The problem with bullies

Jun 02, 2024
Source: Getty Images.

Recently, I heard someone say that bullies never prosper. Now, I have a lot of faith in old sayings. For example, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, a dog is man’s best friend and a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Each of these sayings ring true to me. However, bullies never prosper, is an exception. In our world, bullies can and do prosper.

Bullying is intentional, repeated aggression that is perpetrated by a more powerful person or group on a less powerful victim. Basically, it is an abuse of power. Bullying is universal. It is evident in all cultures and at all levels of society, from the corridors of power to bedrooms and nurseries.

A national average of 9.6 percent of workers (nearly one in 10) report that they have been bullied at work. While a co-worker may be the one making a workplace unsafe or intolerable, reports are more often made about being bullied by an individual in a leadership role, i.e. a manager or a boss. A bullying co-worker may be sanctioned (or even lose their job), but bullies in leadership roles are likely to flourish because the power imbalance works in their favour.

As a workplace, Federal Parliament is no different from any other. While we expect our elected representatives and policy makers to be exemplars of fair and honest behaviour, an urgent review into the toxic workplace culture at Federal Parliament was required in 2021. The testimony of hundreds of parliamentary workers detailed the abuse, harassment and discrimination they had endured at work.

Bullies in Federal Parliament can reach high office. Our last Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, for example, was often criticised for allegedly bullying his parliamentary colleagues, especially female ones.

Liberal Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells and One Nation leader Pauline Hanson, Independent Senator Jacquie Lambie both described Morrison as a bully. Former Liberal Senator Julie Banks accused Morrison of being in control of the bully boys that hounded her out of Parliament. Former NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian also considered Morrison to be a bully and then there was former Australian of the Year, Grace Tam who frequently referred to Morrison’s bullying behaviour. Last, who could ever forget Morrison’s disgraceful public humiliation of former head of Australia Post, Christine Holgate?

Question Time in Federal Parliament has been called a political fight club. Broadcast live into our homes, viewers of Question Time are routinely offered one hour of politicians rudely abusing their colleagues while refusing to be held accountable for the work we elect them to do. It is difficult to imagine that happening any other workplace in Australia. Yet there they are, our leaders modelling bullying behaviour for all to see, particularly impressionable school groups watching them from the public gallery. Having made the trip to Canberra and Parliament House to see democracy in action, these youngsters are, instead, getting a compelling lesson about how bullies thrive in government.

Children learn about bullying at the feet of their parents. Parents who routinely threaten, belittle and criticise their children in order to modify their behaviour or to motivate higher achievement, should think very seriously about the example they are setting. Afterall, parents are their child’s first and most influential teachers – and monkey see, monkey do. In addition, we must recognise that domestic and gender-based violence in (and out of) the home has a serious impact on the children who live with it. A child who witnesses domestic violence and/or is threatened, belittled and criticised at home will threaten, belittle and criticises their classmates at school. Bullying to exercise control is what they know.

How any school anti-bullying policy or teacher can eradicate bullying from our classrooms, playgrounds and staffrooms is a moot point. Our schools, along with our parliaments and workplaces are microcosms of our society where bullying is everywhere. It is not good enough to announce that we (whatever or whoever that is) “don’t tolerate bullies” because, clearly, we do. We may not tolerate a dysfunctional or violent individual who is a bully, but we lionise powerful bullies, such as Elon Musk (Tesla), Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Donald Trump (former US President), Mark Zuckerberg (Meta) and Gina Rhinehart (mining magnate).

Perhaps there is no way to eliminate bullying, but at the same time, every student (or employee) has a right to feel safe at school (or in the workplace). So, what can we to do about it? Over to you.

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