The Federal Parliament is the most powerful symbol of our democracy. It is the most public of workplaces in Australia and one whose decisions affect our lives more than any other.
But you would expect comments such as “you’re weak”, “yer a fat so and so” and “you’re a snivelling grub” to emanate from the local primary school sandpit rather than the bastion of our political system.
You might say it’s just the rough and tumble of politics and if they can’t take the heat then they should “get out of the kitchen”. Perhaps, but I’d be asking the politicians to substantially lift their games for two reasons – one is about health – their health and our health, and the other is about productivity.
Let me explain. When our pollies take to each other in this manner, it reinforces that this sort of behaviour is a standard part of the daily theatre of life. It gives it that little extra nudge that this is the sort of “tough” behaviour we should aspire to in workplaces across the nation.
Yet we are learning that the way we treat each other is one of the major factors determining how well or sick we are – it’s not just germs or whether we smoke, or how active we are, or where we live, our education or income levels.
Discrimination and abuse perpetrated on the basis of gender, political, cultural or religious background, sexual orientation, or level of ability are some of the most unfortunate yet enduring characteristics of humanity.
Depression and anxiety are two frequent outcomes of discrimination and persistent abuse. Up to 30 per cent of depressive symptoms in high school children is associated with harassment, and in my view you can safely extrapolate that level of depression to bullying in our workplaces.
Am I overdoing the description of our parliaments? Some like Jan Wade, the former Liberal Victorian Attorney General describe parliament as “a boy’s own culture that rewards bullies”, and the Greens senator Kerry Nettle says “personal abuse is part of political life”. But does it have to be so?
Fortunately or unfortunately, we aren’t on our own. In the UK a report referring to the behaviour of MPs described the House of Commons as “a backward institution that needed to be dragged into the next century”. In New Zealand they have “aggressive and warlike behaviour in the debating chamber”.
Behaving badly also affects the health of our politicians and their staffers. We know from studies such as the one by the University of Melbourne’s Associate Professor Tony LaMontagne and his colleagues, Workplace Stress in Victoria: Developing a Systems Approach, that jobs with high demand, low job control and job insecurity – all factors of life for MPs - result in really high levels of anxiety and depression.
As with other jobs, long hours, heavy workloads, high pressure and constant public scrutiny together with the competing demands of family life, especially young children, can build up an awful lot of pressure.
If the pressure goes unchecked, it makes it worse. As Greg Barnes, a former federal adviser has pointed out, it “was virtually impossible for MPs and staff to find a shoulder to cry on” as vulnerability was perceived as weakness.
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