John Della Bosca and the 'aphrodisiac of power'


Della Bosca QuitsOn the day that a Victorian Labor Cabinet Minister was rescued from the alpine region into which he had wandered for his pleasure, a New South Wales Labor Cabinet Minister resigned in regret over the way he took his.

NSW Health Minister John Della Bosca announced that he was resigning because a formerly secret liaison was about to become public. While Della Bosca expressed regret about the bad decisions that he had taken he suggested that he simply had no choice but to take his 'medicine'.

Even casual observers of New South Wales politics must appreciate that there is nothing new about a minister resigning because of personal indiscretion. Keen followers of the dramas that develop around the parliamentary 'bear pit' in Macquarie Street also know that historically, scandal is one of the inevitable prerequisites for a change in government.

While there is no doubt that the Rees Labor Government would have required a minor miracle to secure re-election in 2011, the affair surrounding John Della Bosca has probably ensured that the party will be so thoroughly routed that the 'rump' can look forward to decades on the Opposition benches.

While the details of the minister's liaison with a young woman have provided some excitement for the tabloid media, it is the effects of the affair which are of political interest. Many middle aged males might have affairs with younger women and in most cases regret making bad decisions, but someone as politically astute as Della Bosca must have realised that the context made his behaviour potentially disastrous.

Many middle aged males are susceptible to having their egos flattered when women appear to find them attractive, but in the case of politicians, it is possible that the dangers involved make such affairs irresistible.

When I interviewed NSW MPs a decade ago, they gave interesting responses to the idea of the 'aphrodisiac of power'. Twice as many males as females agreed that power is an aphrodisiac, while twice as many females as males disagreed.

Much of the fiction involving MPs, such as Edwina Currie's A Parliamentary Affair set in the British House of Commons, or Camilla Nelson's Perverse Acts, set in Canberra, emphasise the hothouse element of our representative assemblies. Why is it then, that Della Bosca thought he had committed a sackable offence?

Presumably Della Bosca wanted to minimise damage to his party. This was not the first time that his private affairs have been made public. The media and the NSW Opposition had already targeted him over rowdiness at a restaurant and a traffic offence that was compounded when he allegedly abused a reporter. This time, he must have realised that he would be a sitting duck for all who wished to take advantage — and they are lining up to do so.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported that 'rung at their home' late in the night, Della Bosca's wife became angry, and the ABC announced that it had a cameraman outside their home. The Daily Telegraph was instrumental in precipitating the scandal as it was publishing the woman's story. Apparently she expected no fee, because she was angry about something.

Some media reports have been so rushed and poorly considered that they presented conflicting claims about exactly which positions Della Bosca was resigning.

It is highly likely that the media and Opposition would continue to attack Della Bosca if he did not resign. But should ministers or other MPs be expected to behave with greater propriety than expected in general community mores? Do MPs, a representative lot, simply reflect society's standards or should they lead?

Well, Della Bosca's behaviour seems to be quite different from that of the MPs who held wild parties, harassed staff or were charged with sexual abuse. Of course ministers must set an example in the way they treat their staff, but harassment or undue pressure does not appear to have been an aspect of this case.

Public interest in the behaviour of politicians should centre on the question of how they carry out their responsibilities. If a health minister had an affair with an executive of a pharmaceutical company, then there would be immediate cause for concern that a conflict of interest might occur. The minister might be compromised and vulnerable to corruption. If a minister were liable to be blackmailed because of indiscretions, this would also be problematic.

In the Westminster system, the premier is the final arbiter of such ethical questions, and he or she usually has many factors to consider in deciding whether to ask for or accept a ministerial resignation.

The succession of scandals in NSW has created an impression that the government lacks discipline collectively. There seems to be an ethos now that our parliamentarians treat their offices as personal property and have little dedication to public service. Whether the minister was able to carry out his responsibilities effectively or was distracted is difficult to decide but the media have definitely made their minds up on this question.

It is highly likely that most voters have also decided, and many must now wish the four year terms were not fixed.

What should be clear however is that Della Bosca's career disaster is open to many interpretations. Unfortunately quite conscientious work by MPs attracts little interest, while scandals have a ready audience. When politics suffers like this, so too does the quality of our democracy.

Tony SmithTony Smith holds a PhD in political science. He has taught at several universities, most recently at the University of Sydney.


Topic tags: john della bosca, sex scandal, new south wales parliament, Labor Party, aphrodisiac of power



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Existing comments

Why would he resign over this?
cronos | 02 September 2009

I wonder if the intended fall out from the Della Bosca fracas is to stabalise the position of the Premier. However, as Tony Smith identifies, the longer this inept government continues the stronger the distate in the mouth of the NSW voter and the assignment of the ALP to the opposition benches for a longer period.

If this correlation is correct between distaste for the ALP and its long condemnation to opposition status, it would seem that the ALP will be in the political wilderness for a long time. The only saving grace for the ALP is the blandness of the current opposition who seem equally inept.

Perhaps it is time for an administrator to be appointed.
Lindsay G | 02 September 2009

I notice with interest how things are changing in this Anglo-Saxon country. While having affairs is something that does not carry much weight in europe, it is (was?) different in English speaking countries.

I still think that had Della Bosca been a good Minister, he would still have had to resign, but people would have remembered the good things he did. However, this is not the case here. Tough luck!
Nathalie | 02 September 2009

I think this article sets out the issues in a fair way.

Personally, I find 'moral panics' over affairs such as this outdated, unreasonable and often far more tawdry than the subject of comment.

Imagine the Minister in question, in this case, was not a married heterosexual but an (openly) partnered homosexual. Would tales from a jilted lover be considered fair game for publication and ridicule, as in the Della Bosca case? I wonder.

We pay politicians to make good political decisions and represent us well in Parliament. We do not buy the rights to control with whom they choose to flirt or copulate. Of course, if there's corruption or blackmail involved, that's a different matter - but the crime in that case is simply corruption or blackmail.

It's time to de-puritanize our politics. Politicians are entitled to fun, whether they get their jollies from mountain climbing in mid-winter or smooching on a cozy sofa.

Less idle chat about things that don't matter would make room for discussions that do. We desperately need to re-politicize our political discourse - and hold politicians more adequately accountable for their political decisions, which really do matter to us all.
Syd Walker | 02 September 2009

Sadly John Della Bosca lets his penis overrule his brain, but that could be said for so many men.

When men are repeatedly unfaithful it may say nothing about their political skills but I suggest it says a lot about their character.
Catherine | 02 September 2009

John Della Bosca's "questionable personal decisions" beg the question about his judgement generally and especially when and how it might affect his public policy decisions. His marital infidelity aside, the size of his ego must have blinded him to the potential consequences of his indiscretions which surely did not go unnoticed by his colleagues and were there to be used against him whenever the opportunity arose!! Silly man!!
Carmel Bartlett | 02 September 2009

While it is disappointing for parliamentarians to break an agreement ( in this case; marriage vows) they should not be punished more than others in society. In most cases, a person with professional expertise would not be required to resign due to an extramarital affair. I don't believe that Della Bosca should have resigned over this matter. HE should make an apoloogy for loss of standards and mend his ways, but his actual work position should be determined by his work performance.
June smith | 04 September 2009


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