Should We Care If Politicians Might Commit Suicide?
An Australian MP under investigation for misuse of union resources has asked the media if it’s trying to “push him to the brink” of suicide.
Labor MP Craig Thomson is under multiple investigations over claims he misused a union-issued corporate MasterCard. This includes allegations he used it to pay for prostitutes.
A tabloid television news show has confirmed that it has agreed to pay a Sydney prostitute who claimed to identify the federal MP in the range of US $60,000 if the interview went to air.
Last week, Thomson gave a rambling, hour-long declaration of innocence to parliament in which he broke down several times (pictured).
The Australian governing party relies on Independent MPs for a majority, so Thomson’s fate has become a highly politicized matter. However, Opposition leader Tony Abbott has come under pressure to ease off not just because of fears about Thomson’s obvious emotional condition, but because of a history of Australian politicians attempting or succeeding at suicide.
In 1997, Senator Nick Sherry was found on the floor of his Canberra flat in a pool of blood, having tried to take his own life after a scandal over travel allowances.
In 2000, Labor MP Greg Wilton was found by police distressed in his car with his two young children. His marriage had only recently ended.
There was never any evidence that Wilton planned to harm his children, but the tabloids nevertheless reported the incident as an attempted “murder-suicide.” They “subjected this young man to national humiliation,” said Liberal Victorian premier Jeff Kennett.
Some weeks later, Wilton did kill himself. An entire parliamentary day was set aside for condolence speeches. Members of Parliament wept openly in the House chamber.
In 2005, Liberal MP John Brogden made a suicide attempt after tabloid media reported on him “jokingly” suggesting a threesome to two women at a Christmas party.
In 2008, Tasmanian politician Paula Wriedt tried to kill herself after tabloid coverage of her marriage breakdown and alleged affair led to sexist slurs against her on a top-rated sports show.
In a sign that both sides of Australian politics may have actually learned from past events, there are reports that Thomson may be allowed by parliament to take stress-related leave.
An opposition MP who is a doctor has expressed his concern for Thomson’s mental state. Mal Washer said that other MPs owed Thomson a “duty of care.” He said:
He’s under tremendous pressure. He’s got a young child and a wife so we’ve got to take all those things into consideration.
Our party sees this as an opportunity to give the Labor Party some grief, but it’s a very unfortunate, I think, thing to witness from my point of view.
There is little sympathy in the media, with conservative commentator Andrew Bolt saying, “a politician too fragile to be held to account should quit,” and The Australian (a Murdoch-owned national newspaper) ran with the headline: “Craig Thomson is the suicide bomber’s vest, wrapped tightly around the Prime Minister and the Labor Party.”
Writing for the non-Murdoch owned Sydney Morning Herald, Katharine Murphy also defends the media, writing:
Holding Thomson accountable isn’t being a lynch mob, provided the reporting is straight and fair, acknowledges his denials, and is proportionate to the facts.
I don’t know if Thomson did these things or not. But I do know that it’s my job to ask the question.
Seasoned ABC News political reporter Barrie Cassidy is cynical, warning:
The alarm bells are ringing again. They can all hear them, in the Parliament and in the media. But as we have seen so often in the past, precious few are heeding them.
Are politicians owed a “duty of care”? Should the media pay heed to warning signs for suicide? What do you think?
Picture: ABC TV screengrab