Has politics finally moved beyond the personal?
The Libertarian James Paterson
Politcians tax us too much, spend our money wastefully and regulate our lives. So why do we spend so much time worrying about their personal lives instead of the things that really matter?
Newt Gingrich's expectation-defying persistence in the Republican contest for US president is one piece of evidence that American voters have moved beyond the personal. Back home, there is no evidence Australians view Bob Hawke's time as prime minister any less favourably because of their knowledge of his personal relationships.
But despite voters' willingness to overlook politicians' flaws, sadly there is also no sign that the media in the US or Australia will let go of their obsession with their private lives. What Gingrich is alleged to have said to his then wife Marianne during their marriage in the 1990s has no relevance to his capacity to serve as president today. But that did not stop the television network ABC from interviewing her about their family life and broadcasting it days before a crucial primary. Nor did it stop CNN from wasting the first question in its South Carolina debate by dwelling on the former House speaker's second marriage, instead of far more important matters.
The private lives of the NSW MPs David Campbell and John Della Bosca also had no impact on their ability to discharge their duties as ministers and representatives of their electorates. Yet the media went into a frenzy after revelations about what they got up to after hours.
It's not as if there aren't plenty of other legitimate things to judge politicians on. Many do a lousy job as ministers. However, decent journalists should never find themselves short of material to hold governments accountable. And let us not forget that many of those who write about politicians would struggle to meet the high standards by which they judge others.
The reality is that politicians - just like the rest of us - are flawed beings. The sooner we recognise that they are fallible, the less disappointed we will be when they inevitably make mistakes. Perhaps it will lead us to entrust them with less power over our lives, and to have lower expectations about their ability to fix every social ill our modern society is supposedly afflicted by.