We are currently watching candidates battle night and day to win a spot in federal parliament. Many put their lives on hold trying to become an MP.
What is it like when they get there?
In recent years, Australian politicians have been under immense pressure, responding to COVID-19, floods, fires and international war. Yet, research repeatedly shows Australians’ trust of political leaders is at an all-time low. This is not helped by the constant scandals, power struggles, as well as alleged cases of bullying and corruption.
We recently interviewed politicians about their experiences, providing insight into the personal challenges of being a politician, including the loneliness and limited control over workloads. This is not to suggest we give politicians an easy ride (or excuse corruption), but to better understand some of the demands of a job they do on behalf of us all.
As part of research into what it’s like to lead during a crisis, we spoke with 13 Australian politicians between March and December 2021.
They included federal and state MPs and ministers, as well as mayors of local government.
Interviewees came from right across the political spectrum, but for ethical reasons, participants are not named.
The most challenging role
The politicians we spoke to described leadership as “very difficult” and a “responsibility”. It naturally also comes with high levels of scrutiny and criticism.
One interviewee noted:
I think the biggest challenge of leadership is having to make the hard decisions, knowing that there are times when you’ve got to make some decisions that will have a negative impact on people.
Another told us:
[Politics is] the most physically, intellectually, emotionally challenging role I could imagine.
Interviewees said serving the public was their primary objective, but they were well aware that their motives were questioned by constituents and the broader public.
The systems that we have favour people who seek power, but not every politician does […] There are politicians that are more than happy to find an answer even if they don’t get credit for it. But there are others that will only do things that they can claim [credit for].
A lonely job
Some politicians talked about feeling isolated. They were unsure whom to trust, whom to confide in, and whom to involve in key decisions. As one former premier observed:
It can be quite lonely […] You are often alone, and I noticed that particularly when I moved into the role of premier.
Federal politicians also spoke of physical isolation when in Canberra – away not just from constituents and families, but their colleagues.
We start work at 9 o'clock. We finish at 8.30 at night. We’re not allowed to leave the building. So, there isn’t a system where we gather around a coffee machine even. It just doesn’t happen. We’re in our own offices. And then, we meet for a particular purpose and then we separate again.
Bringing stress home
It is not uncommon for politicians to speak publicly about the impact politics has on their personal lives. For many, time away from family is what leads them to eventually leave office.
Our interviewees also spoke about this problem – as well as the issue of bringing work stress home to their loved ones.
You know someone told me once if 30% of the electorate doesn’t want to shoot you, then you are not doing their job properly. Politics is a blood sport and so it can get very personal and so I think that that has a significant impact on your family. A lot of members of parliament in public figures, their families really suffer as a result.
Maintaining any sort of work-life balance was near-impossible.
I don’t have weekends anymore [or] public holidays. I’m often juggling family time with work time. Often, I feel guilty about that as well. But yeah, certainly the guilt of leadership and commitment to the job can take its toll because of the time that it takes up, being available all the time.
Another interviewee - a federal politician - spoke of how they don’t have “control” of their days or weeks.
We spend 20 weeks of the year in Canberra […] there’s an irregularity about our work and a lot of it is reactive, we don’t have the control of our working lives. So, it’s not work-life balance, it’s work-work balance.
Political journalist Katharine Murphy has previously written about the “urelenting” demands of political life, noting, “the environment parliamentarians work in is a pressure cooker”.
The incessant nature of the media cycle, coupled with the personal nature of social media and mobile phones, means politicians can never escape their work. One interviewee told us:
Emails on phones were not a thing that existed when I first ran for politics. So [there’s] the idea that you are constantly available, that people can tweet at you, or Facebook message you any time, day or night.
This not only subjected them to constant requests, but also to anger and abuse, as other public figures - such as high-profile journalists – have also spoken about. As one MP told us:
I don’t blame people for expressing frustration, anger, or disappointment, but the political class, in some ways, have become a place where it’s legitimate to direct your anger, disappointment, and frustration in the most direct terms, and individually sometimes at political representatives on social media. And that’s really changed the landscape.
Who wins if politicians are overworked?
The politicians we interviewed seem to be devoted to their work and keen to do good for the community. They were not seeking an easy ride from the public, the media, or their opponents. Indeed, we need tough scrutiny of our political leaders for very good reasons.
But a political career also needs to be sustainable.
As a community, we need more understanding of the pressures and demands of being a politician, and a serious examination of how our political system functions on a daily basis.
As one interviewee told us:
I think people expect that their leaders find the job intellectually challenging, I wonder how much the community understands how physically and emotionally challenging leadership is, and the extent of the demand that it places, not just on the individual, but on their family, their friends, their physical health.
If our politicians are less stressed and less exhausted, surely they will make better decisions and be better representatives.