It’s 2018, and while we finally have marriage equality in Australia, it seems that our views on marriage breakdown are still hopelessly archaic. One need look no further than the furore surrounding the breakdown of Barnaby Joyce’s marriage and his relationship with a new partner. Leading the charge with a spirited character assassination of Joyce, and middle-aged men in general, is none other than feminist writer Clementine Ford.
Ford wastes no time in reducing the union to a mere “sexual relationship” of which Joyce was actively in pursuit. It is difficult to read such commentary from Ford, who is best known as a champion of women’s rights. Her rhetoric only serves to belittle Joyce’s new partner to nothing more than a sexual object. It is an offensive and misguided assertion to make when sources close to Joyce report that he is in fact enamoured with his new partner, that they are living together and expecting their first child.
Echoing further sentiment of a bygone era, Ford emphasises that Joyce’s new partner was “much younger” and that “a 50-year-old man leaving his wife to start again with a 33-year-old isn’t a love story. It’s a midlife crisis.” Ford’s repeated references to the woman’s age, only work to discredit and disempower the woman, despite her having had the benefit of 15 years of adulthood and likely at least a decade in the workforce. Readers are also proffered the ageist view that 17 years is an age divide over which love cannot transcend.
Ford does little to disguise her contempt for Joyce, eloquently describing his behaviour as “bog standard.” Seeking no account of the circumstances or complexities of the marriage, Ford attributes all blame to Joyce, claiming that “he has treated his wife as little more than a long term employee, useful so long as she served a purpose but easily replaced when a better applicant came along.” However, it’s too simplistic to identify a single act as destroying a marriage; the contributing factors are often various and go unnoticed, as infidelity rarely strikes alone. People who spend long hours working away from home, necessarily form close relationships with their colleagues, and sometimes romantic ones, despite being married. In the real world, absence rarely makes the heart grow fonder.
Ford implores Joyce and men like him to have the “moral integrity” to engage in separation “with dignity.” What Ford fails to appreciate, is that there is no ‘right time’ to have ‘that conversation’ as there can seldom be a dignified end to a marriage. Even a seemingly amicable separation can mask devastating emotional trauma. On this point, it should be noted that Joyce, by his own admission, cites his marriage breakdown as his greatest failure in life.
The article raises the issue of gender bias in marriages where commonly a wife assumes the role of caregiver to the children and caretaker of the home while the husband becomes the main breadwinner. While Ford protests that women in such marriages are “unprotected,” the situation is not without recourse. Any person that has been through family law property proceedings would know that a financial settlement seeks to redress this financial disadvantage in favour of the disadvantaged party. In simpler terms, a wife would likely be awarded a greater share of matrimonial assets than the husband who earns a higher income as a result of her long-term sacrifice and support.
Ford and others who were so quick to blame Joyce, would do well to familiarise themselves with family law legislation introduced way back in 1975, in which the attribution of fault in a marriage breakdown, is noticeably absent. Her offensive critique and that of all those with no intimate connection to the parties, only serves to make a difficult situation considerably worse, and is simply out-of-date in 2018.