THE impatience of Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce with some among the Liberals is palpable. The Nationals leader just wishes they’d SHUT UP about Section 18C and same-sex marriage. In his local pub people are […]
IN a despondent interview, Labor shadow minister Kate Ellis announced she is stepping down at the next election.
The tension of managing her small child and the demands of politics have simply become too much. Looking into the tunnel of her political future with 20 weeks a year away from a child of school age is just too much.
It is easy to laugh at politicians and to be critical. However, this sort of announcement highlights the commitment and the level of pressure under which so many of our elected representatives operate. The pressure is not just on the politician. There are also many stresses on those close to them – whether immediate or extended family.
Senator Katy Gallagher, when Chief Minister of the ACT, managed a young family. It is also true that plenty of working families manage work that makes travel demands and have to share parenting with their partners. The immediate assumption is that politics is no different. However, public life adds a wide range of additional stresses. And it is not just about being a woman or a mother. There are plenty of men, as well as women, who either do not enter politics or who leave prematurely because of the demands made on family and private lives.
The pressures are also real for partners, children and close relatives who are associated with someone in public life. Particularly if the politician is standing up for something controversial – but in which they believe. The family members didn’t choose to go into politics. They did not choose the issue. But they still wear the flack. Such is the lot of any politician’s family.
Australians love to have a political conversation. How much better is it when engaging with someone close to the action? Children and partners regularly wind up trying to defend a position taken by the elected member as their classmates or colleagues use the opportunity to discuss and challenge ideas or actions.
Over the decade of writing this column I have occasionally taken time to make this point. The argument was that the role of family in politics is really a raw deal not only for the spouse but for the children. The same is true for siblings. At a time when the elected member is at the height of influence, making a difference in the community, relishing power relationships and making decisions that will have long-term impact; the rest of the family is just trying to get on with their own private lives.
However, in most cases public life spills into the family’s private domain and partners and children have no choice but to deal with the backwash. The issue is much broader than the likelihood that the person is working long hours, travelling or will be attending many evening meetings in the electorate. The most difficult thing for family is the disempowerment.
When a public figure is being criticised, the politician has the tools available to deal with the comments. They can reinforce their own ideas, generate and flick out a press release, hit social media with a tweet or a Facebook comment, stand up in parliament or before a committee and, with the protection of parliamentary privilege, justify their actions. Most commonly they may create a diversion by raising another issue (often more controversial) that does not impact in such a personal way. They can also choose to ignore disparaging remarks and to lie low until the matter passes. Throughout the process they have staff and political colleagues who can provide advice and reassurance.
It is not the same for family members who are invariably in a quandary attempting to choose between supporting the public figure and the public stance and attempting to distance themselves. Even when they disagree with the partner, sibling or parent on a specific matter, the choice has to be made either to be seen as disloyal or to attempt to justify the standpoint.
For family members it is a Hobson’s choice!
All political families feel these pressures. When someone says “enough” the community should not be surprised. Either way, there should be a greater respect for the contribution our politicians make to the community.