Coined by former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans in a press interview shortly after his retirement, Relevance Deprivation Syndrome is the term given to a feeling of impotence often experienced by someone who has left or been evicted from a position of power and influence and sometimes, their efforts to remain or seem relevant to ongoing events.

In researching this writeup, I've found a few scant references to Limelight Deprivation Syndrome which certainly sounds similar but I prefer this version, not merely for the context and quite humble coining of it but because it emphasises the nature of the syndrome. Someone that used to be not just important or famous but useful, no longer is. Their opinion was sought on important decisions, they were kept informed and people needed their permission to do things. Now someone else runs the show and things happen that they don't know the details of, rationale for and aren't consulted about. It's a bit like growing old and watching the teenagers smoke their heroin tablets and run on your lawn.

The coining of the phrase deserves a mention. Gareth Evens always had a turn of phrase, an excerpt from his retirement speech follows:

"It may have been better if I had not threatened to garrotte Bronwyn Bishop ... it may have been better if I had not actually got the F word into Hansard for the first time in an English-speaking parliament since the Earl of Sandwich quoted John Wilkes in 1783."

The garrotting thing didn't make as much of a stir as you'd think, this is parliament after all. In response to a snide accusation that he would throw something at an opposing Senator, the actual quote was:

"I think the risk Senator Bishop runs, if I might put it gently, is not that I will ever throw anything at her, but that one of these days I will quietly, deliberately walk across the chamber and garrotte her. That is the problem she confronts; not my throwing anything at her. Be that as it may..."
The press loved it because it sounded so cool, such great copy warrants affection and political commentators gleefully expounded over Gareth's knowledge of obscure Spanish execution methods.

Back to the quote that we're talking about though; Gareth Evans had just retired from parliament and as Foreign Minister, he had been mooted as the next Secretary-General of the UN but Australia didn't have the necessary money and influence and it fell though (the press reluctantly put away the moniker of Gareth Gareth-Evans). It seemed as if he was actually going to retire. I think this might have been before news of his affair with another politician broke out and his life was all very quiet at the time.

A journalist gave a fairly friendly interview and asked him how he was adjusting to retirement. He responded with the usual bit about enjoying time with his family and all that but then quite candidly confessed to suffering a certain Relevance Deprivation Syndrome, remarking on how he had watched a political announcement on the news and been momentarily irritated that he wasn't involved. He resented being ignorant about the reports and briefings that had informed the decisions and felt helpless to effect the situation. He went on to add that this sort of thing was experienced by all politicians to one degree or another and that it was necessary to accept ones new circumstance to avoid becoming something of an embarrassment.

He apparently somewhat regretted that candidness because he later said "The first rule of electoral politics, I’m afraid, which I’m prepared to offer as unsolicited advice to all 25 current US presidential candidates, is that if you have something resembling a sense of humour, save it for consenting adults in private" in an address at Stanford University.

I met the man a few years before his retirement and he was quite softly spoken, though it could have just been jet-lag. He came across as an old university professor, which probably isn't a coincidence since he's married to one and has an alphabet soup of his own.

Gareth Evans is still quite active in international politics in various low-key ways (head of the International Crisis Group, some UN commissions, several international NGOs) but his most enduring legacy to Australian politics will probably be the coining of this phrase, still beloved by political commentators and even more popular with them than what is still known as the Gareth Evans defence, "It seemed like a good idea at the time", which is another story altogether.

1. Australian Parliamentary Hansard, Senate edition 11 November, 1992: here
2. Stanford University address: here

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