Lessons of a brutal game

TOO often when a male politician quits citing ''family reasons'', it means one of three things.

TOO often when a male politician quits citing ''family reasons'', it means one of three things.

TOO often when a male politician quits citing ''family reasons'', it means one of three things.

First, his wife has given him an ultimatum to exit the game ''or else'' after discovering the affair he's been having with his electoral officer second, the press has discovered he's been rorting his travel allowance to spend more time with said electoral officer or, third, it's a combination of both.

Most politicians think they go in to the business with their eyes wide open, having been warned of the utter incompatibility of political ambition and family.

They know the risks but somehow they continue to convince themselves that, for them at least, it will be different.

A successful political career requires the support of an all-giving, all-understanding and all-forgiving partner. Yet the rewards for the partners are pitifully few: a slavish devotion to all matters domestic unerring patience with the unforgiving, exhausting demands of 24/7 solo parenting intense loneliness and a far greater-than-ordinary level of public scrutiny.

Shame. Shame. Shame.

Yes, shame and its brother, humiliation, are the most potent weapons in politics.

Few careers in public life survive the blowtorch of shame when it is applied to matters of personal indiscretion, the alleged misuse of public money or policy malfeasance that carries the faintest whiff of venality.

That is why the Tasmanian senator Nick Sherry is to be so admired.

When Sherry attempted suicide in 1997 amid a controversy over personal travel allowances that had already engulfed a swath of Howard government ministers, his plight symbolised everything that was - and remains - wrong with federal political life.

His personal isolation and the viciousness of the public attack on him (remember, he had done nothing illegal) conspired to terrible ends. That he lived was a profound blessing.

But Sherry not only survived politically. He went on to rehabilitate himself to the extent that he has served continuously on Labor's frontbench, through opposition and government. He is the most courageous politician I've come across.

Sherry's near-tragedy, of course, made our politicians stop and reconsider what was important. For about three minutes.

Then they ripped into each other again, until three years later when the Labor MP Greg Wilton killed himself.

The Parliament grieved amid the bitter, cruel realisation that political networks are no substitute for the genuine human kind.

Days later, the Parliament was again at its worst. It was then I encountered a well-known politician in a hall near the House of Representatives after question time. I knew her well. She was sobbing so uncontrollably I gave her my handkerchief. ''It's so disgusting,'' she said. ''I hate it.'' She is still an MP, having risen to significant heights.

Senator Sherry quit the ministry last week as he foreshadowed his retirement at the next election. The 56-year-old said that his age, his 21 years of Senate service (14 of them as a frontbencher) and his desire for party renewal were among the reasons. But not least, he cited his wife, Sally, and his three children - including seven-year-old twins.

Sherry has been a hard-working and effective minister. By virtue of his rehabilitation, he has achieved far more in politics than those who might go on to hold loftier ministerial titles.

He said neither his experience nor the Wilton tragedy had permanently changed the political atmospherics. ''Parliament has always been rough and tumble ? and it will always be the same, to be perfectly frank. Politics is a hard and difficult profession.''

Sherry said that long periods away from his Tasmanian electorate had led him, at times, to feel isolated from his community and made any sort of work-life balance virtually impossible.

Sherry is a rarity: he can leave the political stage citing, in part, family reasons. And we can all believe him. Well played.

And now, with such lessons unlearnt, we await 2012.

The new Speaker, Peter Slipper, and Labor's Craig Thomson, will come under increasing pressure on questions of probity as the federal opposition seeks to undermine the government's slim majority.

Thomson felt the strain this year. Friends and Labor colleagues were deeply worried about him. They should stay close, still.

And Slipper? Well, the Liberals and Nationals may be hard-pushed. For he is not quite as susceptible to the politics of shame as many others. Such is life.

Related Articles