Thursday, 3 December 2015
Standing Committee on Procedure; Report
I am delighted to speak on the Standing Committee of Procedure report Provisions for a more family-friendly chamber. I felt it was important that this report not go unremarked in this chamber, because it is a very important part of ensuring that we send a very clear signal from this parliament that we want to make sure that breastfeeding is available in every place in Australia and that it is not banned anywhere in Australia, including in our own House of Representatives and here in the Federation Chamber.
This report came about because over the course of many years we have seen a number of women and men who have young children in this place, and we have subsequently started to improve our procedures and our standing orders as a result. I am delighted to say that the report in particular has a couple of really important implications for women generally but also for families here in this place to enable them to continue to be able both to do their work as parliamentarians and also to continue to breastfeed or care for very young infants in the place. The first is that it lifts the notion that you cannot bring infants or small children into the chambers, whether it be for breastfeeding purposes or for caring for them. It also reiterates the commitment that was made back in 2008 for this place to ensure that Parliament House should be accredited as a breastfeeding-friendly workplace. We achieved that accreditation in 2008. I know the Speaker and both the Government Whip and the Opposition Whip were incredibly instrumental in making sure that happened. Whilst the accreditation is a yearly thing, I think it is something that does need some attention because some of the procedures in place, the requirements for separate rooms and the attention that is needed to some of those, have slipped off the agenda a little.
Much of the media attention on this report and in its lead-up was about the recommendation that breastfeeding be allowed on the floor of the parliament. If women choose to do that, that is fully supported by the recommendations of the report. I think it is important to make it clear that, as the report also says, it should be a matter of choice for women. What was removed from women was, in essence, that breastfeeding was banned from two rooms in this entire building. The principle should be that breastfeeding is not banned anywhere. Where women choose to breastfeed is entirely a matter for them, but it should not be banned. In essence, the procedures have done that.
The report notes that a number of members said that it would be their preference to use the proxy vote. Again, that is something that has been a very important part of the change in procedures for this place. It came about in 2008, when the government whip and the opposition whip recognised my own personal circumstances. It was an incredibly important part of my being able to not only continue my commitment to breastfeeding my young son but also continue to exercise my vote in this place. As the report says:
The proxy vote offers greater flexibility compared to provisions in other legislatures that require nursing mothers to either breastfeed in the Chamber or leave their baby in order to vote. It has been put to the Committee, however, that if the Parliament is to fully support breastfeeding, it should not be prohibited in any part of the building, including the Chamber and Federation Chamber.
That is an important principle for all places in this country. It is important that choice continue to be made available and that we not attempt to inflict a single solution on nursing mothers. The report also notes that the proxy vote is currently only available to women in the House. I strongly urge that this option be also made available in the Senate.
Of course, making parliament friendlier for women is not just confined to breastfeeding. Like parents everywhere, we have all had to juggle those sudden work commitments that make child care unavailable or difficult. We are incredibly fortunate in this place to have the use of a childcare centre—indeed, I was the first MP to use that parliament centre regularly—but it is still far from ideal, given that parliament on some days sits from nine in the morning until quite late at night. As the report notes, from my own submission, on occasion I did need to bring my very young son into the chamber during late-night sittings when other suitable care was not available. The flexibility shown to me by the then Speaker and both the government and the opposition whips allowed me to travel to Canberra with my son until after his third birthday. I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity that that allowed me as a new parent not to miss out on those early years of my child. The bond between my little boy and me has been absolutely strengthened because of the accommodations that were made at that time. Being an MP does require lots of travel and lots of time away from home, so trying to keep your baby with you so that you can breastfeed is certainly difficult enough.
This report stands on the shoulders of many. Often when you have your own children you see everything through the prism of what is happening to you, but there are women who have come before every one of us. Ros Kelly was, I think, the first MP to be pregnant and give birth. We then had Jackie Kelly, who was the first federal minister. We have since had many women, such as Anna Burke, and Jacinta Collins in the other place. It has become something that it should not be surprising we are trying to juggle. This report will, I think, be very welcome. The change in procedures will be very welcome. It is regrettable that it has taken until 2015 for us to actually do it, but I am glad we have. Hopefully the publicity around the instigation of the report will send a strong message to women on all sides considering a political career that they do not have to choose between being a parent and being an MP.
We want all workplaces across this country to be breastfeeding friendly. I strongly encourage all of them to become accredited by the Australian Breastfeeding Association as breastfeeding-friendly workplaces. Our workplace is no different and should continue with that accreditation. All mums must have the best possible support to breastfeed their baby in that first year, and that includes support from their workplaces. I am very pleased that this, which in essence is our workplace, has recognised that by ensuring that there is no ban—no prohibition—on where women can breastfeed their children and that, if there are circumstances in which you need to have your children accompany you because it is very late at night and you do not have any care, this place is available for it. Again, I encourage making sure that the breastfeeding accreditation remains up to date. One of the issues in this place is that no one department has taken ownership of the breastfeeding rooms in the building; also the family space down the end of my corridor had been neglected for quite a long period of time because no one department took ownership of it. I encourage that to be the case.
I want to again commend the member for Boothby, who chaired this committee, and other members of the committee. It has been a very short, sharp inquiry, but it is an important one that sends a very important signal from this place that breastfeeding-friendly workplaces are important. It is an important signal for this parliament to send to women and parents, to show that we want them to be able to balance their careers and their families. These procedures and the changes that are made in this report certainly go a long way to doing that here in our workplace.
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.