A well-punished politician benefits nobody | OPINION

Julie Bishop quit as Foreign Minister after five years in the job and more than a decade as the Liberals' deputy leader. She says she was caught up in an 'unbelievable conflict' within the Liberal Party. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
Julie Bishop quit as Foreign Minister after five years in the job and more than a decade as the Liberals' deputy leader. She says she was caught up in an 'unbelievable conflict' within the Liberal Party. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

To speak un français châtié is to speak ‘a well-punished French’. Lauren Collins wrote about the phrase in Love in Translation, a 2016 article in The New Yorker.

It relates to how well someone perseveres through the pain of learning the language, and how the concepts of suffering and excellence are intimately entwined in the complexities of the task.

It came to mind this week as I read The Political Life is no Life at All, a 2017 Meanjin essay written by Katharine Murphy, author and Guardian Australia’s political editor. It is a disturbing insight into the gruelling existence of an Australian politician. 

Schedules begin before sunset and can end closer to midnight for MPs and staffers, many of whom spend most of the year away from home and family. Parliamentary, portfolio, local electorate, stakeholder and caucus responsibilities are compounded by constant media spotlight and brutal character assessments on social media. 

Add to the mix all-too-common factional rebellions and leadership spills over the last decade, and it’s not hard to see why depression and anxiety plague many within parliament’s toxic work culture. 

Greens leader Richard di Natale described 80-hour back-to-back sitting weeks and witnessing extreme burn out.

“Are we making worse decisions? Absolutely,” Di Natale told Murphy. “We’ve got a political class here in Canberra disconnected from the real world, because this is a job that many people from the real world wouldn’t do.”

Colleagues from Western Australia, a five-hour flight and two timezones away from Canberra, are under particular duress during parliamentary sittings. About half of the year, weekends are all but eaten away by committee work or meeting preparation. 

Julie Bishop enjoys running along Cottlesloe Beach in Perth when she’s home in her electorate of Curtin. It’s hard to imagine how often she is able to enjoy such a pastime. 

In 2013, when pressed on the reason she never had children – worth noting this is a question male politicians are not routinely asked – she told NewsCorp that she hadn’t been able to strike the balance between the demands of her career and child-rearing. 

“It wasn’t a decision – it is how life turned out… I feel incredibly lucky that I’ve had the kind of career that is so consuming that I don’t feel I have a void in my life.”

A startling mutiny by her Western Australian colleagues meant Bishop was passed over in the recent leadership spill. Her brutalisation in the ballot was a treacherous manipulation. Factional members allegedly believed Bishop would not succeed against Dutton if Morrison was knocked out first round. Bishop’s response was characteristically clipped when prodded. 

“You would have to ask the individuals involved but it appeared to be a tactic to promote Peter Dutton into the prime ministership, whatever the cost.”

Whatever the cost indeed. No doubt it’s a rough, mean job in parliament. Sure, they choose the profession and they’re paid generously. But if the reality of an Australian political career is a toxic work culture, what of our future policy-making and leadership? 

Will politics as a profession only attract self-serving ideologues who can withstand a noxious pressure-cooker? Will we see a rise in over-wrought adrenalin junkies getting high off insular political game-playing? You have to wonder if we aren’t already. 

Furious crossbench MPs Adam Bandt, Andrew Wilkie, Cathy McGowan and Rebekha Sharkie vote against closing down the House of Representatives. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Furious crossbench MPs Adam Bandt, Andrew Wilkie, Cathy McGowan and Rebekha Sharkie vote against closing down the House of Representatives. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Not that there’s been strong support for taking it easier in recent weeks. The adjournment of the House of Reps the day before the ballot gave some 150 MPs an afternoon off, though this downtime proved crucial in pivoting the country away from a Prime Minister Peter Dutton. 

Pausing Parliament to allow the inter-factional divisions within the Liberal Party to convene was met with round condemnation. A damning Labor analysis loudly declared the cost of those half-day salaries at almost $45,000 for the taxpayer.

No doubt the Morrison Ministry wanted to move forward from the messiness of the week with a united front. No such luck.

Making news this week was the resignation of Liberal MP Julia Banks, who cited reasons of unrelenting bullying and intimidation within her party and from Labor. 

A successful corporate lawyer turned politician, the member for Chisholm was the only Liberal candidate to wrestle a seat from Labor in 2016. That corporate law did not properly prepare a person to withstand Australian politics is a damning insight.

It seems the pressure on our politicians from every direction is creating a political class of burnt out, dysfunctional representatives, who, like them or loathe them, run the country. 

Whether you feel empathy for them as people is your prerogative – whether you feel dread at the thought of what sort of policy and leadership arises from this sort of normalised toxic work culture is quite another. 

Public life not only creates a un politicien châtié – a well-punished politician – it requires one too.

Emma Elsworthy is a Fairfax journalist.