A crossbench MP has suggested Parliament consider a ban on politicians sleeping with their staff following revelations about Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce.
But the proposal, from Victorian independent Cathy McGowan, received a frosty reception in Canberra on Thursday, with MPs from both major parties arguing it would be too intrusive and difficult to enforce.
Noting she wanted to start a “conversation” before launching a parliamentary motion on the issue, Ms McGowan said the public believed the political system was “behind community expectations and corporate practice”.
“The Parliament is a place of work and good workplace practice includes clear expectations about behaviour,” she said.
“There are examples set by the process undertaken by the United States Congress and in the Australian corporate sector, including the action of the AFL in July last year regarding relationships in the workplace.”
Two top AFL executives dramatically resigned over relationships with junior employees, while the US House of Representatives on Wednesday banned sexual relations between politicians and their staff.
That move came on same day the Daily Telegraph reported Mr Joyce was now expecting a child with his former media adviser.
The story sparked debate about whether the private lives’ of politicians should be reported publicly.
On Thursday, attention turned to whether relationships between politicians and their employees were appropriate, and Ms McGowan’s suggestion brought unlikely allies together.
“We wouldn’t want to cross the line so that the moral police are able to dictate what happens between consenting adults,” said Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, who argued the government had “no business interfering in people’s personal lives”.
Attorney-General Christian Porter said it would be “a very unwieldy law”, while his opposing number, Labor’s Mark Dreyfus, also warned against the idea.
“Sex in the office is always going to present problems, but whether we need to legislate, that’s quite another question,” Mr Dreyfus told ABC Radio.
“People’s private lives are complicated … and I think that we should think long and hard before we pass a law that seeks to criminalise particular sexual relations between anyone in any part of society.”
But Greens leader Richard Di Natale was less hostile to the proposal, saying it was “appropriate” that a ban was discussed.
“There’s a big power imbalance here, and there’s certainly a power imbalance between when it comes to members of Parliament and their staff,” he told Sky News.
Crossbench MP Andrew Wilkie told The New Daily a ban in the Australian Parliament would be hard to implement.
“I don’t see how it’s feasible to effectively ban relationships between MPs and staff because it would be almost impossible to enforce or regulate,” he said.
“Problematic dimensions, like any potential power imbalance, should be dealt with through regular workplace laws.”
“Regarding Cathy McGowan’s suggestion specifically, I’d need to see the detail of any proposed legislation before I could make a decision.”
Labor’s Jenny McAllister was also apprehensive, suggesting guidelines would be more appropriate than an outright ban.
Independent MP Bob Katter took a different tack when asked about Mr Joyce’s situation, lamenting: “not staff, please fellas, not staff”.
The United States House voted unanimously to ban relationships between politicians and their staff.
The move came as Capitol Hill reels from a string of sexual misconduct scandals that have emerged in Washington since the #MeToo movement gained momentum.
Last year, two AFL executives, Simon Lethlean and Richard Simkiss, resigned over relationships with young female AFL staff members, with league Gillon McLachlan saying the pair should have “set a standard of behaviour for the rest of the organisation”.