A toxic work environment threatens the health of our democracy
If you ask Greg Combet whether he misses his old political life, you get a slightly rueful response. ‘At times I miss it,’ he says. ‘But if I get carried away, I just remember what it was like. I just force myself to think that right about now, on a Sunday afternoon, I’d be driving in a Comcar to Sydney from Newcastle, then I’d be on a flight to Canberra, then another car to the supermarket, get to my flat in the dark, then get through the folders of cabinet documents.’
Combet was no small loss for Labor politics. Anointed by Bob Hawke as the party’s next-generation leadership prospect, Combet shocked a good many people by calling time on his political career as the ALP tore itself apart in the Rudd–Gillard civil war. The then climate change minister, who had endured the arduous task of implementing a carbon price in the first minority federal parliament since the Second World War, was battling health problems. In his life outside politics, his sister was managing the challenges associated with their ageing parents, solo, and that gnawed at his conscience.
He was emotionally and physically exhausted. Health problems were manifesting. He needed proper sleep, a healthy diet, time to exercise and time to seek proper medical attention when he needed it. ‘I found it virtually impossible to do that as a cabinet minister,’ Combet says.
And there was the accumulated stress of trying to function in an environment of permanent, grinding hostility, with Tony Abbott lunging daily across the dispatch box, and Labor colleagues indulging in hand-to-hand combat in the leadership fight. Burnout doesn’t begin to describe Combet’s experience.
‘I had come to politics from trade unions, where politics is obviously played hard as well, but there was a real binding sense of purpose in the trade union movement,’ Combet says. ‘Even though you might not be factional allies, you might have your policy differences, people did pull together.’
That collegiate culture was replicated in Canberra when he arrived in 2007, where the newly elected Labor government could hardly contain its ambition after being returned to the government benches after 11 years in exile. But then things started to drift in 2008 and 2009. ‘After the leadership change in 2010, our show was profoundly divided.’
‘Leadership instability changes the atmospherics and the collective sense of purpose very profoundly. 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.’
Combet isn’t telling this story to ‘sing a sad song’, as he puts it. He’s speaking about the destructive effects of contemporary political culture because I’ve pressed him to talk about it. I’ve pressed him to speak because many of his colleagues still in the parliament feel they can’t speak, at least not on the record, about how punishing contemporary political life is, and the toll it takes, because other members of the tribe will banish them for weakness, and the voters will respond with derision.
Australian politics has a secret it can’t talk about. The culture is unhealthy. The demands of parliamentary life are unrelenting. Thinking participants inside the system are starting to feel, after ten years of leadership instability, bitter partisanship and take-no-prisoners hyperactivity, that politics has become not only unsustainable as a vocation, but hostile territory for human beings.
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 liked your questioning about politics as hospitable to humans. 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. If balanced people could no longer cop the life, the profession would shrink back to representation by a very narrow type of personality—people who live for the brawls and the knockouts, and can’t function without the constant affirmation of being a public figure. 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.
This isn’t just some abstract first-world problem. 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. The health of our democracy depends on it. And right now good people are burning out and ending their political careers early, not because they lack commitment but because the rigours and demands have increased exponentially, particularly over the past decade.
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. I decided that if most people inside the system couldn’t speak candidly, then I would do what big corporations do when they fear they are losing good people: I’d conduct some exit interviews, and share the impressions.
If good people can’t sustain themselves in public life because it is just too punishing and zero sum—if the opportunity cost of the life of public service is just too high, if a life in politics just doesn’t feel worth the personal sacrifices that are made—then we have a serious problem. The consequences of that really are too dire to contemplate.
If pain persists, see a medical professional. The maxim is no different in Parliament House, although it is convenient if you don’t have to leave the building. Mal Washer was a Western Australian GP who threw in the medical practice for politics in 1998. From the day he arrived in Canberra to represent the seat of Moore for the Liberal Party until he left political life in August 2013, Washer’s parliamentary office was a hub for colleagues needing a bit of TLC.
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. ‘The hours in parliament were just far too long,’ Washer says. ‘Half the time people were too tired to be concentrating on the votes and proceedings, and compounding that—booze.’
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 2002 to wind them back. With the working life of the parliament intensifying in 2010, he went public again with his concerns about the health impact on his colleagues.
‘Politics is an emotionally taxing job if you are dinkum about it. It’s an emotionally trying business. There’s a lot of depression in Canberra—that is very, very common,’ he says. ‘So what we are looking at is a tough gig, compounded by alcohol and long hours. You could exercise, but you had to be a bit bloody driven to get up in the early hours, or you might try and go to the gym later in the day, but there’d be divisions, and the phone. It was hard to take that time during working hours.’
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. ‘In my final year in parliament, I averaged two days a month at home,’ he says.
Parliament sits for half a year in Canberra. If you are in state politics, you can go home at night. Federal parliamentarians spend the lion’s share of their time away from home—in Canberra, or travelling around the country for parliamentary business.
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 had the responsibility of implementing the carbon price,’ Combet says. ‘I travelled, I did town hall meetings, I did fundraisers and supported other members in marginal seats. That’s all part of your legitimate responsibilities and if you are serious about doing it, that’s what the job requires of you. But obviously that’s not a healthy way to live.’
I ask him when he got time to reflect, when he got time to think. The answer is mildly terrifying. ‘In the lifestyle of a cabinet minister, there is barely time to consider public policy issues properly,’ Combet says. ‘You’ve got your parliamentary responsibilities, your responsibilities as a local member, your portfolio responsibilities, your responsibilities to your political party and to the caucus. On top of that, you’ve got the media, you’ve got to contribute to discussions in Cabinet, contributing to broader discussions in the government—look, I could just drone on and on.’
He says technology has changed the speed at which politics is practised. ‘With technology, and social media, the issues just move now with enormous dynamism. 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.’ I ask him how he managed to keep it together in that environment. ‘Frankly, I found that quite frustrating. I’m sure many people in politics do.’
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. ‘It is a life that takes a toll on the family. 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 parliamentarians would benefit in practical ways if they could get away and break the yoke of their constantly updating smart phones. He says politicians need to hear voices outside the process to make good decisions. ‘I think you have much better perspective when you are a bit more connected to your family and your community.
‘I know that after a bit of a break, I come back to Canberra fresher. I’ve got a healthier perspective on life,’ the Greens leader says. ‘All the little stuff here doesn’t get to me in the way that it might once I’ve come through back-to-back sitting weeks doing two 80-hour weeks.’
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 2000s—around the time John Howard was losing his grip on power. ‘Are we making worse decisions? Absolutely,’ Di Natale says. ‘We’ve got a political class here in Canberra disconnected from the real world, because this is a job that many people from the real world wouldn’t do.’
Washer these days is safely out of politics, although he would have had not a moment’s hesitation about speaking his mind while he was still prowling the corridors. I’ve come to him because of his special insight into the peculiarities of parliamentary life. 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. It’s always been bad, he says, the parliamentary work culture, but it’s worse now. 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.
‘It’s basically on a knife edge on both sides of politics,’ Washer says. ‘Everything is more physically and emotionally draining. I think it has gotten worse in recent years. I think politics has become even more partisan.’ When the general aggression levels are dialled up, there are predictable human responses, fight or flight. ‘When you put people on a knife edge, they become more territorial and more paranoid. 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 really made it a much more difficult atmosphere,’ Washer says.
‘You have a party room divided, so there is no sanctuary there. 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.’ He says once Tony Abbott returned to the Liberal leadership, he felt unmoored. ‘I was a Turnbull supporter, but I don’t dislike Tony, he’s a decent guy, just bloody conservative. But the atmosphere changed. That attacking style of politics, it’s just not my cup of tea.’
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. I first encountered him during the stem cell debate in 2006, where he pursued a private member’s bill to allow the creation of cloned embryos for stem cell research, and got the numbers across parties to get the bill passed. 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 RU486.
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. He says he was entirely up to facing off against political opponents for productive ends.
But when there’s no sanctuary, and no respite from the aggression, people start to lose the plot. ‘When you can’t sit down with your own mob, it’s very bloody difficult. I’m a negotiator, not an attacker, I think in politics you’ve got to cut a deal.’ He said people ‘who wanted to negotiate something sensible’ faced a kind of tribal banishment during the major-party civil war period in Canberra. It became partisan conflict or bust. ‘I found people like me just didn’t fit in.’
Mat Jose says when he worked for Kevin Rudd the only noticeable difference between a weekday and a weekend was that on weekends he wore jeans to the office. Jose spent 18 years behind the scenes in political offices, in state and federal politics, before packing his Canberra life into his car late last year and driving south to Queenscliff, where he and his wife now own a bookshop.
Everybody works hard in Australia. But political staff serving senior politicians set new benchmarks in how much is required of a person in any given 24 hours. Political offices are like fiefdoms. The lives of staff are hostage to the demands of the boss. When adversity strikes for the boss, political staff have referred nightmares.
I’ve come to Jose for a couple of reasons. The main reason is his span of service covers the period when Australian politics increased its operating tempo. His insight is extremely useful, because he was inside the belly of the beast and served three federal Labor leaders during the acceleration: Kim Beazley, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.
The other reason I’ve come to him is because you will have never heard of him. In an era where backroom staff have become lured by a cult of celebrity, are building their own profiles, and have taken to settling political scores on live television, Jose, who is softly spoken, considered and low key, has never aspired to be a protagonist.
We start by reflecting on the shift from Beazley to Rudd in 2006. Jose says part of the shift that happened in politics in the late 2000s was technological: the impact of social media, the intensification of the media cycle, and the accompanying rise of ‘campaign journalism’—which he says is a toxic and corrosive feature of national affairs.
But a significant part of the story is Rudd, and the step change he imposed on the political system when he resolved to take the opposition leadership from Beazley, and then when he set himself the ambition of becoming prime minister, all within the space of a year. Two things happened as a consequence. Rudd changed the conception of opposition leader from the traditional idea of being reactive—responding to the agenda of the government—to being the pacesetter. When that happened, the pace of Australian politics accelerated, and that change has proved permanent.
But Jose says the caricature of Rudd, the manic 24/7 leader, doesn’t really reflect the more complex reality of what went on at that time. Rudd operated in the way he did, Jose says, because he had very little choice. ‘Rudd came to the job very late in the piece, he came from the foreign affairs portfolio, he had to introduce himself to the population, and differentiate himself from Beazley,’ Jose says. ‘He had to explain why he should become prime minister.’
‘Kevin did pursue a lot of issues at the same time. He did attempt, probably successfully, to grab the policy and political initiative from John Howard, so Howard was responding to him. Rudd had that different approach: he forced Howard to respond to him. He did that successfully, but that increased the tempo of politics in my view.’ Executing a permanent change in the tenor and tempo of Australian politics was quite the undertaking. ‘That required a hell of a lot of work by Rudd, but also a hell of a lot of work by the people around him.’
When Labor won the election in 2007, and came into government, Rudd’s policy commitments had to be converted into action or programs. The new government encountered an expectations gap. Jose says the Canberra bureaucracy, shaped by the operational requirements of the Howard era, could not keep pace with the demands of the new prime minister.
‘Rudd’s style was he expected work to be done overnight. If he was dealing with a problem during the day, and he wanted a brief, or some options or recommendations, he’d want them ready in the morning. That’s not the way the bureaucracy works. It was certainly not the way the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet worked under Howard. Howard had been in power for over a decade. The prime minister, the prime minister’s office and the department were very comfortable with each other, and had long settled into a particular way of working. Rudd upturned that way of working.’
Because the department could not keep pace, ‘some work that would have previously been done in the bureaucracy started to be done in the PMO’. Pulling work into the prime ministerial office had impacts on decision-making, and the punishing workload led to increased turnover of staff. At the time, the departures from the Rudd office were written up as personality conflicts—the foot soldiers couldn’t cope with the histrionics of the general. Jose says this isn’t accurate. The truth was more prosaic.
‘It was an extraordinarily demanding work environment, and it didn’t leave space for anything other than work,’ he says. ‘People I worked with made decisions to see their family and have some semblance of a life. These are some of the hardest-working people I’ve ever worked with. It wasn’t a question of a lack of a work ethic. It was the gruelling environment that existed.’
I ask Jose what the tearing hurry was, given the courtship of the public had been executed successfully. Rudd was prime minister, so why the permanent campaign? ‘I would feel this way because I’m a progressive, but Labor governments want to change things,’ he says. ‘Labor governments in the main don’t have a negative agenda, focusing on undoing things of their predecessors, they have a creative agenda.
‘Doing things is harder and it requires more work. Labor had been out of office for a decade, Rudd had a substantial program, he got a mandate and he wanted to get on with those things.’ Jose left the Rudd office before he lost the leadership in 2010, but returned to work for Julia Gillard. He says the Gillard period was gruelling in a
Australia’s first female prime minister was the first leader to govern in minority since the Second World War. Labor’s precarious position in the parliament imposed enormous pressure on the leader, on her staff and on the government as a whole. Jose says again, the bureaucracy was encountering new territory, so there wasn’t the support the government needed.
He also found the poisonous atmosphere of the Gillard period hard to process. ‘When you do these jobs, when you come to work in the PMO every day, you can’t do it unless you are absolutely committed to it, unless it consumes almost every waking minute. When things are going badly for your boss, things are going badly for you. I can tell you how I felt. I found a lot of the attacks on Julia, her way of speaking, the way she dressed, criticism of her basically for being a woman—disgusting, debilitating, depressing. It was inexplicable to me.’
Jose dealt with the daily preparation for the rolling controversy triggered by Gillard’s role in setting up a fund for the AWU’s workplace reform association in the early 1990s. The slush fund story ground on relentlessly for months. The experience he describes is akin to living in a state of siege.
‘It still makes me upset because the demands that were placed on her for the recol-lection of memory, to account for a relationship, were demands that had never been placed on a political leader before. Not ever. I think her gender explains why she was asked to do those things. I didn’t understand it then and I don’t understand it now. Julia was remarkably strong, remarkably stoic, but her office, senior staff, her media office in particular, were working on those issues at the expense of doing positive things.’
As he walked through the PMO each day to gather the necessary material and speak to colleagues, he would have to traverse the round lounge in the suite, which became a source of stress. ‘You can’t get through the PMO without walking through the round lounge where all the papers are spread out. I could not be unaffected by day after day, walking through that round lounge and seeing the front-page attacks, day after day after day. None of that had anything to do with the job she was doing as prime minister. It was about a relationship that had ceased 20 years before. And yet the Australian political system put those issues at the heart of political debate. I thought that was desperately unfair.’
Given the heavily contested atmosphere that has prevailed in Canberra over the past decade, a whole generation of political staff have been exposed to a dimension of stress that didn’t exist before the onslaught of the coup culture. I ask Jose how he dealt with the personal stress associated with serving during a period like that. Initially, he adopts a stiff upper lip. ‘I just got on with my work.’ Then he chuckles. ‘Maybe I didn’t deal with it. Maybe I still haven’t dealt with it.’
I persist. ‘Come on. How did you deal with it?’
‘I don’t know how to answer that question. It’s indulgent of me to think that how I dealt with it mattered. I wasn’t the focus of it. It doesn’t matter how I dealt with it, but it did affect me.’
When Gillard lost the leadership, Jose confesses he felt some relief even though the practical outcome for him was a period of unemployment. ‘When it did finally come to an end, there was a sense of relief on that night.’ I ask him to reflect on the two periods of serving in the PMO. ‘I feel a sense of disappointment. Both Kevin and Julia didn’t serve as long as they should have. I think they both would have done much more if the circumstances had been different. As a staffer, I would have liked to serve a long-term Labor government.’
Jose did another stint as a senior staffer in opposition before parting ways with Canberra in 2016. I ask him how long it took to decompress after assuming his new life in the bookshop. ‘I’m not sure I have, to be honest. I enjoy the simple things I have now. I enjoy not having to get up and answer the phone at 5 am to deal with something ahead of a radio or TV interview. I enjoy having a day off. That’s something I’ve never had for as long as I can remember. I enjoy the little things. I don’t have to keep checking my phone. I can go out to lunch. ‘Is that decompression? I’m not sure. I appreciate aspects of normal life.’
I ask him whether it was worth it, the 20 years of backroom service. First, the yes. Jose remains a loyal Labor man. ‘I’m incredibly grateful to everyone who employed me, and I hope I repaid that through the hard work I did.’ And then, ‘I’m not sure, in truth. I don’t think long-term staff work is a great career. Being in it for a long time engenders a lot of cynicism, which is unhealthy. Also, unless you are on a political career path, if you are like me, if you are not interested in those things, your career prospects at the end of a long staffing career can be pretty dire. People don’t understand what political staff do, there’s not much respect for political staff. You are not sought after.’
I ask him if someone came to him for advice, should they contemplate a career as a political staffer, what would he say to them? ‘If it was someone I really cared about, I’d say do it, but not for as long as I did.’
Greg Combet is now happily established in life after politics, a life that allows time to think and time to circulate. He has plenty of projects, his health is better, and his well-being has improved greatly. There is time to consider how we might make our politics better. ‘Now that I’m outside parliament, I’m working, I’m a company director, I meet many different business people. I can’t tell you how many times someone says to me you’d have to be mad to go into parliament and do that, live that life.’
‘I admire the people who endure it in order to make a contribution, and I’ve actually found that people respect others for going into parliament. But they see politics as ugly and overly combative. That’s why they don’t want to be involved. They understand how politics would consume your life. And that’s a big problem.’
Richard Di Natale says we have to start thinking about how to improve the life of a parliamentarian, not to coddle the political class, but as a straightforward question of public good. Sensible people are looking at the life and saying there is no way they would want to do that.
‘If we want people to truly represent the interests of the community, then we have to get people into this job who come from the community, from a wide variety of backgrounds, who don’t look at being a parliamentarian and say there is no way I would do that job because the hours suck, the media environment is so bloody hostile, you are getting a brutal character assessment minute to minute on social media—all those sorts of things,’ the Greens leader says.
He says the difficulties associated with people sustaining themselves in the life ‘does mean we aren’t getting the right sort of representation, and often that gets reflected in the decisions that get made. Look at the 18C debate. That’s a complete disconnect from the real world. Look at the debate around energy, that’s so disconnected from reality. We’ve got a bunch of ideologues, professional politicians, some of them come straight out of staffing, there’s a bunch of Institute of Public Affairs lackeys, and ultimately that’s the sort of politics you end up with.’
I ask Mal Washer whether he’s worried the political gene pool is narrowing because of external perceptions the life is impossible. He says political parties need to take the issue very seriously. ‘We need to get decent people preselected so we’ve got a balanced type of person in the parliament, and that doesn’t always work with the system we have.’ He says the major parties have ‘tribal’ preselection processes. Institutional influence trumps community representation. ‘You’d really hope people in the parliament would be representative of the Australian public, not just pressure groups, and until we achieve that—well, we are buggered, quite frankly.’
Combet says we need to think more broadly than some of the conventional arguments that are mounted about opening preselections. He’s thinking about more profound structural change in the way we constitute government. He thinks there’s some merit in Australia contemplating the American model, where the political system looks actively to recruit talent from outside the travelators of the major-party system.
‘You can’t change the technology, or the way the media operates—but what’s happened is the processes of government haven’t changed with the society,’ he says. ‘The demands on individuals have just become greater and greater. I’ve started to think that there is a sound case for people of the appropriate experience, knowledge and expertise to be appointed to Cabinet, or the executive, from outside the parliament for example, which is possible under our Constitution.’
‘At the moment we only draw members of the executive from the parliament, but I think there is a case to draw some people, as they do in the United States, from outside. New forms of accountability could be considered—there could be committee processes allowing the appointees to be called to account in quite a considered way.
‘Look, this is just one idea, but I do think we need to consider ways of engaging people from outside the parliament and government and have appropriate checks and balances with it, because to be frank, I don’t think we are going to attract in the future a sufficient cohort of people with a broad cross-section of experience in our society into the parliament and into the executive.’
I understand how implementing an American-style process of external cabinet appointments would help expand the thinking that goes on in Canberra, and potentially dilute the combat and coup culture, but I ask Combet how this would help make parliamentary life more sustainable for senior people. The answer to this is simple, he says. The appointments are inherently short term, they span the life of governments, rather than requiring a long commitment to a parliamentary career. The external appointees would not have to attend to the extensive parliamentary and electoral duties that MPs have to attend to, whether they are the highest flyers in Cabinet or humble backbenchers.
They would also not have hours of their sitting day chewed up with preparation for question time, and attending question time, given their accountability mechanism would be different. They would be responsible to the prime minister, and to a parliamentary committee, and their sole focus would be on their portfolio. ‘There are people who could offer a lot to our society if they were part of the executive, focused on formulating policy, but right now, those people are not going to be attracted into parliament.’
Combet says a political career is a strange blend of the selfless and the cravenly selfish. ‘The thing about being in politics at a senior level: on the one hand, it’s a selfless pursuit, you are working on behalf of the community and that is very rewarding, but I can’t think of a more selfish pursuit in a career sense, because it so dominates your life, and your time and your ability to be there for your family and your friends. Everything else falls to other people.’
He says the problems are obvious, and we have to start focusing on telling the truth about what political life is like, as the starting point for trying to make it better. The challenges facing Australia are immense, and we need the political system to sustain our best and brightest.
He remains enormously proud of his parliamentary service, and respectful of the colleagues, still at the Canberra coalface, doing the best they can for the country. He implemented a carbon price successfully, against the odds. He also points to Julia Gillard setting up the royal commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse. ‘That has been so important for so many people. You can do really great things in politics. It’s a tremendous privilege and I have no regrets about it. I’m not complaining in terms of these observations. I willingly took it on. I just couldn’t keep doing it.’
Combet says the country needs to focus on a pressing issue. ‘This is a weakness in our democracy that we need to think about. And in thinking about it, we have to consider what it is actually like to be a federal parliamentarian, and what the lifestyle of a cabinet minister is actually like, and what is the best way to attract all the talent that is needed in our democracy.’