A hippy; a pierced potential anarchist dressed in varying levels of black and a guy in a suit walk into the nation’s most secure building… there’s no punchline. Just a plethora of security guards looking at you oddly and at least one lower secretariat who is very reluctant to give you directions to a private committee room located in the dark windowless centre of the House. It took twenty minutes just to get The Doc and his various bits of metal (piercings, belt buckle, lighter, jewelry, shoes… the list goes on) through the front doors.
I haven’t been to Parliament House since I was a child, and I’d forgotten the sheer extravagance of it. I remember thinking, at six years old, that the solid marble pillars in the main foyer were as big as small cars– I couldn’t stretch my arms around them and make my fingertips touch.
Twenty five years later and I’m amused to see those pillars are nowhere near as big as thought. I’ve grown into my country’s capital and walking past those massive monuments to wealth today, I feel nothing but an uneasy disgust. Solid marble and granite, polished woods and gleaming trimmings…
I spent five years working in public hospitals with peeling paint, tragically underpaid nurses and never nearly enough beds. I’ve watched office chairs used in place of wheelchairs. I’ve seen wards barter and borrow medical equipment that literally meant the difference between life and death.
And I stand here in a house of marble worth billions and wonder if, just maybe, our politicians taste a little bit of bile under their tongues, in that place where shame sits, every time they witness heels clack across this shiny floor, waxed to a perfection that mirrors their every step.
The first item on the agenda for today’s public hearing is a round-table discussion featuring not only Those Who Be In Charge but also a smatter of maybe twenty different organizations with some stake, say or opinion on the topic of bullying and harassment within Australian workplaces. They range from CommCare to psychologists to welfare agencies. While the discussion was interesting, I felt my frustration swell every time I heard the words ‘mediation and investigation’; and I wanted to stand and cheer and punch the air when someone finally got up and pointed out that meditation was essentially pointless if there was no issue to mediate… and that’s so often the case. As Darrell so succinctly put it, ‘ some people just need to stop being f*ckwits’. There were suggestions of jail terms for severe cases of workplace bullying, and the very logical suggestion that mental health should be included in HR assessments and be considered, in part, the responsibility of an employer as much as any other aspect of an employee’s health and safety. Someone also pointed out the anomaly in language and treatment when the terms ‘victim’ and ‘perpetrator’ are used, and the implied assumption of power and problems when ‘victims’ are routinely sent for psychiatric assessment as part of the mediation process while ‘bullies’ are not.
The Doc and I hung around until the discussion degenerated into the very crux of politics– money. How much bullying was costing other countries. How much it might cost our country. how much it would cost to assign someone in charge of fixing the problem. Percentages and facts and figures and blah blah blah blah blah. We slipped out quietly to catch up with Darrell… only to discover we’ve almost been sitting on top of him the whole time.
It stands to reason, really. The guy in the suit is allowed into the actual Committee Room itself to view the round–table, with all the other respectable people. The hippy and the anarchist are sent upstairs to view the whole thing from the press gallery. Probably where we couldn’t heckle the board or throw things at the speakers.
Even ordering a coffee proved an exercise in book-judging and covers and whatnot. The hippy and the anarchist, being the filthy smokers we are, request takeaway cardboard coffee cups. Denied. Why? The privilege of being allowed to carry a hot drink in the House is reserved for those who work there. For security purposes.
Which is all actually quite well and good. Especially considering we got our takeaway cups anyway. Guy in the suit interrupted the coffee cashier incredulously to tell her that we were with him, and he worked here. Potential weapon in form of hot liquid, procured.
Only problem being, of course, that Darrell- the guy in the suit- actually doesn’t work here. And nothing on his person– except the suit– indicates that he does.
Ah well. The three of us return to the committee room. Hot drinks discarded on the way. Just in case.
Attendance of the public submissions session indicates you agree to maintain the total confidentiality of the other speakers, and I certainly don’t intend to break that here.
But I’ll tell you what I can, what’s important. That Darrell spoke, and so did I. That I was in no way prepared for the sheer emotional magnitude of this. That the stories told, the strain in voices, the sound of sobbing echoing off the high grey chamber walls… this was heartbreak. Heartbreak and a sense of pallid, heavily breathing desperation and anger born of repeated dead ends, repeated disappointments from the governing bodies who were supposed to throw up the safeguard before it got this far.
Five minutes, members of the public were told in advance of this date. You will have five minutes to tell your personal story of workplace bullying and how it’s effected your life.
The closed and confidential section of the hearing where any member of the public could make a submission began forty minutes ahead of its scheduled time.
Which just added to the shock of being told that, instead of the five minutes people were promised, everyone here had only three minutes. Three minutes. Just over half the amount of time people had prepared for. When Those Who Be In Charge had forty minutes to their advantage anyway, and there couldn’t have been more than thirty people waiting, stressed and apprehensive, for their turn to speak.
A dull, disgruntled rumble trailed through the assorted crowd on the announcement of the time cut… the sound of whispered disillusion. But the people here are fighters, and they have long grown accustomed to the rules being changed, halfway through the game. And I watch as all of us– myself included– turn to our notes and reassess, reread and decide which paragraphs (none of them) are insignificant to leave out, when we squashed years worth of events into five minutes anyway.
Witnessing this feels akin to watching psychological warfare in action. Speaker after speaker is cut down, rushed through, the stories they’ve been waiting to tell for so long invalidated and not done justice. Tears roll silently down my face as a woman sobs uncontrollably, heartbroken, for a full twenty seconds. They don’t pause her time. They don’t give her back those precious few seconds to regain her composure. That annoying little silver bell rings right on two and a half minutes anyway… her tears have no effect on time.
to think of myself as a story teller, and in that room I heard people recount tales of tragedy and heartache that were sobbing and begging to be told, having been held in static silence for far too long. The experience stays with both myself and The Doc, the memory of it unsettling and distressing at the oddest moments.
It feels like cruelty. It feel as though it was little but farce, lip service… giving people a chance to speak only to cut it short, deliberately cause them to lose their place and fumble their words.
Wherever possible, pain and hurt and anger are better expressed than not. I’m so accustomed to having this place to lay down my words each day that sometimes I forget others don’t have the same.
And if nothing else, everyone needs a space of their own.