Former MPs speak of unemployment, grief, and challenges post-politics
Adjusting to life after politics can be deeply distressing and financially taxing for many former members of parliament, a new Deakin study shows.
Those who struggle with the transition can experience significant psychological and financial hardship as they reinvent their identities and look for work and fresh purpose in their lives.
The newly published report, commissioned by the Parliament of Victoria and the Victorian Parliament Former Members' Association (VPFMA), is the first to detail the experiences of Victorian MPs in their transition to life after parliament. It describes the challenges that can last for many years after leaving parliament, including the inability to gain meaningful work, mental health issues, relationship breakdowns, and under-employment.
The report's lead author, Dr Amy Nethery, from Deakin's School of Humanities and Social Sciences, said for many MPs their time in Parliament was the pinnacle of their professional lives. While most choose to leave their parliamentary role at a time of their choosing, she said about 45 per cent find the end both unexpected and deeply shocking.
"MPs who leave parliament unexpectedly can feel a deep grief response, in the sense that they have irretrievably lost their identity, sense of purpose, and status," Dr Nethery said.
As one former MP reported: I'm still devastated…two years [later]…I think the thing that's the toughest is I've not been able to move on…I feel damaged.
In Victoria, the average parliamentary career is two terms, or eight years. Since 1999, 55 per cent of members have retired from Parliament, while 45 per cent left unexpectedly. Most of those who lost their seat did so through electoral loss or loss of preselection. Dr Nethery and her team surveyed 93 former MPs, and interviewed 39, for the report.
"A lot of attention is paid to parliamentarians on entry to parliament, and during their term, but there is little research on former members after they have left parliament," Dr Nethery said.
"One of their greatest difficulties is establishing a post-parliamentary career and identity. The stereotype of former MPs being 'parachuted' into lucrative roles does not correspond with the experience of most.
"In fact, they can encounter incredible difficulties finding work, including discrimination on the basis of their previous career."
One former MP noted: The very first recruiter I went to…said to me, you are absolutely the perfect fit, but I'm not going to waste your time and put you forward…[because] you weren't a backbencher. You were a minister. That makes you poison.
Dr Nethery said establishing a new career was especially difficult for women whose time in parliament often marked the peak of their earning potential.
"When former MPs are not able to establish new careers, their considerable skills are lost. The difficulties MPs face in their life post-parliament create a disincentive for our best and brightest to choose a career in politics," Dr Nethery said.
VPFMA President, Peter Loney, said that while there is a general perception that former MPs are 'set for life' with no financial problems, the reality was post-parliamentary life can be very stressful.
"We were concerned about the welfare of former MPs, and in 2016 established a Support and Wellbeing Subgroup which gave us first-hand knowledge of the issues they face returning to a 'normal' life," Mr Loney said.
"Many feel abandoned by their electorates, seeing invitations dry up and ignored by people they had regularly dealt with before. Many will feel a loss of status and perhaps, in their eyes, become forgotten members of the community they served.
"We realised better support measures were needed. This research will inform that process and help us establish a well-coordinated support structure."
Chair of the VPFMA Support and Wellbeing Subgroup Andrea Coote said speaking to members who had lost their seats following the 2018 election was a salutary experience.
"We were overcome by the raw emotion, anger, distress and depression of those who had left parliament involuntarily," Ms Coote said.
"The Deakin University report, Transitioning to Life After Parliament, will give recognition to the very real issues faced by former MPs and lay the foundations for a better system to be established in the future."
Dr Nethery said it was an important democratic principal that where possible, all unnecessary barriers and disincentives to pursuing a career in politics should be removed.
"The report includes a number of recommendations designed to better support MPs during and after they leave parliament," Dr Nethery said.
"These recommendations will establish internationally best-practice supports for former MPs and ensure they continue to contribute to their full potential in post-parliamentary life."
The ten recommendations include:
- Implementation of a Parliamentary Career Support Program
- Introduction of a formal event to celebrate and thank former MPs for their services, including an opportunity for defeated MPs to make a valedictory speech
- Summon a new Parliament to open in February following a general election
- Improve electorate office audits
- Provide psychological counselling to former MPs on an ongoing basis on the recommendation of a general practitioner or registered psychologist
- Formally recognise the Victorian Parliamentary Former Members Association via a resolution of the Parliament
- Parliament should build relations with Executive recruitment agencies
- Parliament should provide outgoing MPS with a testimonial of their career in parliament
- Parliament should provide capped financial support for FMPs to complete a qualification during their time in Parliament or within two years of leaving
- Parliament should initiate conversations with professional accreditation bodies to waive accreditation conditions for MPs