In the bear-pit of the House of Commons, the Government and Opposition benches are precisely placed two sword-lengths apart. If that doesn’t tell you about the standards of behaviour expected of our politicians, nothing will.

Former Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, Julie Bishop, says she has witnessed behaviour that would not be “tolerated in any other workplace across Australia”.

Observers from other nations have been sometimes lavish in their condemnation of the goings-on in the nation’s capital. Matthew Engel in The Financial Times judged Australia the worst of all the “crazy parliaments” he had observed in 2012.

“The only thing the MPs can do,” wrote Engel, “is overthrow their leaders, which they do with great zest, in the manner of Roman slaves celebrating Saturnalia.”

Such is the public distaste for the taunting and name-calling that parents often use Question Time conduct as an example to their children of what not to do at primary school.

Is bullying getting worse?

In recent months, the standards of behaviour became a topic for discussion once again when Liberal Party women spoke out against bullying and the lack of female representation among party MPs.

With a Party ideology that celebrates individualism, rather than collective action, photographs of Liberal women co-ordinating their wardrobes to wear “Handmaid’s Tale” red in question time in Question Time created a stir.

This uncharacteristic outspokenness about their own colleagues may have led to the impression that the traditionally-bad behaviour is getting worse. But is this really the case?

Dr Marija Taflaga is a researcher in the School of Politics & International Relations at the Australian National University and has been studying this very question.

Taflaga says, over the past 22 years, aggression levels have ebbed and flowed. Overall behaviour (while perhaps considered unacceptable elsewhere) is now less aggressive than during the minority Government of Labor’s Julia Gillard.

Incivility, measured as a “ferocity index”, rises significantly when there is more at stake, trying to pass significant legislation, or during “hung parliaments” –  this does not auger well for the next six months until the next Federal election.

 

 

A change in tactics

Other factors encouraging poor behaviour are the televising of Question Time, which provides a more public platform for those who want to show dominance over the other side.

“The Australian Parliament has always been a pretty robust place,” says Taflaga, who has also worked in the Australian Parliamentary Press Gallery as a researcher at The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

Politicians’ behaviour may not be not much worse than usual, but what we are seeing is a change in tactics, she says.

“Both sides of politics have kind of learned to engage in a lot of trash talk … and then just pass legislation anyway.”

There has also been an increase in contrarian behaviour, with leaders “shutting” down constructive debate with “binary” responses to complex problems.

Influence of Abbott

Abbott’s skill at simplifying debate did make the parliament more aggressive, she says.

“One person is trying to open up a conversation and the other one is constantly shutting it down and that is what Tony Abbott was really good at. And he was really good at shutting it down under his terms, such as [saying] ‘Stop the boats’ or ‘Axe the tax’.

“That lessens the opportunity to have a civil discussion. It effectively increases the temperature because one side is still trying to prosecute their argument, while the other side is basically refusing to engage except on these really narrow terms.  And when you simplify things down, there is no nuance and it’s actually nuance that brings in the  possibility for compromise.”

While there are protocols to moderate behaviour on the floor of the house (even if it only forces withdrawals or expulsion after the event has taken place), it is difficult to grade conduct that occurs in the offices and hallways, because it is unrecorded and much of it occurs in private.

Liberal women outnumbered

Taflaga’s observations about the complaints of the Liberal Party women is that because there are so few of them, it is harder for them to change the culture.

“A woman who’s made it into politics is pretty tough. It’s a hard business to get into. It’s not like business or a law firm where there are the same kinds of rules that are enforced by a human resources department.”

Taflaga says research into female MPs in the UK finds that more than half of them say they faced gender discrimination during their selection or election.

“They thought that business was a tough environment, but they had excelled at it, but here they are in parliament and they are being treated systematically differently,” she says.

The Australian female MP complaints of bullying should be taken seriously, she says. “There’s a lot at stake for them to say those things. There are a lot of cultural and organisational pressures to not say those things – yet they are still saying it. So we should absolutely take it seriously.”

Politics not for the faint-hearted

In this, Taflaga is echoing the comments of Julie Bishop who, said: “I have seen and witnessed and experienced some appalling behaviour in parliament, the kind of behaviour that 20 years ago when I was managing partner of a law firm of 200 employees I would never have accepted”.

Bishop was commenting after MP Julia Banks cited bullying and intimidation as a factor in her retirement from politics.

“Politics is robust, the very nature of it, it’s not for the faint-hearted,” said Bishop.

“[But] when a feisty, amazing woman like Julia Banks says this environment is not for me, don’t say: ‘Toughen up, princess.’ Say: ‘Enough is enough’

Taflaga says she would like to be able to study whether a better gender balance would improve standards of behaviour and is looking for funding for this project.

Lacking the quota system that has boosted Labor’s female MPs to 46 percent, the proportion of Coalition women has slipped to around 24 per cent.

“A lot of women find the aggressiveness of parliament confronting. And we do know that women tend to find committee work, that more deliberative style, more to their taste. And, of course, there is a penalty as a female, for being seen to be very aggressive.”

What can be done?

Looking around the world, Taflaga notes that some differences help dial down the ferocity of other parliaments.

•  Shorter Question Time: Most of the bad behaviour occurs in Question Time, which is held every day for one hour in sitting weeks in Australia. In the UK, Prime Minister’s Questions are just half an hour each week and the questions are known in advance, so it becomes less likely to be “gotcha!” time-wasting.

•  More impartial speakers: Poor behaviour is encouraged by having partisan speakers, who are not even-handed in regulating the house.

•  Longer parliamentary terms: In the UK, terms are five years, compared to three years in Australia. A longer term gives a Government more time to govern before taking up the cudgels for the next election.

•  Engaging the Opposition: Find ways to allow the Opposition to make a more constructive contribution, in cross-party committees for instance, where they must work together as they do in the Senate.

•  Rearrange the benches: Rather than having opposing sides two sword-lengths apart, the Scottish Parliament is arranged like a horseshoe.

Taflaga says it is worth trying to get MPs to behave. “Parliament is always a tough business and it’s always going to be tough, but that’s not an excuse to not change things”.

Join the conversation

Is there a place for aggression in parliament?