Kate Thwaites delivers her first speech in parliament

Men caring for kids cannot be viewed as ‘unicorns’: Kate Thwaites’ first speech in parliament

Kate Thwaites
On Wednesday Kate Thwaites delivered her first speech in Parliament as the new Member for Jagajaga. The “working mum with a 17-month old daughter” said she is proud to be one of a growing number of women showing it’s possible to be a parliamentarian and mother of a young child. 

She also spoke about the climate emergency, her career in journalism, the need to act on the Uluru Statement and the need to shift the balance on stay at home parents and flexible work

This is an edited extract of her speech. 

It’s important I begin by acknowledging Australia’s first peoples.

I pay my respects to the Ngunawal and Ngambri peoples, the traditional owners of the land on which we meet. I pay my respects to their elders, past, present and emerging.

And I also acknowledge that the seat of Jagajaga is on the lands of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation.

I grew up in Jagajaga. My dad was a local lawyer and my mum a local school teacher. Both instilled in me a strong sense of community and a curiosity for what else was out there in places across our country.

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I believe that progressive politics succeeds when we deliver these people security in their lives and hope for the future.

I also believe that the work we do in Parliament often seems to be at its most effective when we – the people’s elected representatives – move ourselves away from being the centre of the story. When we listen, open ourselves up to conversations, and give voice to the people whose stories have not been heard.

Back in 2002, my first job outside of Jagajaga was in Bourke in far western NSW, where I worked as a journalist at the local Indigenous community radio station, 2CUZ FM.

It was an eye opening experience for a young and naive white girl as Aboriginal people generously told me their stories, while also making fun of my strange choice in footwear. Birkenstock sandals are still my preferred summer choice.

These were the first of many stories I have heard and listened to from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Later in my career, when working for the former Member for Jagajaga in her capacity as Minister for Indigenous Affairs, I travelled to many remote communities listening to the needs and aspirations of our first Australians.

It is a privilege to have had this experience and to realise there is so much power in the story of our first Australians, the custodians of the oldest living culture in the world. Unfortunately, it’s not a story that many of us grow up hearing. It’s not in our lessons, and we haven’t all had the opportunity to listen and learn directly from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

But the potential is there for us all to appreciate and understand what is the greater, complete, national story.

Of course, for this to happen, we have to be honest about our shared history.

We have to walk with and listen to Indigenous Australians. And then, we have to act.

The Parliament has shown it has the capacity to do this, as it did when Kevin Rudd, supported by Jenny Macklin, delivered the National Apology.

More recently, the Parliament asked Aboriginal people what they wanted for their future. But sadly, when they answered, the response was muted.

The opportunity is still there.

We must act on the Uluru Statement from the Heart to establish a Voice, and we must welcome the voices and stories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to guide decision making in this place.

It is impossible for me to give this speech without acknowledging the seriousness of the climate emergency, and how its impacts are most acutely felt by those people with the smallest buffers in their lives.

I remember working in Vanuatu with Oxfam Australia and speaking with a young man there about climate change. He told me how the warming climate was already affecting the amount of food he and his family could grow to keep them all healthy. In fact, his story was powerful enough to shift the views of an older Australian man who happened to be standing near me at the time.

I do believe there is a climate story powerful enough to drive the action that allows humanity to survive and to flourish – a story that will allow my daughter and the generations that follow the opportunity to lead safe and healthy lives, and enjoy the natural beauty of this wonderful country.

A story that sees us doing our part to support that man I met in the Pacific and people like him, with funding for mitigation and adaptation, and an aid budget that is growing, rather than shrinking.

I am confident that Labor’s commitment to real action on climate change, with a focus on creating more jobs and more economic opportunities and a better future for us all, will resonate with Australians.

And I take hope from the passion and conviction of the young people in Jagajaga, and in communities across the country, who have spoken out and spoken loudly about the need for climate action.

I have also heard the conviction of the people and groups in Jagajaga who have spoken out about our need for a humane approach to asylum seekers. I believe this can be achieved while maintaining our sovereignty and our borders.

I want to also highlight two issues that have become close to my heart through my working life– the importance of a free and fair press, and the value of our ABC.

The eight years I worked at the national broadcaster were spent with thoughtful, intelligent colleagues, who took seriously their responsibility to tell stories that reflected voices from across our country; to make decision making understandable and transparent; and to hold power to account.

This work relies on the ABC being properly funded, and being free of political influence.

It is absolutely crucial that journalists – all journalists – are able to go about their work without fear of possible retribution or intimidation, sanctioned or otherwise.

Our identity as a nation and the freedoms we all value depend on it.

I stand here today as a working mum with a 17 month-old daughter.

I’m not the first working mother to be in this chamber – and I’m so pleased that I’m not the only one here now. As more and more of us come together in this place, I think we show that it is possible to be both a mother and a parliamentarian.

But it’s not easy, and this is far from the only workplace where women are still trying to figure out what it looks like to be the mother they want to be, and pursue the career they want to have.

When my daughter Harriet was born, I took nine months maternity leave, some paid, some unpaid. My partner then took three months unpaid leave to care for her. He now works three days a week, while I work full time.

I realised that our arrangement was unusual, but I didn’t realise just how different it was, until Daniel started quoting statistics from Annabel Crabb’s ‘The Wife Drought‘ to me, to prove just how much of a ‘unicorn’ he really is.

Only three per cent of Australian families have a part-time working dad and a full-time working mum.

Three per cent! We can, and we must, do better than that.

Because while this has a host of poor outcomes for women – lost income, missed promotions and a more uncertain retirement – it is also robbing Australian men of the opportunity to reduce their paid work to care for their children, and to experience the highs and lows that come with that.

Things have to change.

Labor started making it easier for parents to juggle work and family when we introduced Paid Parental Leave. It has made a huge difference in the lives of many Australians, but there is more work to be done.

I am convinced we need a culture shift in our workplaces, so that they are no longer built on the premise that there’s a wife at home who is the primary carer.

We need to address the bias – conscious or not – that after a baby is born it is women who will work part time before the children start school, who will carry the mental load, and who in some cases who will leave the workforce forever.

We need to tell a new story about the important role that men can play as carers at home, so that men who want to take that opportunity feel that they can do so – without being viewed as a ‘unicorn’.

We also need a childcare system that doesn’t rely on parents in our cities essentially winning a kind of lottery if they somehow manage to score a place in a centre within half hour of where they live. One where the value of early education for our children and the value of our early educators is clearly recognized.

I passionately believe that Labor has the track record and the will to make this happen. To build a society where men and women feel fulfilled in our workplaces and in our homes, and where our children benefit from this.

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