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That collegiate culture was replicated in Canberra when he arrived in , where the newly elected Labor government could hardly contain its ambition after being returned to the government benches after 11 years in exile.


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But then things started to drift in and You wonder whether you can speak honestly to someone or not. The culture deteriorated in the Labor caucus. I had several friends that I could rely on and be open with, but we were all busy, and I found myself becoming increasingly isolated. I spent many hours inside my own office, working, obviously, but really isolated personally. Many of my colleagues would have been the same.

It generated a really toxic environment. The culture is unhealthy. The demands of parliamentary life are unrelenting. While good people continue to put their heads down and do their best to make a positive contribution to democracy, the environment parliamentarians work in is a pressure cooker, the tone of national affairs is reflexively hostile, trolling and takedowns set the tone of the day, and protagonists are being rewarded for their efficiency at treachery rather than the substance of their contributions.

Earlier this year I wrote a weekend column positing this hostile-for-humans thesis for Guardian Australia , and I was intrigued by the response. Politicians from across the spectrum expressed relief that someone was talking about it. One MP sent me a text shortly after the piece was published that summarised the tenor of the feedback. I guess we have to continue to act as though it is.

The column was triggered by a conversation I had with a senior member of the government over the summer break. During this conversation, this person observed his vocation was becoming unsustainable for normal people. By normal people, he meant balanced people. We would end up with representation by ideologues, adrenalin junkies and preening show ponies, posturing for a media chorus as unhinged as the political class. Politics is fundamentally a people business, and we need good people, talented people, people of ideas and values and commitment to keep volunteering for public life.

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The health of our democracy depends on it. From my vantage point in the system, but also outside it, I can feel the strain in it, which is stretched the tightest it has been in my 20 years of ringside observation. So we need to find voices prepared to tell the truth about contemporary politics. The consequences of that really are too dire to contemplate. If pain persists, see a medical professional.

In between attending to hectic parliamentary business, Washer took blood pressures, temperature readings, wrote scripts and heard confessions. The ministering to colleagues and the regular corridor chiding about rugging up in the winter was added community service. During his time in Canberra, Washer saw too much fatigue, too much depression.

Colleagues from Western Australia did it particularly tough, often not returning home on weekends during parliamentary sittings because there was no time to get home if there was committee work to do or meetings to prepare for.

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The sitting days in Canberra are long and the commitments arduous. MPs and their staff are up in the dark, and they are lucky to be home before Lateline. Washer campaigned so vigorously against the sitting hours that he won agreement from John Howard in to wind them back. With the working life of the parliament intensifying in , he went public again with his concerns about the health impact on his colleagues.

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I ask Combet to quantify his workload as a cabinet minister so that people outside politics have some conception of what is required. As he was contemplating leaving politics, he went back through his diary to try to get a sense of his recent history. Parliament sits for half a year in Canberra.


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If you are in state politics, you can go home at night. For senior players, holidays are brief. Often people are no sooner on holidays, promising their kids and partners their total attention, than the phone rings. A crisis has arisen, they are required back in Canberra. They worry about the impact on their most intimate relationships. I ask him when he got time to reflect, when he got time to think. The answer is mildly terrifying.

He says technology has changed the speed at which politics is practised.

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In years gone by, 20 or 30 years ago, issues could be considered more thoroughly. One issue could keep coming back to Cabinet on a regular basis. Now everything needs to be determined more efficiently. Things get easily reported in the media, you have to react to them. All of the circumstances mitigate against carefully considered long-term public policy. Greens leader Richard Di Natale is one of the current crop of parliamentarians prepared to stick his neck out and say publicly that Australian politics has a life-balance problem.

The toughest thing in this job by a million miles is being away from my kids and my wife, and obviously the long hours you have to put into it. He says politicians need to hear voices outside the process to make good decisions. I ask him whether he thinks the Australian Parliament has made worse decisions since the whole system seemed to burst into hyper thrust in the mid to late s—around the time John Howard was losing his grip on power. He is, quite literally, a clinical observer of the effects of this very specific form of occupational stress on people.

He keeps in touch with friends and colleagues back in Canberra, and worries about what they say to him and what he sees. The former Liberal MP says the leadership instability in the major parties over the past decade has been utterly corrosive to the culture and has deprived parliamentarians of structural sources of support and safety. An extra layer of emotional stress has been added. I ask him when he got time to reflect, when he got time to think.


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The answer is mildly terrifying. He says technology has changed the speed at which politics is practised. In years gone by, 20 or 30 years ago, issues could be considered more thoroughly. One issue could keep coming back to Cabinet on a regular basis. Now everything needs to be determined more efficiently.

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Things get easily reported in the media, you have to react to them. All of the circumstances mitigate against carefully considered long-term public policy. Greens leader Richard Di Natale is one of the current crop of parliamentarians prepared to stick his neck out and say publicly that Australian politics has a life-balance problem.

The toughest thing in this job by a million miles is being away from my kids and my wife, and obviously the long hours you have to put into it. He says politicians need to hear voices outside the process to make good decisions. I ask him whether he thinks the Australian Parliament has made worse decisions since the whole system seemed to burst into hyper thrust in the mid to late s—around the time John Howard was losing his grip on power. He is, quite literally, a clinical observer of the effects of this very specific form of occupational stress on people.

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He keeps in touch with friends and colleagues back in Canberra, and worries about what they say to him and what he sees. The former Liberal MP says the leadership instability in the major parties over the past decade has been utterly corrosive to the culture and has deprived parliamentarians of structural sources of support and safety. An extra layer of emotional stress has been added. The tranquillity of the party room has been lost. I think it has gotten worse in recent years.

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I think politics has become even more partisan. We went through periods where it was really tense, those dreadful periods where we had the Rudd—Gillard leadership challenges, and our leadership challenges. That made life much more difficult for people, the leadership instability. It eats right into your sanctuary when people who are supposed to be helping you become consumed by infighting. But the atmosphere changed. Washer was a prominent party moderate, whose stint in Canberra was characterised by a streak of independence, and a desire to build coalitions to navigate sensitive issues through the parliament.

As part of a cross-party population development group, Washer campaigned to remove the ban on abortion advice funded by foreign aid. Washer also opposed Abbott when, as health minister, he wanted to retain power over the importation of RU Whether you agree with those specific policies or not, that capacity for building coalitions, that desire to prioritise landing an outcome before tribalism is a quality voters respect. Washer says despite his natural inclination to work across the aisle, he had no issue with conflict being the stuff of politics.

It became partisan conflict or bust.