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Suicide and workplace bullying: a father, a daughter, and thirty years

Bullying a co-worker, or any person, to death should be a criminal offence. Meredith Farmer

Submissions close this week for the government-ordered parliamentary inquiry into workplace bullying. The committee has been asked to investigate the prevalence of workplace bullying and asses whether existing regulations sufficiently deter potential bullies.

Few states and territories have a legal deterrent. But last year Victoria amended its Crimes Act to include bulling and cyber-bullying, making it a crime in Victoria to bully a co-worker, or any person, to their death.

Also known as “Brodie’s Law”, this is the legacy of Brodie Panlock, a 19-year-old waitress who committed suicide in 2006 after a vicious and sustained campaign of bullying by four male co-workers at a Melbourne café. Brodie’s father, Damian Panlock, has publicly said, “If this law had existed then (when Brodie was victimised), the vultures who caused our daughter’s death would be in jail.”

It’s hoped the parliamentary review will recommend similar laws be adopted in other states and territories to protect all Australians from workplace bullying.

Last month, it was 30 years since my father committed suicide at work. I was then 13 years of age. Bullying someone to death was not a crime in 1982, yet it felt like it to me and those who loved my father. So I see new government action as a significant event in our history. In addition to occupational health and safety implications, it is also of some comfort and validation to those who, like me, have lost loved ones to suicide due to workplace bullying.

Walter (Wally) Archibald Theodore was originally a printer – a “hand compositor” with an extremely high level of literacy. Born in 1935 to a poor family, he left school as a teenager to support the family when his father died, his dreams of educational advancement and sporting talent set aside for duty and survival.

I remember watching Dad at work setting type so swiftly it seemed I couldn’t see his hands move. If a mistake went to print, he believed it was his fault, not the editor’s. He would drill his kids on speech, grammar, and spelling. I was nine when he asked me if I knew what an ombudsman was; he’d grumble when newsreaders said Princess Highway instead of Princes.

But he was also extremely sensitive – and funny. Short but muscular and hairy, he did a superb gorilla impression, swinging from rafters. He gave great shoulder-rides to bed. We would sit side-by-side watching The Two Ronnies. He was a “bushy” and loved Walkerville and Cape Liptrap in South Gippsland. His nickname was Wally Wombat.

Carolyn and her father at Wilson’s Promontory.

Wally was made redundant by advances in printing technology. Even as a child I could see this was a great disappointment for him. I suggested he buy an old printing press and do wedding invitations in the garage. Eventually he became an armed guard of what I used to call a “money truck”.

He enjoyed the friendships he made at work, was generally liked, and took on the role of union representative. But Dad was unable to prevent the termination of a member caught with his hand in the till. A process of harassment began by some people at work, which included evening telephone calls to our home.

On May 7 1982, the last day of term, I played lacrosse in the morning. That afternoon, I received my best school report to date. I planned to hug him and tell him I loved him when I got home that night. Wally rang mum in the morning to tell her he had visited another depot where someone had snidely remarked “I hear you’ve got a pretty ordinary union rep over there”. Dad replied, “That’s me!”

For a sensitive person, this pain, rejection, depression - whatever it was - was enough to cause him to put his company-issued pistol to his head and fire. He did this despite a wife and family who loved him. My mother was bereft, faced with raising two teenage children alone, and a future without the man she loved. They planned to travel Australia in a caravan when he retired, but they would never become one of the grey nomads.

In the years after my father’s death, walking home from school, I would sometimes approach armoured trucks. I would defiantly tell the occupants I was Wally Theodore’s daughter, just to see their faces. I hoped one day I would see who did this to our family. I was certain I would know them by their eyes. Instead, I just saw kindly middle-aged men, discomfited by a tiny traumatised schoolgirl, daring them to return her accusing stare.

I still don’t know the names of my father’s “vultures”. Thirty years on, a middle-aged adult, I still occasionally freeze; I’m a young girl again who cannot comprehend what happened to her Dad.

The amendments to the Crimes Act, or “Brodie’s Law”, include situations where someone intends their victim to experience “mental harm” (s.21A(8), which encompasses suicidal thoughts and self-harm. Although the changes relate to this behaviour in any context, the occupational health and safety connotations are obvious.

In workplaces now, we often attend anti-bullying classes. Our attendance is recorded on our personnel file. It would be irredeemably cynical to suggest this is purely legal protection against vicarious liability for employers, who, accused of failing to provide a safe workplace, might argue “it’s not our fault. We told them not to bully their co-workers”.

So I hope that through Victoria’s new laws and by now extending this debate nationally, legislative change will reflect serious acknowledgement by employers that bullying can be every bit as dangerous in a workplace as a rickety scaffold.

If you or someone you know needs help contact Lifeline’s 24-hour helpline on 13 11 14, SANE Australia on 1800 18 7263 or the Beyondblue Info Line 1300 22 4636.

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