On New Year’s Day I briefly attended
sessions for environmental activists on moving “from despair to empowerment.”
Burnout is a bit of an occupational hazard for environmentalists. For every
precious wilderness saved half a dozen disappear into the maw of the
wood chipping machine or beneath the endless bitumen. Worse, Global Warming
threatens to destroy the ecosystems of even those areas won as National Parks
through great pain.

Consequently these courses have become very
refined, with highly trained facilitators and books of rituals. Sitting in the
circle I started to ponder, “What does the other side do? How do Liberal and
Labor politicians deal with their despair?”

Some would consider the question
irrelevant. Activists might suspect that their opponents win so much they have nothing to
despair over. Eager young Liberals would consider acknowledging the threat of
burnout as the epitome of wimpdom.

I disagree. State Liberal MPs know plenty
about the pain of endless defeats – and not just at election time. Every
opinion poll must feel like a hammer blow. It’s probably little better in the
federal ALP. Now the parties have become so close governments seldom implement
policies that arouse visceral pain in the other major party, although the IR
laws would provide an exception. Still, personal defeats can cut as deep as the
destruction of things we love, and losing an election can be the ultimate
affront, even if your opponent is unlikely to do much you wouldn’t.

It would make sense then if those on the
opposition benches, and those with thwarted ambitions on the government side,
run the risk of the breakdown and burnout that the workshop I went to was
designed to fight.

MPs have rather larger incomes than
activists, and can presumably afford the best counselling money can buy.
Individual solutions presumably suit them better too. Those of a religious bent
no doubt get comfort not only from their faith, but also from the church
community. If the question is only “how do the pollies get through their dark
nights of the soul?” it’s not a particularly interesting one.

I wonder, however, whether the question
shouldn’t be “Will they continue getting through?” True, the Liberal and
Labor parties have been around for quite a while, and until now their
representatives have managed OK. However, in the last decade we’ve seen Greg
Wilton’s death, Nick Sherry’s suicide attempt, and John Brogden’s act of

One might add Andrew Bartlett, with his well publicised problems with
alcohol and depression, to the list – politically Bartlett is closer to
those who sat around the circle with me than he is to the Labor and
MPs, but the personal networks amongst the Democrats are probably more
like the
major parties.

Maybe my memory is failing, but I don’t
recall these things happening before. I suspect that politics is tougher these
days, and the support systems stretched far more thinly. I fear we’ll see more
such events in the next few years. Narrowly speaking, I doubt the major
parties could learn much from what I did on my holidays – staring at beetles and
feeling one’s place in nature would not only seem a total joke to the hard men
of either party.

However, if they don’t develop their own
ways of coping we may start to see an increase in the charcoal factions of
those too burnt out to continue to give politics their all, and the occasional
case of something much worse.