HIGH PRICE: The Good Wife’s Alicia Florrick, played by Julianna Margulies.A POLITICIAN’S spouse is supposed to be seen – at functions, fetes and fund-raisers – and rarely heard. Arguably, there aren’t many other roles more limiting for a woman. (Obviously men can also be partners of women politicians, but Australia’s three tiers of government are dominated by men.)
Yes, she can throw her energy into supporting charitable and community causes, but essentially she is required to be a glorified host and a well-presented plus-one.
Charlotte Thaarup-Owen, the wife of fallen former Newcastle MP Tim Owen, was never going to fit the mould. Before embarking on his short-lived political career, Owen spent 30 years in the Australian Defence Force. Thaarup-Owen told me in a 2011 interview after her husband’s successful election campaign that she had struggled with ‘‘constantly starting again’’ while he was with the ADF.
‘‘Your career gets chopped,’’ she said candidly.
Her ambivalence about her husband’s new career in politics was obvious. ‘‘I can’t say I was a great supporter of it because it was a little bit like going back into the military in terms of the demands on his time. I was so passionate about my business and I didn’t want to become the ‘wife’ again … That’s not how it’s going to be.’’
Thaarup-Owen is an intelligent, sophisticated woman – ‘‘a feminist at heart’’ – who grew up in Denmark with its culture of social equity. It was no surprise when she ignored protocol in May after her husband was first mentioned in evidence in the ICAC and took to Facebook to express her views about political corruption.
‘‘When we do the wrong thing,’’ she wrote, ‘‘we not only violate ourselves and our own integrity but we also tarnish those close to us with our poor choices. The further consequence of the actions displayed the last couple of years by both parties is that it becomes increasingly unlikely that decent people enter politics, that is sad for Australia and so very sad for the decent ones left.’’
In the past couple of weeks, a rapid procession of Newcastle men – from politicians to their wealthy developer contacts – have walked into the ICAC and obliterated any lingering community faith in fair and decent government.
The exposure of shady deals and a strained web of lies has been extraordinary.
Amid the condemnation that followed Tim Owen’s admission on Tuesday that he had lied under oath about accepting $10,000 from Newcastle developer and now lord mayor Jeff McCloy, it was Thaarup-Owen’s response that had an impact.
‘‘I am absolutely disgusted with Tim and what has happened,’’ she told me.
Her anger and sadness indicated that she, like the rest of us, had been lied to.
While Thaarup-Owen’s comment was brief, it was also rare. I struggle to think of another instance where a politician’s spouse has publicly denounced their wrongdoing. Even well-rounded fictional characters such as The Good Wife’s Alicia Florrick don’t do it. I’ve joked that politicians must have iron-clad contracts with their partners that forbid them from ever speaking their mind in public. Nothing would surprise me.
Amid the awfulness of the ICAC proceedings, Thaarup-Owen’s integrity shines through – as does that of Kerry Schott, Kristina Keneally, and Jodi McKay. These women have paid a substantial price because of the appalling behaviour of a gang of influential, power-hungry men. Others have, too. A friend resigned last week from her role as Charlestown MP Andrew Cornwell’s senior adviser as soon as his illegal actions were exposed. ‘‘I’m devastated,’’ she told me.
Coincidentally, I ran into Tim Owen’s adviser at a function on Monday morning and was surprised she was there given he was on the stand at the ICAC for the first time that day.
‘‘It’s business as usual,’’ she replied optimistically.
When I suggested it might not be by the end of the day, she touched her rounded belly and explained she was heading off in a couple of weeks to have a baby. This was the same woman who stood near Owen in tears during his May press conference as he announced he would not recontest the seat of Newcastle next year. I can only imagine how she feels now.
Sadly, we are confronted with a vicious cycle: women are treated badly in politics therefore we aren’t prepared to put ourselves forward in the numbers needed to gain fair representation. Look what happens if you do. In Jodi McKay’s case, not only did the opposition work against her, her own party helped to engineer her downfall.
It is a bleak state of affairs, but rather than hope for any remaining honourable men to take a stand, I think we need more good women. Many more.