I have a few
comments in response to Stephen Luntz’s piece “On Politics and
Despair,” in yesterday’s Crikey.

I don’t know
enough of the past to take a categorical view on whether “politics is tougher
these days, and the support systems more stretched far more thinly,” as Stephen
Luntz suggests, but I’d be doubtful that he is right. Like many other areas of activity, politics
(and that includes political activism, not just politicians) is different to the
past, but not necessarily tougher.

In
some ways it is probably harder, with more public scrutiny and a higher degree
of gossip masquerading as matters of fact or substance, and perhaps higher
expectations, but it is definitely also easier in other ways, particularly the
resources available these days. Also, while separation from family is
understandably given as one of the harder aspects of many federal politicians’
lives, there is no way this could be as bad as it used to be in the days before
regular air travel (let alone email or even telephones).

I can’t give a
full listing of suicide attempts (“successful” or otherwise) from the past, but
I know there have been a few. I am certain there was at least one Senator who
suicided while in office 70 or 80 years ago. However, that in itself doesn’t prove anything one way or another, as it
would be fairly shallow to draw a causal link between such acts and the pressure
of political life, as there can be many factors – known and unknown – in each
unique circumstance.

In regard to his
mention of my “well publicised problems with alcohol and depression” – firstly
there was certainly a lot of publicity, but that doesn’t mean all of it was
correct. Secondly, regardless of what a
News Limited journalist may have written as recently as last weekend, I first
sought professional help many years ago, well before I entered politics – and
like many people with depression, I have still been able to work effectively in
my job over many years.

There is
certainly plenty to be depressed about in the political arena in
Australia at
the moment if you believe in honesty in government, the rule of law, fairness,
environmental protection and a balanced properly managed economy (let alone if
you’re a Democrat). However, much as it might feel nice to blame the harshness
of the modern political environment or being in Parliament witnessing John
Howard’s extremist ideological agenda for my “problems with alcohol and
depression,” I’m afraid my depression came along long before the Howard
government did (or even my getting in the Senate).

As for the alcohol, well
there’s certainly a lot more of it consumed around Parliament House and
surrounds than anywhere else I’ve seen, but I very much doubt that’s a modern
phenomenon either. In my case, it was
alcohol playing a part in causing me a political problem, rather than politics
giving me an alcohol problem.

I don’t mean to
dismiss the decent intent behind Stephen Luntz’s comments. It is important to ensure more support for
people trying to deal with the stresses of the political environment and to try
to act in a less harmful way towards others. I wrote at the time of the John
Brogden incident of the harmfulness (not to mention hypocrisy) of the attack-dog
pack mentality that can occur amongst politicians and journalists around
specific people or incidents, and I would be very surprised if this phenomena
was as bad in the past.

Parliament already has far too many people in it who are
basically disconnected from humanity – partly as a coping mechanism – and we
don’t want that problem to get worse. However, I don’t
think we should think that things were a breeze in the past by comparison, and
nor should we assume that every psychological ailment that befalls a politician
is all the fault of politics.

Peter Fray

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