The dangerous parliamentary lifestyle - Out of the Cabinet

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Bob Hawke keeps active (NAA: A8746, KN13/9/83/92)

By Ian Warden, November 2011

Can we imagine a federal government minister having the time for a round of golf during a hectic sitting week in Canberra? Golf takes ages. Even for someone like Tiger Woods – so good they don't spend any extra time looking for mis-hit and lost balls – 18 holes takes at least four hours. Mortal golfers take much longer. William Wordsworth thought golf was a whole 'day spent in a round of strenuous idleness'.

Golf courses and swimming pools galore

A golfing Cabinet minister, then, sounds like an oxymoron. Yet in 1981 Cabinet records recently released by the National Archives of Australia, we find ministers and all federal parliamentarians being urged to think of playing golf and going for a swim during sitting weeks. The July 1981 Submission 4888: Pressures of parliamentary work – ministerial arrangements and members' health from Minister for Aboriginal Affairs (but also a doctor of medicine) Senator Peter Baume pushed for parliamentarians to be coached in 'good health habits'. One good health habit recommended was to 'keep active' and so the submission, prepared with the help of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, and the Department of Health, wanted parliamentarians to take advantage of the blessing that 'within 10 minutes drive of Parliament House there are 4 swimming pools [and] 3 golf courses'. And almost at Parliament's front door there was a lake, too. So let us, the submission evangelised, prod parliamentarians into leaving the stresses of their workplace behind occasionally and going for 'a walk by the lake'.  

Parliamentary lifestyles

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Hazardous lifestyle factors (NAA: A12909, 4888)

Submission 4888 addressed worries about the 'dangers' of the 'parliamentary lifestyle'. It diagnosed that 'Parliamentarians are engaged in a career that involves a number of changes in their lifestyles which … may adversely affect their health status'. They suffer, the submission noted with alarm, 'simultaneous pressures from a wide variety of sources, e.g. Parliament, family, electorate, party or media'. It noted anxiously that among parliamentarians 'There have been twice the number of expected deaths from cardiovascular disease … in the past five years'.

The submission made a miscellany of recommendations and Cabinet endorsed them with Decision 16364 of 14 July 1981.

Tall poppies

Before looking at some of the recommendations, we should note that Australians are said not to like tall poppies, and think their parliamentarians some of the tallest of them all, enjoying privileges galore. In 1981 there might have been considerable public scepticism, however unreasonable, about the proposition that there's anything unenviable about the 'parliamentary lifestyle'.

The media encourages envy of parliamentarians and the allegedly philanthropic benefits they enjoy. Perhaps fear of misguided public crankiness over the proposed enhancement of what was already thought to be a sumptuously cushioned lifestyle explains why the submission asks that with this 'package of changes' there be no press conference given and no 'media opportunities' taken. The submission anticipates that the package 'Could be criticised on grounds that [parliamentarians] are getting "special treatment"'.

In the submission the cramped, facility-impoverished and provisional old Parliament House (although blessed with delightful rose gardens for anyone with time to gambol in them) got some of the blame for 'parliamentary lifestyle' problems. Today, though, pleas that the 'parliamentary lifestyle' has awful drawbacks would face the added problem that people might think that lifestyle has been made even more gorgeous by a grand workplace. New Parliament House has vastly inferior rose gardens, but for its workers' health improves on its predecessor with, among other things, a fine gymnasium and an indoor swimming pool.

Sixteen-hour days

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Good health habits (NAA: A12909, 4888)

Submission 4888's recommendations designed particularly for ministers included the two weeks' leave Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser presently insisted they take being increased to four. It recommended that ministers really should take substantial, battery-recharging 'rest periods' during and after international travel. Then, 'even if they cannot work less than their 15 to 16 hours per day' ministers should be enabled to 'shed' some of their 'routine functions' by giving them to non-ministerial colleagues.

Get a Canberra GP

For all parliamentarians there was a need, the submission argued, for advice about good health arrangements and habits. Every parliamentarian should find a Canberra GP. There should be a booklet produced for parliamentarians that discussed the dangers of the 'parliamentary lifestyle' and gave suggestions for good health-promoting, stress-battling practices, such as using the amenities of a federal capital bristling with golf courses, swimming pools and lakeside walking paths.

Golf versus the 24/7 news cycle

If the submission and Cabinet's response to it seem a little quaint today, it may be that, hard as it was in 1981 for ministers and others to have four-week holidays and sitting-week play time, the tyranny of today's 24/7 news cycle makes these dreams seem even more improbable.

But in July 1981, Cabinet saw virtue in everything in this health-promoting submission. Cabinet noted that Prime Minister Fraser was personally committed to exploring the suggested ways in which ministers' parliamentary lifestyles might be made slower, lighter, gentler and healthier.

Each year on 1 January the Archives releases the Cabinet records that document the decisions which have shaped the social, cultural and political life of Australia. Following changes to the Archives Act 1983, the closed period for Cabinet records is gradually being reduced from 30 to 20 years.

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2019