Political parenting is a conversation we need to have - Transcript, ABC News 24





SUBJECTS: Politics and parenting, gender balance in political parties, Kelly O’Dwyer.

GEMMA VENESS: Returning to our earlier story, the resignation of Kelly O'Dwyer. For more on this, we're joined by the ABC’s chief political writer Annabel Crab and Labor MP Andrew Leigh also joins us from Canberra. Andrew Leigh, I will start with you. Kelly O'Dwyer's decision to quit politics and, as she has said, her desire for a third child - is this another point scored for the notion that work-life balance in federal politics could be a myth?

ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT TREASURER: It’s a personal decision for Kelly and I wish her and her husband Jon all the best as they manage their lives from here on. The conversation has been partly around the challenge for the Liberal Party having now so few women, particularly in its senior ranks. They are closer to one in five, we're closer to one in two, and that means that they are more vulnerable to any particular resignation. But it’s opened up the conversation around juggling parenting and politics and that's something that I think is important for all political parents to talk about. Obviously women have it tougher, but making sure that that work-life balance is effective gives us a broader range of people who would be willing to put their hands up and go into politics if they think they don't have to choose between politics and a family.

VENESS: Annabel Crabb, as Andrew Leigh just pointed out, it is very difficult for all families, but particularly women. If Kelly O'Dwyer was a man in politics, do you think this decision would be far less a reason for Kelly O'Dwyer to have quit?

ANNABEL CRABB: I mean, men have been breeding like ferrets in the cabinet room for more than 100 years, but Kelly O'Dwyer is the first cabinet member to give birth while serving as a member of the cabinet after the number of years that Australian democracy has existed. It is weird that we've only just had this one woman to perform this perfectly normal physical feat whilst serving as a cabinet minister and that's a bit of a measure for you, I guess, of how delayed this change is. I think that people assume that men will have babies while they are serving as politicians and that that’s unremarkable, but it is still a bit remarkable for women to do it and partly that's because people assess mothers in a different way from how they assess fathers. For instance, women are much more likely in politics to get blow-back from electorates, from people making comments on the arrangements they have made for their own children and so on, whereas people expect a man in politics to have a stay at home spouse who takes care of kids and organises school fees and uniforms and goes to concerts and does all of that sort of stuff. So, there is a story actually about Karen Andrews who is a frontbencher, who when she was running for preselection in Queensland, she told me she received a letter from one of the pre-selectors in the Liberal Party saying, "if you were my wife, I'd never let you abandon our children like this." That's the sort of thing that you get. That's really more of an attitude thing, it’s a societal thing. I mean, in a perfect future, people - men and women - would be able to choose what they feel comfortable doing and that would be their decision alone and they wouldn't have to suffer the adverse opinions of other people who are keen to have an opinion.

VENESS: Yes, definitely. Andrew Leigh, we have the poster women - New Zealand's Prime Minister, for example - but have things changed in terms of accommodating work-life balance? Is it something that we talk about more, but in reality on the ground, do you see it changing much?

LEIGH: I think things are shifting. My friend Katy Gallagher had a baby while Deputy Chief Minister in the ACT. She is the one who taught me that maxim that if you have to say no to a community event because you have to be with your kids, you shouldn't apologise. Clare O'Neill, who had a baby in 2016, has written very movingly about the challenges of having to leave Louis behind when she comes to Canberra for parliament sittings. I think of Patrick Gorman who, in one of the sittings week last year his wife Jess had to work, so he brought their baby to Canberra for the sittings week and wrote on Facebook, "this is what modern parenting looks like." We’ve had multiple babies in some divisions and I for one always love it when you hear a baby crying in the public galleries during Question Time or parliament sitting. It just reminds you of the humanity. I think we are a little better as politicians when we can have systems that are porous, that encourage bubs to be a normal part of life. I have toy baskets in both my electorate office and Parliament House office, partly because I enjoy throwing the soft balls against the ball, but partly also because it sends a signal that anyone that wants to bring a baby to a meeting is more than welcome to do it.

VENESS: And you’ve got children of your own, albeit not little babies anymore. You found somewhat of a solution in including them in your political life. How has that been received?

LEIGH: Very warmly. My children have been to more Labor Party meetings than some Labor Party members. They have been to Sikh, Jewish, Muslim and Hindu functions. We were at the induction of a church minister in my local electorate on Saturday with the whole family. My son, Zachary, attained some measure of media stardom when we put the photo of him looking rather grumpy off to the side of the rest of our family as our Christmas card image one year and one of his older brothers had the pleasure of being poked in the eye by little baby George, the baby of Will and Kate, when he came with me to the airport to welcome them to Canberra. When you have them with you, it makes the job more fun and I think makes me, it gives me a greater sense of the ridiculous and perhaps a little more kindness.

VENESS: Annabel, do you think it is getting better? What Andrew spoke about there, including the children, is that one aspect that could make it better? What else could make it better?

CRABB: Of course. I think that pretending, working like you don't have kids is a ridiculous thing to do, whatever line of work you’re in, politics or anything else. I think for a long time in Australian history, there was kind of a polite pretence that male politicians didn't have kids because everything was taken care of, out of sight and they would make the odd appearance on the Christmas cards all smiling - unlike Andrew's children [laughter]. That's a ridiculous fiction. I mean, life doesn't work like that and I think what we have seen in the last couple of decades is a lot more women in parliament with babies, with all of the mess and imperfection that that entails. It is changing. Anna Burke in the year 2000 I think, when she had her first child, she was only the second woman in the history of the House of Representatives to have a baby whilst serving in office. Now, there are heaps of them and crucially those women tend to have partners who take time out from the workforce, to become the primary care giver. Kelly O'Dwyer's husband certainly did that for a certain period of time. And Kelly O'Dwyer has broken down a lot of - she has broken a lot of barriers in her time in cabinet. I think it is entirely her decision and perfectly appropriate for her to decide what she wants to do and when. That's a perfectly natural decision for any human to make. I hate it when the debates become, "well, Kelly O'Dwyer has resigned. Does that mean it is impossible to balance these things?"

VENESS: But, is there a tension – I want to ask you both this - is there a tension there in totally understanding her decision, you don't second-guess it at all, but not wanting to admit that there could be wider implications to that?

CRABB: But, I mean, no one ever said it is not hard. It is hard. This thing about having it all isn't about doing it all at the same time. You have got to do what you're capable of and you know, Kelly said that she would like to have a third child. Go for it. That's entirely her decision. I think she has demonstrated over her working life that it is perfectly possible for a woman to do those jobs and have children, but you don't have to do it forever. You don't have to do it-

VENESS: You can leave and come back?

CRABB: Well, exactly. I don't like this analysis that says, "it’s been a failure. It has all failed." Well, actually she had a really demanding job for a number of years and she decided to do something else. That's fine. That's not a demonstration of the failure of the exercise, it is a demonstration of someone exercising their free will to do something else.

VENESS: And Andrew Leigh, do you think it will create more discussion in Canberra amongst MPs as to this decision and how it can be made better?

LEIGH: Absolutely. No one has written more articulately about this than Annabel in ‘The Wife Drought’ about the challenge that people face in all sorts of high pressure occupations as to how to combine work and family. Part of it has to do with making jobs more flexible. I was talking to a friend who is the partner of a Sydney law firm over the holidays and he was saying that he and his senior partners were told to make a ‘noisy exit’ when they have to go and pick up the kids. Not slink out leaving the jacket on the back of the chair, but say, "I'm off to pick up the kids now" with the notion being that if the male partners are doing that, that creates more of a notion among the entire firm that this isn't just a legal right, it is something you do. If we can make sure that we're using technology not to crowd into our personal spaces, but in order to make jobs more flexible, then that seems to me, as Claudia Goldin’s research points to, a pretty good way of closing the gender pay gap and boosting women's labour force participation, making us more productive economy but also enriching our lives if we can, if we are able to blend work and family. I do it thanks to having an extraordinary wife Gweneth. My parents also come in and help in parliamentary sittings. Each of us have that kind of village around us, but we also need the institutions to modernise.

VENESS: Labor MP Andrew Leigh and ABC chief political writer Annabel Crabb, thanks for joining us.

LEIGH: Thanks, Gemma.


Authorised by Noah Carroll, ALP, Canberra.

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