POLITICAL PARENTING CAN BE MORTIFYING – BUT THE IMPERFECTIONS CAN BE GLORIOUS
The Guardian, 16 January 2016
At first glance, it seemed the last photo you’d put on the front of your Christmas card. Gweneth and I were smiling at the cameras, along with our eldest two boys. What we didn’t realise was that our toddler had left the group, and was sitting a metre away, with the world’s biggest scowl on his face.
But when we sent out the card, friends loved it. People didn’t want to see airbrushed politics; they preferred to know that our kids were just as grumpy as everyone else’s. Then someone put it online, and within a week, it had found its way into the global media, including a cameo appearance on the US Today Show.
Combining politics with parenting can be hazardous. A few months afterwards, I was live on my local ABC radio station when the interviewer asked “is that your child howling in the background?” I was torn as to whether to stick to my theme of castigating the Coalition’s economic mismanagement, or explaining that when you have three young boys, silence is as rare as a sleep-in.
Mixing kids with life can have mortifying results, yet the imperfections can be glorious. If you go to the website of Robert Kelly, the Korea expert whose BBC interview was interrupted when his children gatecrashed his home office, you’ll see his bio page starts with “Firstly, yes, I am ‘BBC Dad‘ – the guy who got interrupted on BBC news by his kids in March 2017. Here and here are our family statements on that event.” Kelly is one of the foremost experts on the inter-Korean tinderbox, but most of the world knows him for his irrepressible kids.
As a political parent, I try to take my children along to as many events as possible. They’ve attended more Labor Party branch meetings than some party members, given countless balloons to passers-by, joined me at religious celebrations by the local Sikh, Hindu, Jewish and Christian communities, and handed out my leaflets at local shopping centres. It doesn’t always go smoothly. “Dad, why did that man swear at you when you said hello?” isn’t the question you necessarily want to answer. But they get to meet an amazing cross-section of their local community, and I get to see it through their eyes.
It’s also taught me a few things about what can happen when you bring your kids along. In 2015, I was assigned to represent the Labor Party in welcoming Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles as they landed at Canberra Airport on a Saturday morning. To get a bit more family time, I took my eldest son, who gave Camilla a bouquet of flowers. Afterwards, journalist Ewa Kretowicz wanted to ask Sebastian some questions. Figuring no harm could come of it, I wandered off and left them to it. The next day, her story began “The flowers were from Woolworths, but the smile was from the heart, when five-year-old Sebastian Leigh welcomed Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, and Prince Charles to Canberra on Saturday morning.” Never underestimate a quick-thinking journalist and a chirpy child.
Politicians are more likely than ever before to have young children, and we’re slowly adapting the rules to keep up. When there’s a parliamentary vote, members are now permitted to bring their baby into the chamber. I’ve been in votes with as many as three babies on the floor - each causing coos and awwws aplenty among parliamentary colleagues. When a visitor’s baby starts crying in the public galleries during Question Time, I can see the parents are usually embarrassed. I want to tell them not to worry - that some of us appreciate reality making a cameo appearance in what can too often be a pompous and formulaic parliamentary ritual.
There’s no question that blokes have it easier. As Annabel Crabb documented in The Wife Drought, women in politics tend to have fewer children than men. Like workers in other fly-in, fly-out industries, federal politics is tough on families, and women in politics have often worked harder to find the right balance. As a male politician representing a Canberra seat, I’m acutely aware that my job is considerably easier than a woman representing a marginal seat in Western Australia.
Like many busy workers, juggling work and family is a challenge. I’m typing this piece on a family holiday, sitting in a darkened stairwell in our AirBNB apartment while the family sleeps. During the year, I try to get home for dinner and bedtime as often as possible, but often find it hard to shut off answering urgent phone calls, text messages and emails in order to give the family my undivided attention. And there’s also the challenge of staying connected with your spouse. For my wife Gweneth and me, one of the challenges is getting moments when we can be free of children and technology. Every now and then, we’re able to get a babysitter and head out to dinner by ourselves. For us, these ‘date nights’ have become essential.
Political parenting often involves tricky choices. No matter how many street stalls and community events you do, it ends up being impossible to say yes to them all. My friend Katy Gallagher, who has served as ACT Chief Minister and in the Senate, says that you should never say sorry for spending time with your children. It’s good for them, and will make you a better parliamentarian. I usually fall short of the Gallagher standard, but her advice does help ameliorate the guilt.
Again, these are challenges that all modern workplaces are facing. A male friend at a large Sydney law firm told me that he and his colleagues are being encouraged to make a ‘noisy exit’ when they leave the office to attend one of their children’s school events. The principle is that if everyone sees the firm’s leadership combining work and family, it becomes more acceptable at all levels.
Having little people in the house does make you approach politics differently. I’m more aware of the implications of what we do for the long-run, and a little less inclined to sweat the details in the short-term. Grandfathered policy reform may not take full effect within a three-year election term, but it puts us on the right path as a child grows into an adult. Explaining a policy to a primary school child isn’t a bad way of ensuring you can communicate it in a way that captures the essence without jargon or superfluity. Whether it’s settling sibling disputes, changing nappies, or teaching a child to ride a bicycle for the first time, parenting offers no shortage of skills that can turn out to be relevant in politics.
Ideally, both parenting and politics should be done with a sense of kindness. With children in your house, a politics of love looks a whole lot more attractive than a politics of hatred. You’re more attuned to the ridiculous, and less inclined to take yourself too seriously. And maybe, just maybe, our youngest child will one day forgive us for featuring his grumpiness on our Christmas card.
Andrew Leigh lives in Canberra with Gweneth and their three young boys – Sebastian, Theodore and Zachary. He is the Member for Fenner and the Shadow Assistant Treasurer, and has served in parliament since 2010.
Authorised by Noah Carroll, ALP, Canberra.