“LADY MACBETH and William Shakespeare have a lot to answer for. Along with modern-day journalistic beat-ups, they have delivered political wives a hard time.

Former Anglican Archbishop of Brisbane and now Governor- General Peter Hollingworth can answer for himself. But it seems Janette Howard, wife of Prime Minister John Howard, is on shaky ground if she objects to being labelled, incorrectly, in a major daily newspaper as a high-church Anglican who influenced her husband in choosing the now controversial G-G.

As an Australian citizen, Janette Howard has every right to ask for an apology if misrepresented in print. She can certainly request the record be set straight. As the PM’s wife, however, she appears to have no such right. Her requests, to columnist Glenn Milne asking that he apologise for assertions made in the Australian, have been turned down. Her action in writing has been called “unprecedented” and even reported as setting a new benchmark for the role of political spouse.

Just as increasing numbers of women enter Parliament as MPs themselves, the role of the political wife is up for debate. Janette Howard has been well scrutinised over her six years in the role of PM’s wife. By not adopting a high public profile, whether for the party or for any particular good cause, she is in the shadow of former prime ministerial spouses like Dame Pattie Menzies and Annita Keating, who worked to develop public acceptance and approval.

On the other hand, Janette Howard’s keen interest in politics, alongside her silence in public, has seen some critics argue, without evidence, that she is the PM’s most powerful adviser. Analysis such as Glenn Milne’s assertion about Mrs Howard’s influence in the choosing of the Governor-General, based on the opinion of one Cabinet minister, albeit unnamed, only adds to the myth.

The truth is that rumours of Janette Howard’s influence over her husband have been greatly exaggerated. Successful political leaders take advice from a wide range of experts and advisers. Such is the nature of contemporary politics.

More importantly, in the matter of Mrs Howard’s demand for an apology, is the question what is the appropriate response for a political wife in matters that involve her in public?

London journalist Margarette Driscoll, writing in the Sunday Times in December last year, drew attention to the decline in interest around eligible bachelor Tory MPs. The allure of power no longer attracts young conservatively inclined women, in fact it’s a turn-off. Sex scandals surrounding many Conservatives and their unfortunate wives have left a bad image. While for the hard-working and faithful MP, the role of spouse is an unpaid and thankless extra job with little time left for the wife herself. Gail Sheehy, in Hillary’s Choice, remarked how Hillary Clinton, as Bill Clinton’s partner when Governor of Arkansas and President, faced “the dismal position of so many political wives: having forfeited much of her own independent identity, she was [often] faced with losing even her derivative identity”. George Stephanopoulos, in his memoir All Too Human, recalled feeling that “Hillary looks hard, but her often brittle exterior masks a more vulnerable core.”

These days Hillary Clinton has been liberated. Senator Hillary Clinton works a seven-day week and 14-hour days. John Harris, from the Washington Post magazine, commented after a day with her on the political trail that against “the stereotype of the scheming, messianic shrew, she projects a picture of good-humoured normality”.

In the 1980s, Cherie Blair’s well-paid job as barrister helped her family through the lean years while Tony Blair, MP, was a backbencher. When Blair became leader of the Labor Party in 1994, the Blairs seemed a golden couple with intellectual brilliance and success. But Cherie Blair had a mountain to climb searching for the image she should portray as the wife of a political leader.

Linda McDougall’s just-published biography of Cherie Blair Cherie: the Perfect Life of Mrs Blair, records the highs and lows. And with it the pitfalls for political partners who lack carefully manicured images. Cherie Blair couldn’t put a foot right at first. If she held her husband’s hand she looked immature and terrified. If she acted as an educated professional she was lampooned as the power behind the throne.

Cherie Blair began moulding a public image that suited her role as “better half”. Helped by lifestyle and fitness consultant Carole Caplin, she transformed herself. Cherie Blair’s new line of clothes made fashion designer Ronit Zilka a must-buy label, her hair turned glossy and her lips shone.

More importantly, Cherie Blair decided she would appear with her husband but not speak. Linda McDougall calls this her “silent Mrs Blair” image. As Cherie Booth at the London Bar she speaks; as Mrs Tony Blair she appears. On just one occasion, representing the trade unions on paid parental leave on the eve of giving birth to the Blairs’ fourth child, has she created media attention.

Hillary Clinton and Cherie Blair have blazed the trail for modern political leaders’ wives. Janette Howard has been far more conservative in her approach. Which makes her request for an apology for being misrepresented in print all the more reasonable.”

Article published in The Canberra Times