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Schoolyard brawls do little for the lot of MPs

By Rob Moodie - posted Friday, 30 June 2006

When an expression like "snivelling grubs" is used, I'd normally think it had emanated from the primary school playground or even the kindergarten sandpit. But no, this time it's from the most public of our workplaces, Federal Parliament.

At the same time we have witnessed the public distress of a number of senior federal and state politicians and political advisers over the past few years. They come from across the political spectrum and both genders. Is there a connection between the way they treat each other and this public and private distress?

In my own work I have had the privilege of meeting and working with many politicians. I have a great respect for many of them - because of their commitment, energy, skills and intellect. But I can't say I admire or respect their workplaces, which have variously been described as "a ‘Boy's Own’ culture that rewards bullies" by former Victorian Liberal Attorney-General Jan Wade and as "needlessly cruel and primitive" by former federal adviser Greg Barns, and where "personal abuse is part of political life" by Greens Senator Kerry Nettle.


We are not alone - in New Zealand they have "aggressive and warlike behaviour in the debating chamber", and a report in Britain in 1999 described the House of Commons as a backward institution that needs to be dragged into the 20th century.

What is it that puts the health of our MPs at risk? Melbourne University's associate professor Tony LaMontagne and colleagues, in their report Workplace Stress in Victoria: Developing a Systems Approach, have shown that job stress is related to high demand and low control.

High demand means long hours, high workloads, high pressure and the constant public scrutiny of MPs' work, competing demands of family life, especially young children, and long travel time. As we know, these characteristics are common for many parliamentarians.

Low job control is shown by them having little participation in the decisions of their day-to-day work. Perhaps you would think that politicians would have a high level of control. Yet it seems they don't. In Britain they report very low levels of job control, perhaps because of the strongly hierarchical nature of most political parties.

We elect our MPs and we acknowledge them as important community leaders, yet at the same time levels of public distrust are around 70-80 per cent. This alone must cause some heartache for our MPs.

These two factors are greatly compounded by job insecurity, something not unique to MPs, but central to our system of elected parliamentary representatives.


Job stress is further compounded by low levels of support from co-workers and supervisors. Greg Barns said it "was virtually impossible for MPs and staff to find a shoulder to cry on" because vulnerability was perceived as weakness.

It makes sense that active harassment and bullying makes the situation worse. We know from work done by Associate Professor Lyndal Bond and her colleagues at Melbourne's Centre for Adolescent Health that harassment is associated with up to 30 per cent of depressive symptoms in high school students.

In their extensive review, LaMontagne and colleagues have stated that for men, up to one-third of cardiovascular disease could be attributed to job stress, and up to one-seventh in women.

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First published in The Canberra Times on June 13, 2006.

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About the Author

Rob Moodie is Professor of Global Health at the Nossal Institute for Global Health at the University of Melbourne. Between 1998 and 2007 he was the CEO of VicHealth. He is co-editor of three books, including Hands on Health Promotion. He is currently writing a book called Recipes for a Great Life with Gabriel Gate.

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