House debates

Thursday, 3 December 2015


Standing Committee on Procedure; Report

10:40 am

Photo of Clare O'NeilClare O'Neil (Hotham, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

I really appreciate the indulgence of the House to say a few words today on the committee report that has just been put before the parliament by the procedure committee. The report is entitled Provisions for a more family-friendly chamber. This committee of really terrific and motivated members of parliament has set out to explore some of the ways that we can make our parliament an environment where parents can feel that they can combine their work and family responsibilities in a more effective manner.

One of the provisions that has been recommended to be adopted by the parliament is that we allow breastfeeding to take place in the chamber. I am very supportive of this provision, and I am really glad that the committee has made that recommendation. I have to say though, I do not think that is the part of the report that is most important to me as a mum and as a member of parliament. The thing that I am most pleased about and most excited about is the recommendation the committee has made that working parents in this building be allowed to take their infant children into the chamber when they need to do so. People who I have discussed this with in the past have sometimes come back to me and said: 'This is ridiculous. This is a workplace. People are making critical decisions.' So I want to share a little bit about my experience as a mum, my experience of having an infant and being a member of parliament, in the hope that explaining it will shed some light on why this is so important for us.

When I was elected to parliament I had a little baby. He was less than three months old on the day that I was elected. From that point on, I basically went through this situation where we would come to Canberra for 20 weeks a year while I was trying to breastfeed my young son and learn the new job of being a member of parliament. One of the really crystallising experiences that I had was when I came to work one day and a division was called almost immediately. I was looking after my baby on my own that day—I did not have my partner or my mum with me; I sometimes brought someone along to help me look after my child while I was working—and almost the instant that I got into my office, a division was called and my baby started to cry. He was really, really upset; he was about five months old at the time. It was a division, so I had to run down to the chamber and vote. I had to leave my baby there with a staff member who had never had a child. When I handed the baby over, she honestly looked like she was going to cry herself! She did a wonderful job, but anyone who has been a parent knows that it is gut-wrenching to walk away from your own child at that early stage of their life. That is something that, as members of parliament, we are called on to do relatively frequently. I can think of another situation where I was carrying my baby through the halls of parliament, having just finished feeding, and again a division was called. I was standing in the middle of parliament with a baby, knowing that I needed to be in the chamber in the next three or four minutes.

It is these difficulties that we have been facing for a while here. I am sure that no-one would want to create a situation where new mums who are trying to establish breastfeeding, or new dads who are trying to develop that early bond with their child, have to throw their child to someone who is not really equipped to care for them. I am not the only person who has had experiences like this. There are lots of members of parliament who have had to do the same sort of thing, and it is in our interest that this sort of situation be prevented. This provision that will allow people to take kids into the parliament when it is necessary is a really important one for me.

I want to echo some of the words of the member for Ballarat in her contribution to this. The reality is that all families are trying to find ways to juggle work and childcare responsibilities. This is absolutely not something that is unique to members of parliament, and there are many aspects to our role as members of parliament that are more consistent with parenting than the roles of other people who face issues like casual work and not being able to plan child care around those sorts of things. Of course, as members of parliament we have more resources to manage our childcare responsibilities and our work, and we have a lot more flexibility than most people.

None of this is to say that the difficulties that we face are worse than those of any other parents and families trying to manage these, but we do face some specific aspects of our role that makes this difficult. We are away for 20 weeks a year, when parliament is sitting, and we are here from somewhere around 7.30 or eight o'clock in the morning until nine or 9.30 at night. Of course, having a baby or an infant makes things really hard sometimes. It is something that all families are juggling, but something I am really pleased to see the parliament taking some leadership on.

I think that is what we should strive for as a parliament. We should not be lagging in areas of combining work and family; we should be leading on that. That is because it is so crucial that we have a family-friendly working environment in, of all places, this parliament, so that people—and women in particular—who are of the age when they are having their first kids can make a real contribution to the public life of this country. Surely that is something that is of interest to every Australian.

I will make one final point. We face some huge issues with women's engagement generally in work in Australia. I read some really interesting statistics recently: there are more men by the name of Andrew or David by a factor of five than there are women running top-200 companies in this country; and there is a 17 per cent gap between the wages of men and women that is growing over time, not diminishing. One of the critical things here—the Pandora's box—is trying to find ways in which both men and women can get a balance between work and family during those periods of time when their kids are really young. I am so pleased to see that the parliament is tackling this challenge head-on.

I want to thank the members of the Procedure Committee for what is a terrific report. I really do hope that the parliament adopts the recommendations in it.

Debate adjourned.


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