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What can politicians feel?

One might assume that a politician’s ability to feel decreases in response to high demands placed on their emotions. Despite episodes of public weeping (many leaders have done it at some time) who would doubt the need for career politicians to have a thick skin?

Nonetheless, I was particularly moved by Jan Barham’s valedictory speech in the Upper House of the NSW parliament (see Utube). She explained her inability to continue was due to personal ill health and deaths among family and friends, but was very reserved about conflicts within her own party that were a primary cause of her discomfort. Those who know Jan were not too surprised that she should eventually decide to move on, however it needs to be said that some conflicts within the Greens NSW were probably designed to help her along.

All professions are hotbeds of conflict of various kinds - competition for promotion and security of tenure alone would guarantee that - but organised politics seems particularly fraught. The very idea that professional politics is ‘organised’ belies the level of conflict at the core of modern politics. Indeed, as well as the team building, camaraderie and ideological commitment, ‘politics is war by other means’. Factional infighting and strong personal egos are unavoidable elements in the endless campaigns, press releases, party room meetings, local group meetings and personal interactions that comprise party politics. And then there are the parliamentary sittings that are probably among the less stressful activities in a busy political life. In such a combative culture, Jan retained (and retains) a continuing commitment to ‘doing politics differently’ – by encouraging consultation and bipartisanship within and across party lines, building friendships with political opponents, and reaching out to all her constituents. Despite all these very positive measures, which are actually Green party fundamentals, she eventually folded her tent.

We know that the negative experiences of betrayal, deception and isolation breed anger and grief - and should assume that an excess of these experiences did not help Jan’s cause. It was also moving to hear that so many other politicians subsequently confided their depression and ill health to her. There can be little doubt that cultural toxicity is bad for one’s health.

The colleagues who helped her along are best unnamed – to that extent Jan’s commitment to a low conflict style of politics should be respected. On the other hand the general lessons that can be learnt from this episode do need more airing.

One point worth making is that it is not so much what politicians feel that is important (and we can assume that they are pretty normal in that department) but what feelings they can allow themselves to express that is important. Excessive anger, rage and grief are particularly unbecoming in political life (despite their ubiquitous presence), and so most politicians repress these feelings. A public face that is mostly calm, measured and friendly is what we tend to see. This is true in all jobs that require interaction with clients and ‘the public’; politics, however, is particularly brutal on people that feel too much. Indeed some Australian politicians can be very brutal and we should marvel at their ability to deceive colleagues and supporters into thinking that they are actually kinder and less ruthless than they really are. Not all are fooled.

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