Politics

The view from Billinudgel

House rules
Until the bonk ban, Canberra culture dictated that what happened in the bubble stayed in the bubble

In the old days, no one called Parliament House a toxic bubble. The more usual term was a smorgasbord, a sumptuous spread for the men hoping to indulge themselves, which was almost all of them.

It was generally assumed that the women within the building were available for bonking, and if some resisted, not to worry – there were plenty who didn’t.

For some reason the librarians were regarded as prime targets, but the ranks of staffers and the growing cohort of women in the press gallery were also fair game, especially those who were sessional staff, emerging only when parliament was sitting. On the fringes, there were the hangers-on from the university, the embassy circuit and, if all else failed, the public servants.

Most of the liaisons were quite open. There was seldom any need for restraint or discretion, let alone shame or remorse. The culture was simple and tribal: what happened in the House stayed in the House.

No doubt there was harassment, bullying, power imbalance, and even the threat of dismissal for those unwilling to come across. But much of the erotic activity was not only consensual but enthusiastically embraced as part of the sexual revolution. In the heady days and nights of the ’70s, when bursting out of brassieres was all part of the women’s lib movement, seduction was regarded as entirely appropriate by both genders.

And many of those at the top did not hold back – not even prime ministers. In the postwar years, at least two had affairs with their own staffers, and in my time in Canberra not many of the others would have been happy to sit a chastity test. Some were dedicated pants men – Bob Hawke and Harold Holt being the most prominent – but few were averse to a bit on the side.

Then, as now, this did not stop them, nor their junior colleagues, from preaching from their sanctimonious pulpits about the vital importance of the nuclear family, espousing their deep commitment to traditional marriage and all that went with it. But everyone knew that was just part of the game – double-dyed hypocrisy, no doubt, but who cared? That was the culture of the time.

From time to time, the press attempted to beat up a scandal, but unless there was a serious political dimension to it, the rule was that both the bedrooms and the offices of the nation’s leaders were not the public’s concern.

Were there security concerns? If so, they did not surface. Perhaps there were no real secrets to be safeguarded in sunny old Australia. These days there would be conniptions all round, as indeed there are, along with the howls of the outraged moralists led by our prime minister.

But I doubt that the mob in the street really cares. It has little esteem for the politicos at the best of times, and cares not one iota for Canberra’s smorgasbord.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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