The retiring independents: looking inside the ‘balance of power’

What is life like inside the office of MPs who hold the balance of power, such as retiring independents Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor? AAP/Alan Porritt

With the end of each parliament there inevitably comes a series of announcements that particular parliamentarians will not be contesting the next election. Usually, these decisions are justified by the rigours of public life, health reasons and a desire to spend more time with family. Often these decisions are accompanied by accusations of cowardice or quitting and suspicions they have something to hide.

But in the light of the recent resignations of independent MPs Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor such decisions bear further examination.

A good friend - and ex-chief of staff to a minister in a former government - tells the story of being asked to visit their alma mater to address (and perhaps inspire) the students there. This friend told of an average day on the hill. The complexities, the competing demands, the pressures and the relentlessness. At the end of the talk, a student raised his hand and asked: “if you do all that, what does the minister do?”

Many years later, that former minister is still ironically chiding themselves in front of their staff for coasting through doing nothing - while the staff did all the work.

In my time as senior adviser to Senator Nick Xenophon, who shared the balance of power, my workload (and that of the Senator) was often remarked upon by ministerial chiefs of staff. “I do not know how you and your boss do it,” they would say. “We struggle to keep on top of one portfolio, you have to be across all of them”.

The answer to how we did is simple enough: at great personal cost.

The days are long. They start well before dawn by reviewing papers, listening to radio news and reviewing the parliamentary sitting plan before the early morning whips’ meeting. After parliament rises, often after midnight, it is then time to prepare for the following day.

Unlike the major parties, where staff can take breaks between bills and between sitting weeks, independent parliamentarians have to be alert to every bill and do not have enough staff to cover time in lieu. It is not uncommon to see staff rushing down to the cafeteria in Question Time for the first chance they have had to eat that day.

At any given moment, an independent parliamentarian has to be in the chamber, attending committees, negotiating legislation and taking delegations - as well as being available to the media. Even with the most efficient allocation of staff resources, it is difficult to keep all these balls in the air at once.

On sitting days, it is not uncommon to have half a dozen ministers all calling to insist that their legislation is coming on and demanding immediate attention. It takes foresight and deft response to get to the right legislation in the right order at the right time, and avoid accusations of not taking parliamentary responsibilities seriously.

Then there are the negotiations with the government. Often only armed with a laptop and a bill’s digest, you and your parliamentarian face up to a fully-briefed minister and all the resources of the Commonwealth Public Service. This takes intelligence and a steely resolve.

This also highlights the challenge of staff expertise. When covering a whole legislative program, it is not possible for one parliamentarian and their staff to cover all relevant areas. This challenge is exacerbated when bills are brought on quickly or processes guillotined and it is not possible to contact experts for advice - because people are not answering their phones at 1am.

And then there is the constant stream of lobbyists, many of whom are paid just for getting a foot in the office door. This demand is overwhelming. Famously, to try and stem this demand, former Family First Senator Steve Fielding installed a buzzer and phone answering system in his office which applied to everyone from minister to maintenance man.

These practical pressures are exhausting on a daily basis, let alone across a parliamentary term. Hence, it is not surprising that in their review of the growth of independents in Australia, researchers Mark Rodrigues and Scott Brenton noted that increasingly those who succeed have already had extensive practical experience in political parties and/or politics before entering federal parliament.

But beyond these practical demands, there are the personal demands.

It is rare to find people working in federal politics whose families have not suffered from neglect or whose relationships have not struggled under the pressure. It is not commonly spoken about, but there are psychiatrists in Canberra who specialise in working with parliamentarians and their staff, particularly in relation to depression and post-traumatic stress.

The health struggles of parliamentarians who share the balance of power are usually only known to a few because a public image of strength is so important to carrying out the role. However, the careful observer need only compare an image of “balance of power” parliamentarians from the start of their term to the end and the tell-tale signs are apparent to all.

While great demands may be placed on other high-profile professionals working in other sectors, few do so without the support of a leadership team. Rarely do they face the situation where their decision directly impacts the whole nation. Rarely do they find that a decision, once made, results in a small team of staff being distressed by angry and threatening phone calls to the electorate office for days afterwards.

When endured almost daily, in a parliamentary context that some have labelled “brutal” and “toxic”, it is a gruelling test of the determination and integrity of the MP. It strikes me that no-one comes close to the highest levels of political service to their nation without being scarred in some way.

None of the above are complaints. People are paid well. They experience unique events and have opportunities to directly shape this nation’s future. And not all of the above is unique to independents. Overwhelmingly, across the parties, across the political divides, and between individuals, there is a determination to serve. But all too often, when decisions are made to retire - as they have been in recent days - there is a lack of genuine appreciation of the reasons given.

Several years ago Australian Democrats Senator Natasha Stott-Despoja remarked that you could never really know who your friends are until you leave politics. Until then, you could not tell who was responding to you or to what your vote could do. Tony Windsor, Rob Oakeshott and their staff are about to discover this.

As we reflect on their records, I hope that we can take a moment to step back from our views on their voting choices, and respond to them - and their staff - with gratitude.

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