By JAMILA RIZVI
Jessica Rudd, the daughter of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has described working in Parliament House as akin to the movie Mean Girls. You know, the one about bitchy high school behaviour, cliques and general schoolgirl nastiness.
Given the past three years Jess and her family have had to endure, I’m not at all surprised that this comparison resonates for her. Frankly, I can’t imagine the emotional rollercoaster the Rudd family have ridden for the past three years.
I was working in Canberra and watching it all unfold from the safe distance of my office. When he was Prime Minister the first time around, I worked in Kevin Rudd’s press office and I was working for one of his ministers, Kate Ellis, on that historic day when he was replaced by Julia Gillard.
Like many of his former staff, I stood in the courtyard when Kevin Rudd gave that famous final press conference before leaving Parliament House, with his shell-shocked family protectively surrounding him. It was brutal and gut-wrenching and many tears were shed as everyone stood and watched. Regardless of how you felt about Gillard v Rudd – watching the emotion in the former-now-PM-again man’s voice and face, was heartbreaking.
So Jess is absolutely entitled to her view of how Canberra works. It’s her truth and I would never try to suggest otherwise. But it’s a view that is shaped by the very particular and entirely unique set of experiences she has had in the nation’s capital.
In her regular column for women’s magazine CLEO, Jess laments the political ‘bitchiness’ that exists in Canberra.
She makes the offices of parliamentarians sound more like university O-weeks than places where decisions about the future of the nation are made.
“The corridors are a cacophony of scoffs, burns and “Oh my God, did you hear about…”s? Eye rolls are more common than smiles,” she writes. ”Wednesday nights are party nights, Thursdays are for gossip – who hooked up with who, who got so blotto they were barely awake for question time.”
Jess compares the annual Press Gallery Midwinter Ball as being like a school formal. “Today’s BFF is tomorrow’s frenemy. Everyone’s obsessed with being too fat and sharing their diet tips. Sugar. It’s all about the sugar,” she says.
As I said, this is the experience Jess has had of Canberra. Perhaps it’s the one she’s still having. The events of the past months would be enough to leave anyone feeling pretty jaded.
But. I have a different experience and a different opinion of working in Canberra and I thought that might be worth sharing too.
Because I know that popular opinion would have us believe that politicians and their staff are always fighting and a drain on taxpayer funds. I know that many people believe public servants are lazy. I know it’s popular to write off the entire city of Canberra as a waste of money, bound up in endless red tape. I know it’s easy to scoff at the ages of some of the people who advise our political leaders and to label politicians themselves, as lazy and self obsessed.
This is all too popular dinner party conversation around the country.
Haha. Too right. Why don’t they get a real job? Take a swig of cider. No wonder the country is screwed. Y’know? Someone pass me the butter.
It all makes for trite lines but it’s simply not the truth. It also does nothing to improve the faith that voters have in their political leaders (something which, if it were measurable, would probably clock in at an all time low right about now – understandably).
So, here is something else you should know: politicians from across the political spectrum work unbelievably hard.
I worked in Parliament House for almost five years and for the most part – regardless of their political allegiances – the politicians I came into contact with all got involved for the right reasons.
They take their responsibilities to the Australian people seriously and genuinely want to do the best thing by them.
Do they always succeed? No. Do they often get sidetracked with polls and press conferences? Yes. But is good will and determination to make this a better country their overriding motivator? Also yes.
It’s true that political staff are often young, idealistic and inexperienced. But that doesn’t make them sex-obsessed, shameless, lazy, or bitchy as CLEO editor, Sharri Markson suggested in her editor’s letter this month when she said, “the sex scandals in Canberra are insane… with all this infighting and extracurricular activity going on it’s no wonder some MPs forget why they’re in Canberra in the first place”.
Now some people, like in every workplace, are like that. Most of them are not.
True, there isn’t a lot of smiling in the corridors – mainly because when you’re a staffer or public servant you’ve got so much to do that you’re making a mental list of tasks, or you’re re-writing a speech in your head, or you’re running along next to the Minister, trying to keep up as they rattle off instructions.
Yes, young people are often in high level roles in political offices. But the real reason politicians hire so many young people is because very few people with families are willing to devote the extreme hours that are required to do those jobs effectively.
For politicians, high level public servants and their staff, 12 or 14 hour days are the norm. Sixteen hour days are not unusual. You don’t take a lunch break. You don’t go home for dinner.
And you generally sacrifice considerable time with your family, friends and loved ones to do a job you believe is important. You often sacrifice those relationships entirely.
Journalists in the Parliamentary Press Gallery work similarly long and tough hours.
Now this isn’t a complaint on the part of a former staffer. These are your elected representatives and their staff. It’s tax payers who fund those salaries, so these people should work bloody hard.
Moreover, working for a Government is an incredible responsibility and a privilege. And politicians and staffers have willingly and knowingly chosen a job which plays out at an extremely fast and unpredictable tempo.
But that doesn’t mean that the work they do and the hours they put in aren’t tough. And when important work is dismissed as the stuff of bitchy teenagers, it’s insulting to the thousands of people who are working their arses off in that building each and every day.
My experience of almost five years working in Parliament House couldn’t have been farther from the one Jessica Rudd or Sharri Markson have described.
Yeah, there are a few nights a year when everyone lets lose and has a few too many drinks. Show me an office Christmas party anywhere in the country where that doesn’t happen.
There is some waste, some debauchery and some frivolity in Canberra – as there are in every workplace. It’s not pretty and it’s not something to be proud of but it’s a tiny, tiny part of what goes on in the corridors of the nation’s parliament.
Question Time and the coverage of politics you read in the papers and see on the news hardly presents the dedicated, methodical, conciliatory side of our politicians. But the truth is that there is a lot of good work and a lot of good will that happens in Parliament House, far beyond the reach of TV camera crews.
The majority of the time, politicians and their staff are too bloody busy to be getting their Lindsay Lohan on.
Why? Because they’re running the country.
Author’s note: Jess and I have had a really good chat about what I took from her article in CLEO and the message she was trying to convey. Jess has written an outstanding response to my response (don’t you love the internet!) here, which you should really take the time to read. I am a big admirer of Jess and her writing. I’m an even greater admirer of someone who has the guts to be as honest and forthright as she is here. She’s one impressive lady.