Readers of a survey in The Australian newspaper this month suggesting that politics leads to a life of long hours, loneliness, marital stress and drink could be mistaken for thinking the survey was referring to the effects of the political system on the general public rather than on the politicians themselves.
But no, it was in fact referring to the sad and sorry life of your average federal MP and was based on interviews and written answers from almost half the 148 Members of Parliament. Though, if you believe the survey, it’s surprising any of these people found the time to fill it out at all.
Survey gems included the fact that most politicians work between 70 and 90 hours per week. Also that 65 percent said their working hours were a source of family tensions.
The truth is most politicians do work long hours and spend a great deal of time away from home. And anyone who has spent any period of time in Canberra would also know how isolated from the real world that environment is – it’s hardly surprising therefore that most politicians get homesick once in a while.
But as anyone who has experienced that environment will also know there is hardly a more driven group than politicians – i.e., most of the misery is self-inflicted.
While many politicians complain about the level of salary and the long hours, the fact is that politics is hardly a career you ‘fall into’. It is such a specialised role, its main players all driven by personal ambition and ego that it is very unlikely you could ever end up there by accident.
Most politicians and their staff taking the requisite Wednesday night off for dinner in Canberra choose to spend it with their fellow political apparatchiks.
In part because there is really no one else up their to spend your time with (other than Canberra bureaucrats), and also, to not ‘mix with your own’ could mean you are missing out on some important political gossip or manoeuvrings that could affect your own political position in the future.
Political position is all in Canberra.
Political staffers in Canberra are much the same. Gone are the days of letting your hair down once a week at a bar in Manuka, the focus now is much more on pursuing your own political career and developing contacts to help you get ahead. The Thursday morning hangover is very much a thing of the past in Parliament House – and if you have one you certainly don’t talk about it.
Take a look at the spouses of politicians and political staff and it’s more of same. A large number of them either marry or date other politicians, political staffers or political journalists.
Ironically, Australian politicians could learn a lesson from the United States – usually a shrine to mindless career ambition and stress.
A quick survey of recent Presidents reveals many of them know how to relax. Newly elected President George W. Bush has already made statements that his intention is to be home in bed by 9.30 each night during his presidency. Partly a matter of personal style, the President has also emphasised his intention to delegate where necessary in reaching decisions.
America’s most popular president of recent years, Ronald Reagan, was also a first rate delegator, whose relaxed style included early finishes to the work day, the occasional nap during Heads of States visits and a jelly beans jar on the White House desk. This seemed to do him no harm at the ballot box.
Interestingly, the two big flops amongst recent American Presidents were Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon. Both were highly intelligent men with an obsession for detail and an inability to relax. Not that it did either of them any good. Nixon left the White House disgraced – destroyed by his neurotic obsession with political power. Carter on the other hand will be remembered for a one-term presidency where his micro-management style blinded him to economic issues at home and ended with American humiliation during the Iranian hostage crisis.
But while The Australian survey shows that politicians are under pressure and need to relax more, it’s unlikely that the media will let them.
Ronald Reagan was lampooned mercilessly through his presidency for his relaxed style. And closer to home, it wasn’t so long ago that a ‘good bloke’ trade union leader was told to get a haircut, put on a suit and give up the drink to reinvent himself as that hard working Prime Minister Bob Hawke. In both Reagan and Hawke’s case, this was despite the fact that their ability to take-it-easy was at the very heart of their popularity with the voting public.
In recent times, Opposition Leader Kim Beazley – whose popularity derives from his beefy looks and friendly demeanour – has had this turned against him as proof he ‘lacks the ticker’ to govern.
Just remember our current Prime Minister once promised to make us all more relaxed and comfortable. Perhaps politicians of all persuasions could become a little less hyperactive and take up this cue – though in an election year this is hardly likely.