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Federal

Jun 19, 2009

Baby in the chamber: the ugly anti-family face of parliament

Our Parliamentary standards are still stuck in a Victorian era of old white male legislators, writes Bernard Keane.

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Politics has to be, perhaps along with long-distance road transport, one of the least family-friendly occupations in the country.

Even your average backbench Federal MP works long hours. They’re away in Canberra 19-20 weeks of the year, and with a long schedule of electorate events and duties when they’re back home. Ministers, shadow ministers and swing vote senators, who have to get their heads around every piece of legislation and work out whether to back it or amend it, work even harder.

This time of year, the last sittings before the winter recess, are particularly intense.

Sarah Hanson-Young is to be commended for having her child with her in the chamber yesterday. It was for a division, not a debate, and her daughter was about to leave to return to Adelaide.

Instead there has been some remarkable vitriol, particularly on radio, and from at least one of her colleagues, Barnaby Joyce, who accused her of pulling a stunt. That was one of the lowest jibes I’ve seen in this place for a while. The distraught look on Hanson-Young’s face as a staffer took her daughter outside didn’t look much like a stunt.

You can accuse politicians of being greedy and self-serving all you like — after all it’s one of our national sports — but here are some views from the coal-face.

Greg Hunt is one of the youngest members of the Coalition’s leadership group. He has a young daughter and his wife is expecting a baby shortly. He thought the treatment of Hanson-Young was crazy. “The nature of the job is that it is very long hours, seven days a week,” he told Crikey.

“It is hard on MPs and their staff. But the flipside is that you do have some flexibility as your own boss. I take my young daughter around to electorate events where they’re suitable and she wants to go, and she behaves perfectly even when she’s a bit grumpy, so I get to spend time with her.”

Hunt also says Turnbull and Opposition Whip Alex Somlyay emphasise to MPs that family comes first. “On Sunday night, I was at the airport [to fly to Canberra], it was going to be a big week on renewables issues, and my wife called me to say she was at the hospital and maybe experiencing some early contractions. We let Alex and Malcolm know and they were happy for me to remain home until Wednesday (the new addition to the Hunt family decided the time wasn’t right yet). When I returned, the Speaker was very understanding as well.”

“They should have been delighted to have a child in the Senate, and let her play with the President’s gavel.”

What Hunt didn’t say was that, while he was absent, Kevin Rudd had a go at him for not being there to ask about renewables issue. Rudd probably didn’t know Hunt’s circumstances, but it shows how the rough-and-tumble of partisan debate can go.

Natasha Stott-Despoja, who was in the Senate for nearly 13 years, four of them as a mum, knows first-hand the family-unfriendliness of the Senate and was instrumental in having the Senate standing order on “strangers” — non-senators — in the chamber so that it didn’t apply to breastfeeding mothers. She said she’d been stunned by the vitriol directed at Hanson-Young on radio. “There was no question it was an overreaction by the President, as there is flexibility for this sort of thing to be accommodated. But it is symbolic of the family-unfriendly nature of Parliament when it comes to balancing work and family.”

“Politicians work extraordinarily long hours. Often I’d go into the building at seven and not leave till midnight. Every workplace is different but in that time, some interaction with your family is not unreasonable — in fact it’s humanising. I had full-time child-care, because it’s the nature of the job, but when you’re four minutes away from a crucial division it’s not unreasonable. To see this just breaks my heart.”

Stott-Despoja was unsurprised that Barnaby Joyce had attacked Hanson-Young. “I’m not surprised that politicians who are the biggest advocates of family value are the first to criticise. A lot of male MPs are happy to use their families for promotional purposes — in fact we’ve all done that — but not so interested in the pointy end of family life: breast-feeding, changing nappies, dealing with temperamental kids. But do we want mums and dads as MPs, or automatons who ignore or are ordered to ignore their families? We’re multi-faceted and human. And I know politics is not an environment you want to expose children to on a regular basis. I’ve seen plenty of bad behaviour and Senate antics. But when I needed to take my baby into the chamber it was always met with understanding from other senators.”

To his credit, President John Hogg put out a statement last night indicating that “he could have handled the situation in relation to Senator Hanson-Young this afternoon better” and welcoming a proposal for the Senate Procedure Committee to examine the standing order in relation to the issue, which he suggested is confusing.

The bottom line here, as Stott-Despoja notes, is what sort of politics we want, whether we want younger people, who are more likely to be in the their early parenting years, to play a full role in our political system or whether it should be confined to the childless and those who have older children, or men who aren’t interested in playing a full role in their children’s upbringing. The accelerating demands of the media cycle mean politics is becoming an ever-more demanding occupation, constantly consuming whatever politicians can offer and then demanding more. But our Parliamentary standards are still stuck in a Victorian era of old white male legislators. This is the place, remember that after a debate lasting an entire political generation, only decided to have a child-care centre on the premises last year.

There aren’t many young parents in politics and, judging by the reaction to Hanson-Young, we’re unlikely to see too many more. Our democracy and our politics will be all the poorer for it.

Do children have a place in our Parliamentary chambers? Have you say here.

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10 comments

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10 thoughts on “Baby in the chamber: the ugly anti-family face of parliament

  1. paddy

    Bernard, it might help if you actually told your readers what happened.

  2. Noel Matthews

    So much nonsense about this – who else would expect to take a young child to work? We all know that work places are not the place for children – at the least they are a distraction which prevents the parent doing their work properly, but more likely a distraction to other workers as well.
    Parliament House has an excellent child minding facility – does the Senator regard herself as so superior to ordinary mortals that she is entitled to ignore the rules that the rest of us obey?
    If the Senator can not do her work properly she should resign. Parliament is not a taxpayer funded child minding centre.

  3. Tom McLoughlin

    Hogwash Matthews, just admit you’re hopelessly out of your depth in understanding the overall work context. End of working week. Family turn up for the trip home. Head counting time, not debate or analysis.

    The fearsome attack on Hanson-Young is because she has wonderfully just broken through in the most natural and appealing way to the heartland of the major press, more it can be predicted than her pseudo doppleganger NSW senator Kerry Nettle quite managed. No criticism of the ex Senator, but being a family type young professional woman, she went straight into the heart of suburban voters.

    That sent danger signals to the major party pretenders and jealous types most concerned to freeze out The Greens. I’ve written already of the graceless and gormless on Sydney ABC radio post 8.30 am, and you’ve just added to it here!

    What I think is in order is a one of those PM Rudd, Mal Turnbull expressions of moral support for the young Senator. Really. As any gentleman would. Over to you Kevin, Malcolm. Time to show some class, yer reckon?

  4. psychology

    Somebody told Barney Joyce that if you won an Ernie you got a free subscription to FHM.

  5. Andrew Bartlett

    Actually Noel, Parliament House does not have “an excellent child minding facility” compared to many places. And MPs offices are a long way away from that, if you are just in the process of saying goodbye to your child when the bells ring for a vote on a matter.

    In any case, babies/young children have been brought into the chamber a number of times in the past. If it had never ever happened before, perhaps you could suggest it was a stunt – as some have very ungraciously done. But given that it has happened plenty of times in the past – in exactly this context, of a Senator simply having the child in their arms while everyone is sitting there having their names crossed off a list recording how they vote – I am amazed why none of those who now say it is a stunt have never said anything before.

    And I well remember one Liberal Senator having his young daughter jumping around on his seat beside him for an entire speech. I may be wrong, but I think the Senate President at the time – who did nothing – is one who is now labelling this a stunt. (I’m not saying he should have intervened, but it’s a bit rich to now say this is a stunt, just because it’s a Green that did it – especially given this was during a division (or vote count) not during a speech.

  6. Andrew Bartlett

    I correct myself – the speech by the Liberal Senator I was thinking of was in 2002, which was when a previous Liberal President was in the Chair. None the less, he was in the Senate at the time, and as far as I know, neither he nor anyone else publicly called that a stunt.

  7. navypti

    Parliament House is a workplace just like any other. In the interests of balancing work and family, it seems appropriate to me that Politicians sometimes need to have their children with them for any number of reasons, just like everywhere else in the workforce. Let’s leave it to the individual to make the call as to whether having your child with you is appropriate or not. Barnaby Joyce should wake up to himself. This was clearly not a “stunt” and would not have raised a murmer in any other work scenario. Little wonder people think long & hard before entering politics if this is what is going to happen.

  8. Hugh (Charlie) McColl

    If only the actual pollies in Canberra could “correct myself”. Tell us how it’s done, Andrew.
    Then put it in a very current context. What can any of Rudd, Swan, Turnbull etc. do about the bloody email that will be found not to officially exist? The media (including this one) will be all over this thing for the next week and not interested in anything less than a scalp hanging on the barbed wire fence beside this political dry gulch. Take a break and get over it I say. Come back to the house when you’ve had a rest. It’ll be alright.

  9. Liz45

    We’ve just come forward from the horrendous and cruel activities dished out to too many workers. I remember listening to harrowing stories of men, who naturally wanted to be with their wives/partners at the time of their child’s impending arrival, or when their partner was in crisis with a possible miscarriage – these men were told, that they could go to the hospital, but not to bother to come back to work. How cruel and vicious is that attitude in a so-called caring society. We’ve had discussions, an inquiry and a verdict re paid maternity/parental leave – and as a woman, mother and grandmother I applaud this positive step forward – not before time I say!

    On the other side of the debate, are anti-family/child attitiudes. It was hardly an urgent and important debate – that had apparently already happened. It was a “division” which is usually a precedural matter, and having a little person in the Senate, (who was being as quiet as a mouse – if only some adults followed her example) wasn’t in any way impeding the process! What a load of nonsense. Those who insist that children don’t belong in the workplace, either don’t have any, have never been in the position of them being ill, or some other urgent family crisis, or, like politicians, spend so much time away from home, that time spent with their kids are precious. I have no problem with children in either house in the Parliament. Of course, if they’re crying or in some other way creating some disturbance, that’s a different matter. This little cherub was a delight.

    Those who suggest that politicians with kids shouldn’t stand for Parliament, or, being a woman, this young woman should stay at home during her child-bearing years/responsibilities are arrogant and also flouting the laws re discrimination. If males were the primary care givers, or expected to be, there’d be adequate child care in every workplace, particularly places like Parliament House. It is ludicrous that there isn’t one. Adequate bars, eating places and a well stocked gym I believe, but no child care facilities?
    We’re supposed to be enlightened re the needs of the child, and how important time spent with both parents is. Nobody would suggest, that areas of employment that are mostly held by women should insist on such impractical, intolerant and dogmatic rules – there’d be no teachers, nurses, women police officers if primary care givers were not allowed to work outside the home.

    I only wish there were more women, mothers in Parliament in the 60’s and 70’s when I was raising my 3 sons. My generation mightn’t have had to wait for 20-40 yrs for common sense, peoples’ needs and most importantly, sufficient insight and education to further the employment prospects of women, and the corresponding care and education of the nations’ children. It often seems, that using phrases such as “little children are sacred” is just jingoism that suits political and not human needs!

    I think politicians should have to study the behaviour of 2 yr olds before taking their places in Parliament – who knows, we may see a marked improvement in their manners and general behaviour???

  10. roothie

    thanks for writing this article. i was reading something about this on another site and just looking at the bulk of the comments there (similar to N.Matthews above) was just irritating. comments there also reflected the tone of the article.

    it is ridiculous that some people feel that politicians live in a separate sphere from others, that kids and other family/personal issues do not exist outside their workplace – as though you can shut off these things once you step into the office.

    it is not just the ugly anti-family face of parliament, but of those who think that bringing a child to work equals incompetence.

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