. But truth wasn’t the point.
Secret histories were political tracts in disguise. Their significance wasn’t the purported scandals, but what the books tried to do: undermine the authority of the monarch. Secret histories were democratic politics for undemocratic times.
Australia in the 21st century is a modern democracy. So why are we just as desperate to discover – even invent – scandals as our ancestors?
Our political class has spent the past two years obsessing over a series of obscure controversies. Even if they had all panned out – if every allegation about Julia Gillard and Peter Slipper and Craig Thomson were true – it would hardly be Watergate.
Nobody had heard of Thomson until the Health Services Union scandal broke. Slipper was briefly significant when he was made speaker.
And the Gillard slush-fund scandal? At least it had the virtue of being about a prime minister. But then, we’re not being asked to hire Gillard as a lawyer in the 1990s, we’re being asked to vote for her to run the country in the 2010s.
Like the secret histories, the truth of these scandals is beside the point. Scandalmongering is politics by other means. In Britain, scandals engulf the entire political system. Australian politics is threatening to go down that road.
The Gillard government should be a sitting duck. In the past six months, Labor has proposed a dangerous internet data-retention scheme, radical changes to anti-discrimination law, and is mulling over whether to regulate the press.
But Coalition frontbenchers seem more interested in whether Gillard signed a mortgage document two decades ago. No wonder that even with its lead in the polls, the Coalition seems on the back foot.
Still, scandals are a bipartisan distraction. For most of the year, Trade Minister Craig Emerson has been saying the Coalition is too scandal-obsessed to question him about his portfolio. Fair cop.
But then the judgment in the Slipper case was released alleging a “conspiracy” between Slipper’s accuser, James Ashby, and Coalition figures. Now it turns out Emerson is deeply passionate about scandals, too. Emerson self-published an article last week asking what Julie Bishop knew about Ashby and when. He even complained the media wasn’t focusing enough on the affair.
Coalition supporters call it Slippergate. Labor supporters call it Ashbygate. Both sides are being equally ridiculous.
Labor showed the same political desperation during the Australian Wheat Board scandal. This was a rich enough controversy as it was. But apparently, for the ALP, the real issue when a Commonwealth authority bribes Saddam Hussein is whether John Howard knew about it.
Political scandalmongering doesn’t just damage its targets. By the end of 2012, both sides of politics have been greatly diminished.
A shadow minister who doesn’t talk about their portfolio area so they can pursue the story of the day may be rewarded with some brief media coverage. But they will have done nothing to mount a case against the government. Nor will they have endeared themselves with the electorate. Voters pay more attention to policy. Policy matters. Peter Slipper’s text messages don’t.
Perhaps the ministers who decide to spearhead scandal hunting think they are taking one for the team; perhaps they know they’ll be worse off afterwards. Then again, considering how enthusiastically our representatives jump on even the vaguest hint of scandal, perhaps not.
There’s nothing more jarring than when partisan hacks congratulate senior politicians for “taking the lead” on these absurdities, as if it matters. You have to wonder why some politicians are even in Parliament at all – at least, if they think there is more to politics than the raw pursuit of power.
Our ancestors eagerly devoured secret histories because they poked holes in the royal bubble when kings and queens claimed to rule by divine right. Stories that showed them as human undermined their legitimacy.
Our rulers are more humble now. But ever since Watergate, oppositions have been seduced into thinking they could pull a government down before an election is due. The more they indulge in this fantasy, the more they corrupt the democratic system they hope to run.