Opinion: Booze is the habit Parliament just can't kick

Photo by Scott Warman on Unsplash
Wednesday 1 December 2021

By Mark Kenny

A version of this article was originally published by The Canberra Times.

Not so long ago, I received an invitation from a federal minister to drop in for a chat about a policy area I'd been critical of.

A late afternoon timeslot was proposed, when both houses were sitting but the bulk of formal ministerial meetings for the day would be done.

In the nation's CBDs, professionals would have mostly clocked off at this time, but in Parliament House, nobody had left.

Upon being ushered into the ministerial suite, I gladly accepted a glass of red.

The ministerial "chat" followed a familiar path. A slightly wooden discussion soon shed its formality and took on a more natural, even convivial air. Productive, too, because I suspect we were both sufficiently disinhibited to speak plainly and directly.

Since opening in 1988, Parliament House probably has hosted a million late meetings, and alcohol is not uncommon.

The beturfed "house on the hill" might have been built deliberately underground so as to enable the people to walk above their representatives (pre-security concerns), but that doesn't mean its culture should be subterranean too.

"Alcohol is not everything - it may not even be the main thing - but it does enable other excesses."

Yet it persists as a house apart, divided not just against itself, but against the community standards its lawmaking purports to reflect.

Working life on Capital Hill is sui generis - of its own special character. Its exceptionalism derives from many sources. Its pressured, hypercompetitive atmosphere, its famous and powerful people, and their extended hours of toil.

These are the ingredients of a strange and internally referential politic.

Add to that power imbalances, undiluted ambition, its blokish adversarialism, a stubborn underrepresentation of women at senior levels, and the preconditions exist for a skewed reality.

While Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins listed these and other characteristics as causative, it is arguably the disinhibiting effects of alcohol that can be most immediately targeted.

Few other workplaces, outside the hospitality industry itself, accept the simultaneous function of work responsibilities and alcohol consumption.

As respondents to the Jenkins inquiry noted, MPs, senators and ministers can sit around in plush suites with staff and drink to the point where they certainly could not drive, and yet still attend the chamber when the bells ring to vote on important legislation - bills that matter to ordinary people, to national security, to industry, and to citizens' rights and entitlements.

Back in their offices, the lines between work and non-work, boss and subordinate, are habitually blurred. Political allegiances, power struggles, and the pressures associated with political crises further confuse.

Industry and community standards have moved on. But Parliament believes itself to be different.

The non-members' bar was closed decades ago to make way for a childcare facility. As a reflection of a changing society and economy, that was a good start.

Yet almost every office still has its own supplies - and that includes Press Gallery bureaus, where bar fridges abound.

That it took serious allegations of assault and the widespread testimony of endemic sexual harassment to drive change is telling.

Alcohol is not everything - it may not even be the main thing - but it does enable other excesses. Recognising that does not make someone a wowser, even if saying it is hard.

As to any detailed outcomes from my ministerial discussion, I can't fully remember.

Mark Kenny is a political analyst for The Canberra Times. He is a professor at the ANU Australian Studies Institute and host of the Democracy Sausage podcast. 

Updated:  7 December 2021/Responsible Officer:  Institute Manager/Page Contact:  Institute Manager