The Australian Parliament is the most majestic prison in the world.
Thirty-two hectares and A$1bn worth of isolation, Parliament House in Canberra is built into a hill in the Australian Capital Territory far away from the electorates most MPs represent. The complex operates like a city within a city, remote from the rest of the capital as much as from the rest of the country.
Members of the House of Representatives and senators spend all day with their colleagues, debating, voting, eating, talking, and socialising with each other. In the weeks when the Parliament is sitting, members see much more of their colleagues than they do of their families for days on end and have to fly thousands of miles to get back home at the weekend.
This voluntary confinement forges a kinship between members, even the most fearsome political rivals, that can probably only be understood by legislators in countries as vast in geographic spread as Australia. It makes bonds stronger, betrayals crueler, and grudges familial but just as it can bring out the worst in people, it can also inspire iron-cast loyalties and sincere acts of kindness and compassion. Former House of Representatives speaker Anna Burke wasn’t far wrong when she described the environment as “boarding school on steroids”. It is the other great Australian loneliness.
Former prime minister Kevin Rudd captured a sense of this fraternity in his resignation speech to Parliament in 2013. Reflecting on the sacrifices made and the immense strains placed on family life, he counselled new MPs: “Be gentle with each other.”
I was reminded of this when I read a story in this morning’s Courier about Scottish Parliament presiding officer Tricia Marwick and the Scottish Labour MP Lindsay Roy. Mr Roy announced earlier this week that he has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
Ms Marwick revealed that her political rival Mr Roy had been a source of strength and support to her during her own battle against bowel cancer in 2013. The Mid Fife and Glenrothes MSP, who was elected for the SNP but is now neutral in her official role, kept tight-lipped about how serious her condition was at the time.
But she told the Glenrothes and Central Fife MP and Labour man Mr Roy.
She told the Courier’s Michael Alexander: “Lindsay was one of the very few people I let know just how ill I was and he gave me his support and help as we planned and then won the campaign. I am proud to call him my friend. He was there for me when I was ill and I hope I can give him the same support now.”
She added: “It has been a relationship of mutual respect and our determination that, regardless of any political differences, our constituents always come first.
“This was best illustrated by our joint campaign to ensure the out-of-hours service in Glenrothes was retained, despite the best efforts of Fife Health Board to close it.
“I suspect that both Lindsay and I will look back on that campaign as the best thing we ever achieved in our political careers.”
(That is what I love about Tricia Marwick. She is the first woman elected presiding officer of the Scottish Parliament and chaired parliamentary debates on an historic independence referendum but she considers her greatest political achievement a fight for better GP services for her constituents. You can’t buy class like that.)
It might come as a surprise that people from opposite sides of the political divide could be such close friends, supporting each other through times when even life-long friends can withdraw into impotent silence, but it really shouldn’t. For all their political and philosophical differences, most politicians go into public life to do good. Sometimes they fail, sometimes they don’t try hard enough. Some become cynical or lazy and just enjoy the trappings of office, clinging to power for its own sake.
But these people are few in number, much fewer than the general public imagines. The expenses scandal was an inexcusable betrayal of trust and its lasting legacy is a caricature of the average MP as a self-motivated expenses-swindler. All the same. In it for themselves. Hand in the till.
This isn’t merely untrue, it is poisonous to popular engagement in the democratic process. It is why we have lost the human dimension from our politics.
Their priorities may be different and their goals might seem abnormal, but MPs and MSPs are not terribly different from the rest of us. They fight with their spouses, snap at their children, and bicker with their neighbours. Their doormats serve up the same bills every morning, their insurance company stiffs them just as readily, and they too worry about how to pay the mortgage, the car, and the holiday all in the one month. They fall in love, have affairs, get sick, and die. They succeed and they fail. They rise to the moment and let themselves down. They can be good people and awful people.
Jim Murphy is not the one-dimensional Labour cyborg of cybernat mythology and Alex Salmond isn’t an ever-looping Braveheart Vine. They each have many different, often contrasting, sometimes contradictory aspects and capacities, as do most people.
They are also, to be sure, people driven by ambition to undergo intense criticism and scrutiny of their public and private lives. That’s not normal but do we really want people leading our country who lack ambition?
Politicians are increasingly damned for failing to connect with the electorate, for being out-of-touch or not understanding the lives of ordinary people. I wouldn’t disagree with any of this. But understanding cuts both ways.
That’s not to call for a return to the age of deference or to abandon the great British tradition of scepticism about politicians and their grand ideas about improving us all.
But we can look to the example set by people like Tricia Marwick and Lindsay Roy and consider the words of Kevin Rudd. Politicians should be kind to each other and we should be a little kinder to them.