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Former MP Tim Wilson campaigning ahead of the 2022 federal election.
Former MP Tim Wilson campaigning ahead of the 2022 federal election. Diego Fidele/AAP

‘Everything has gone’: a world-first study looks at what happens when MPs lose their seats

As counting winds up for the 2022 election, many former MPs are beginning a whole new life beyond parliament.

The experience of MPs who lost their seats is often shattering. Former Liberal MP Tim Wilson said he was in the “foetal position crying” the morning after the May 21 poll.

Our new study of state MPs shows this experience is both common and long-lasting, with serious implications for our democracy.

Our research

Our research was commissioned by the Victorian state parliament, and looks at how former MPs transition to life after politics. It is the most substantial study on this issue to have been conducted anywhere in the world. It involved

  • a survey of 93 former Victorian state MPs from across the political spectrum
  • interviews with 39 former MPs, including people who had departed parliament between three and 30 years ago
  • an evaluation of support services to former MPs at 33 parliaments around the world
  • ten interviews with psychologists, executive recruitment consultants, and leaders in elite athlete well-being.

Our research shows MPs who leave parliament unexpectedly can experience devastating emotional, psychological and financial challenges. We found a major contributor to these challenges was a lack of planning for life after parliament. Although a parliamentary career is inherently transitory, as one of our respondents explained, “no one thinks of themselves as an ex-MP”.

A huge shock

Even when they were expecting it, former MPs described losing their seat as shock and “death by a thousand cuts”.

One interviewee described election loss as though their “arms had been chopped off”. Although they knew they shouldn’t take it personally, several reported feeling “hated and despised”, “worthless”, and “guilty” for letting down their party.

As one former MP explained, losing their seat was

one of the most confronting things in my professional life, really, my adult life - apart from family members dying […]. It took me a very long time to get over it.

Psychological distress

Of those surveyed, 31% reported experiencing serious mental health challenges following their departure from parliament. Many of our interviewees reported symptoms of depression, anxiety, PTSD, and agoraphobia.

This psychological distress was most acute in the first two years after leaving parliament, but several former MPs reported the period of adjustment took up to six years.

I’m still devastated [two years later]. I think the thing that’s the toughest is I’ve not been able to move on […] I feel damaged.

For many, electoral defeat also resulted in a profound shift in their sense of belonging. As one put it, “you feel rejected by your entire community”.

God, do you take it personally […] It’s just the shock and the horror of […] all of a sudden, everything has gone […] your reason to get up in the morning.

For some interviewees, the years immediately after parliament also brought relationship breakdowns, poor physical health, and decisions to move away from the community they once represented.

Struggling to find a job

Former treasurer Josh Frydenberg is hugged by a constituent
Former treasurer Josh Frydenberg is hugged by a constituent the day after he lost Kooyong. James Ross/AAP

The stereotype of former parliamentarians being “parachuted” into lucrative roles was not the experience of most former MPs we interviewed.

Of the participants in our study, it took 53% of former MPs at least six months after leaving parliament to secure paid employment, 28% between six and 12 months, and a further 12% took 18 months or more to find work.

Almost all reported how their efforts to set-up new careers were hampered by their time in politics. Many were rejected by employers and boards, despite their suitability for the role, to avoid any perception of political bias.

For similar reasons, several interviewees who had short parliamentary careers suggested they would have had a better career trajectory had they not gone into politics. Meanwhile, several respondents had begun their own businesses because they were unable to find other employment.

Executive recruitment agencies were also unhelpful. As one former MP explained,

[agencies] had no idea what to do with an ex-MP […] I didn’t get one interview […] and I must have been registered with at least half a dozen, if not more.

Of those surveyed, 48% of former MPs had set up a “portfolio” career, comprising paid and unpaid roles. This included volunteering in places such as libraries, schools, the Red Cross, aged care homes and the Country Fire Authority.

The money question

A backbencher in the Victorian parliament earns A$186,973 per year, and employer contributions to super at 16% per year.

Post-politics, Victorian state MPs no longer receive a pension. Since 2004, there has been a “transition payment” of three months’ backbencher salary if they served one term or less, or six months payment if they served two or more terms. Similar or less generous arrangements exist in the federal and most state and territory parliaments.

Given the long time it takes most MPs to find work, this transition payment does not bridge the gap. Among our respondents who served four years or less, 62% reported they had financial problems when they left parliament.

There is also a gender gap in earnings in life after parliament. While 20% of men surveyed were able to establish a career with pay in keeping with or above their former salary, female respondents said their time in parliament marked the peak in their earnings over their lifetime.

Why does this matter?

If we are to have a representative parliament, filled with committed and skilled people from diverse walks of life, we need to make sure there are no unnecessary barriers to a political career.

Read more: 'It's not work-life balance, it's work-work balance' Politicians tell us what it's like to be an MP

MPs already face a lot of hostility in the community. If there are huge personal and professional costs to being an MP, this acts as a further disincentive.

Many MPs we spoke with said they now advise people against a career in parliament, and would now choose a different path for themselves.

If I had my time again, I wouldn’t go near [politics …] You’re on the bottom of the pit, you’re below used car salesmen and bikie gang leaders […] So, if democracy [is] to survive, that has to be turned around.

Our recommendations

Our research taught us that parliaments can make the transition to life after politics much smoother and easier. The lessons from Victoria can be applied across all parliaments in Australia.

We have five key recommendations to better support outgoing MPs:

  1. Encourage new MPs to think of their career as transitory from the moment they take office
  2. Formalise the status of former members associations, which will enable them to better support their members
  3. Provide transition payments on an “as-needs”, rather than a “time-served” basis
  4. Provide defeated MPs the opportunity to give a valedictory speech, which is important for closure
  5. Offer outgoing MPs career, financial, and psychological counselling and a capped study allowance to assist them to establish a new career and identity.

Politics is a brutal business and losing your seat will always be painful. But better support for our ex-parliamentarians doesn’t just benefit former MPs, it ultimately strengthens our parliamentary system and democracy.

Read more: 'Some leaders only want to hear the good news': politicians tell us how political careers can end

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