'I understand Tanya Plibersek's choice but I mourn what could have been.'

‘I understand Tanya Plibersek’s decision, I do. But I also mourn what could have been.’

Tanya Plibersek
Every now and again, things cross your radar screen around the same time prompting you to think about something in a slightly new way, even prompting something of an epiphany. And so it was for me this week.

First, following the defeat of Labor over the weekend, speculation turned to who would take over from Bill Shorten as leader of the Labor Party. My hopes were briefly raised on Sunday that Deputy Leader Tanya Plibersek would throw her hat into the ring, only to have them dashed on Monday when she announced she would not stand citing family reasons.

Second, the Atlantic Monthly published an article on Tuesday written by Brown University economist Professor Emily Oster entitled, “End the Plague of Secret Parenting”.

Oster wrote that when she set out to do research for her upcoming book, “Cribsheet: A Data-Driven Guide to Better, More Relaxed Parenting”, she heard one thing more than she would have liked: that parents feel the need to hide or minimize the evidence of their children at the office.

Oster went on to plea with parents (and their employers) to normalise parenting in the workplace, writing that “if mothers and fathers speak openly about child-care obligations, their colleagues will adapt”.

Then the epiphany came.

While, I certainly don’t think Tanya Plibersek owes it to women to lead the Labor party, I couldn’t help but mourn a bit for what might have been – which, I know, has been a self-indulgent theme of many of the post-election post mortems. But, please. Indulge me.

When we talk about women in power, many talk about the so-called  “theory of critical mass” and the idea that when women reach critical mass, around 30 percent is supposed to be the magic number, their presence changes the norms, particularly our cultural perception of the qualities, usually stereotypically male, required to hold power. It follows that politics — or whatever field — is then a more welcoming environment for women.

While that is true, there is another critical mass we need to reach in politics and every profession: that of parents with caring responsibilities, women and men, who step out of the shadows, cease to be “secret parents”, as Oster describes them, and whose very presence and ways of working radically changes workplaces and makes them more family friendly.

For example, can you imagine if a Minister took it upon him or herself to adopt the practice of “leaving loudly” in the midst of a presser because he or she wanted to get home to tuck the kids into bed? Or if Leigh Sales said on ABC’s 7:30 program, “We invited Minister such and such to come on the program tonight to discuss X, but he or she had a function on at the school – so we’ll catch up with Minister such and such at a more convenient time on our Breakfast program tomorrow.”

Some may find my alternate reality a bit delusional given the nature of politics and the supposed “demands of the job”. Still, I think it’s a useful thought exercise that underscores a point about the extent to which we accept the nature of Parliament as a workplace, or indeed any workplace, and the supposed “demands of the job” and believe they are impossible to change.

Which brings me back to Tanya Plibersek and her decision not to stand for the Labor leadership: it is another salient reminder that while women in politics in Australia and around the world are increasingly juggling their role as a mother with a career in politics, aside from some hard fought changes, such as allowing new mums to breast feed in the chamber and opening an onsite childcare centre in Parliament, not enough has changed for mothers — or parents more generally.

Last year, Resources Minister Matt Canavan labelled Parliament a “jail” for parents and backed calls for reform, including shorter sitting hours (starting later on Monday of sitting weeks so Parliamentarians can travel to the capital that morning rather than Sundays) and finishing at a time that allows them to travel home on Thursday evening. Conducting committee business, even votes, via videoconference was also suggested.

None of these changes sounds as revolutionary as declining to go on 7:30 “for family reasons” – though I do remain attached to that concept and I hope Leigh Sales might back me up. Surely Parliament can start on the road to change and lead by example?

At the end of the day, I know Plibersek’s decision was based on a sober appraisal of the world as it is, rather than the world as I suspect we would both like it to be – and I respect that.

But I can’t help but think that a female leader of the opposition who has young children and actively discards the shackles of “secret parenting” would have expedited the journey towards the world as we would both like it to be. As Oster says, everyone, including voters, just needs to adapt.

That’s the “what might have been” that has occupied my mind this week.

Kristine Ziwica tweets @KZiwica

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