A Modern-Day Passion Play


Peter Slipper, the now stood-aside 27th Speaker of the House, has occupied our media’s attention for months now. The column inches make sense. There’s political intrigue, sexting, harassment allegations, betrayal and possible corruption. But what is at the heart of our fascination? Could the Slipper affair be a modern-day morality play?

There’s something of the conceited Mr Collins from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in Peter Slipper. We know for sure that a real heroine wouldn’t want him. If Austen’s Elizabeth Bennett had accepted him, it would somehow have diminished us all.

Mr Collins is a fop, insincere in his opinions and wavering in his proffered affections. He is tolerated and ridiculed, and his desire for power makes him vulnerable to exploitation. He revels in the position of holding the fate of an entire household in his hands. Charlotte finally accepts him, putting pragmatic safety and stability above the lofty ideals of integrity and romantic love. We don’t despise her, we understand her predicament, but we don’t want to follow in her footsteps. Who would?

Peter Slipper agreed to an arranged marriage — and we have a marked disdain for arranged marriages in the dominant culture of this country. Particularly those marriages where little attention is paid to the future happiness and compatibility of both parties. You can make a marriage of convenience for the pragmatic goal of security, but we’re likely to judge you as a fool or a loser. Or worse, we may envy your ability to put aside passion for position.

One of the many things keeping the Slipper affair on the front page is our fascination with the consequences of compromising our most cherished values. "What price did Charlotte pay?" we wonder. While much of the media content has focused on Slipper’s guilt or innocence, whether he was exploiter or exploited, the true story of his actions doesn’t seem to interest us much.

Instead, we appear to be entranced by the age-old conundrum of whether a crooked road can ever lead to a desired destination. I think we’re deeply interested in what happens when we are inauthentic in our relationships. Can the ends ever justify the means? Do we ever really get away with using people?

There has been a great deal of talk about karma in the discussion of the Slipper affair. Payback for putting Jenkins on the backbench or backing out of the pokies deal. This is less karma and more instant karma really — we haven’t had to wait for the next life to face the costs of both those decisions.

Our own psychic costs are not dissimilar. When we use people, when we act outside of integrity, when we hang on to power at all costs, we are denying that there is a price for every action. We are pretending to ourselves that the compromises we make along the way will somehow magically leave us unchanged whenever we get to our destination.

The issue is not simply whether Slipper is guilty or whether he has been set up. He was appointed strategically and compromisingly. He was used. He also may have been making use. And this left both him and the Labor party vulnerable, as relationships of exploitation always do.

We’re all familiar with this scenario; we take a job for the money here, avoid our responsibilities there, keep contact with someone because it’s useful rather than pleasurable, fake an orgasm, fake interest, lie to cover ourselves, punish, pretend, cheat, hide, avoid, shift the blame. All in the interests of our goal. And there is always a price to pay. We may look like we got away with it, but we never really do. It’s psychic physics really. Each action has its own reaction. Everything we give away of ourselves leaves a hole.

We can’t help but watch the consequences of a massive compromise of values unfold here. Like horror movie suspense, we’re hoping they’ll be ok down there in the dark basement (Why do they have to go down there again? Are they mad?) because they feel like a part of us, but we know they probably won’t. We know there be monsters and that monsters hear everything.

Like Macbeth, we must all face our ghosts. And like Macbeth, we all pray that somehow we will be spared the price of our actions. The crown will sit lightly, magically upon our heads. We will escape scot-free and the compromises we made on the road to power will fade in the light of the glory of our ascendance. This dance with the inevitable and with the fantasy of freedom from consequence is endlessly engaging for us. None of us are ever keen to pay the piper.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.