Can politics get more family friendly? Yes, and it should lead by example

Can politics get more family friendly? Yes, and it should lead by example

Female politicians in Australia and around the world are mixing breastfeeding and politics in growing numbers. But aside from this practical and symbolic change, what more needs to be done to make politics more family friendly – and why would change benefit us all? Kristine Ziwica takes a look.

Remember late last year when Liberal backbencher Craig Kelly told Sky News he thought female members breastfeeding in Parliament was a “bit over the top”.

Well buckle up Kelly, you’re going to love this!

In the US, Maryland’s gubernatorial candidate Krishnati Vignarajah, a graduate of Yale Law School who served as a policy director for Michelle Obama, recently released a campaign video that features her (hope you’re firmly strapped in Kelly) breastfeeding.

And she’s not the first. Last month, Kelda Roys, a former state lawmaker running for governor in Wisconsin, also released a video that shows her nursing her son while talking about her success banning the use of BPA in bottles in that state.

Others who have mixed politics and breastfeeding as part of a global movement clearly coordinated to get up the nose of politicians like Kelly include Willow-Jean Prime in New Zealand, Icelandic MP Unnur Bra Kondradsdottir and right here in Australia, Greens Senator Larissa Waters.

We may soon add New Zealand Prime Minster Jacinda Ardern to the list, who announced her pregnancy earlier this year.

Beyond breastfeeding, what else has changed?

But while it’s great women in politics here in Australia and increasingly in other parts of the world can now so publicly juggle their role as the mother of a newborn with their role as a politician (and the change to allow breastfeeding in political forums has been hard fought), it does beg the question what, aside from this practical and symbolic change, has really changed to better enable women with children to pursue a career in politics?

ABC political commentator Annabel Crabb once famously quipped:

The weird thing about having a baby as a female elected representative is that it is – historically speaking – an offence only rivalled in seriousness by the offence of not having one.

Is that still true?

There was some discussion in Australia roughly two years ago that coincided with a bit of a baby boom among female politicians, which ushered in some changes, like women being allowed to breastfeed in the chamber. And Parliament House now has an onsite childcare centre, helping address a significant institutional barrier. A US survey of potential female candidates by the Brookings Institution looking at why women don’t run for office found that they were 15 times more likely than men to be responsible for the majority of child care.

But is that enough? Last week, Queensland’s Liberal National Party President  Gary Spence delivered his verdict, proposing yet more reforms to attract more parents, particularly mothers, into Parliament, including shorter sitting hours (starting later on Monday of sitting weeks so federal parliamentarians can travel to the capital that morning, rather than Sundays and finishing at a time that allows Parliamentarians to travel home on Thursday evening). He also suggested more committee business – even votes – could be conducted by videoconference.

“Suck the hours up,” was One Nation leader Pauline Hanson’s response to the proposed changes. Luckily, Spence’s suggestions received more qualified support elsewhere in Canberra, which may help prompt a renewed debate. Father of five, Resources Minister Matt Canavan, labelled Parliament a “jail” for parents and echoed Spences’ calls for reform. Queensland’s Labor Senator Murray Watt said, “Anything you can do to better manage time away from home would be very welcome for politicians’ families.”

Why a more family friendly politics benefits everyone

So why should we care about the work life balance of our Parliamentarians, who have more support and resources than the average mum or dad juggling professional and personal commitments?

Well, anything that helps foster diversity is a good thing, ensuring we have a broader cross section of society representing a broader cross section of interests. But further change would also mean our political institutions lead by example, which could accelerate the drive to transform all Australian workplaces.

Recently in the UK, female Conservative and Labour politicians joined forces to pass a baby leave motion for MP’s. After the motion passed, Yvette Cooper, who in 2001 was the first UK minster to take maternity leave, said, “In the end this isn’t about political parents or women MP’s, it’s about everyone. Parliament has to get its own house in order so that it can be credible in the more important tasks of getting everyone in the country to end discrimination, support families and demand more action from government.”

Excellent point. If we can’t get Parliament House in order, how can we get our policies right or ask our nation’s employers to transform their workplaces?

And that’s s a point former Senator Natasha Stott Despoja, who introduced Australia’s first paid parental leave legislation in 2002, a decade before it was enshrined in law, and who initiated a change to the Senate Standing Orders to ensure women with babies were not ejected from the chamber if they were breastfeeding, wholeheartedly agrees with.

“Our aim as policy makers, leaders, legislators and employers should be to modernise all workplaces to enable men and women to exercise choice so they can do something most people say they want to do – which is spend more time with family and loved ones,” Stott Despoja told Women’s Agenda.

“There is still a suite of reforms that can be implemented to create more family-friendly and flexible workplaces, including better childcare, more flexible work options, even breastfeeding breaks. Our parliaments can be modernised to better suit the work and family needs of their representatives – male and female – but MPs also need to pass laws and measures that assist everyone to exercise choice,” she added.

So while we can and should welcome the renewed debate around ensuring politics is more family friendly, we must also ensure any changes, and the more diverse representation they usher in, helps drive change elsewhere.

This is one of those rare occasion when politicians, while talking about themselves, are really talking about all of us.

Case in point: Tammy Duckworth leading change in the US Senate

Earlier this week, Tammy Duckworth of Illinois became the first US Senator to give birth while in office. Duckworth, a veteran of the Iraq war who lost both her legs in an attack on her helicopter in 2004, is bringing more diversity to Congress and has used the attention she’s received since announcing her pregnancy to champion policies to help all working mothers, including an ambitious plan for paid parental leave. (The US is the only developed country that does not require any paid leave for new parents according to the OECD.)

What’s more, shuttling between Washington and her home state of Illinois when her first daughter was still young, Duckworth realised there was no dedicated place to express breastmilk at airports. Last year, she introduced the Friendly Airports for Mothers Act, which requires airports to provide accessible lactation rooms.

Now a trailblazer in the Senate, Duckworth will not benefit from any changes to breastfeeding policy brought about by others – children are still not allowed to accompany members on the floor. If Duckworth has her way, this more than 200-year-old convention won’t last much longer.

Kristine Ziwica tweets @KZiwica

Stay Smart! Get Savvy!

Get Women's Agenda in your inbox