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.
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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.