How do you care for your children? - Terri Butler MP, Labor for Griffith

Op-ed: "How do you care for your children?"

How do you care for your children? It's a question male MPs are never asked. My thoughts on the subject, and on the continued need for affirmative action, published in Women's Agenda on 3 August 2015.

Parties need affirmative action, including quotas, because outdated processes and attitudes stop women from being equally represented.

I was reminded of those outdated attitudes at a bipartisan event recently. When I arrived, politicians were making awkward small talk. I joined one of the conversations and found that the two men, one Liberal, one Labor, were chatting about women in parliament.

The Liberal gentleman was complimenting the performance of two of his female parliamentary colleagues. He observed they didn’t have children. He then mentioned a couple. The husband was an MP. The wife, he said, wouldn’t be able to work a politician’s eighty hours a week, because they had four young kids.

“My kids are three and five,” I said.

He suddenly noticed someone on the other side of the room with whom he needed to speak. I don’t recount the story to embarrass him. He’s not alone in his views.

I often get asked how, as a parliamentarian, I manage caring for my young children. I say “it’s not easy, but it’s like that for a lot of families, no matter what work you do. I have an easier roster than a lot of other fly-in, fly-out workers who have kids.”

I like to mention that almost all the federal pollies under forty-five have young children, around the same age as mine, or younger. A number have welcomed new babies in the last twelve months. I’ve had countless phone calls where male colleagues can’t talk because they’re wrangling the kids.

It is great that so many of the newest generation of federal politicians are parents. It means both men and women parliamentarians experience something of the juggle firsthand.

Yet, for women having young kids is still considered by some to be an impediment to having a political career. This impediment seems less applicable to men. Why?

Every day, across Australia, there are families – sole parents, heterosexual and same-sex couples, and their kids – who are managing competing demands. They are bringing up their children, working in paid employment, running businesses, caring for elderly parents, volunteering in the SES, and doing countless other things. This is not new.

My own great-grandmother worked in my great-grandfather’s London business. When he went to war she took over, until she and her daughters went back to Yorkshire for safety. My grandmother went into business with my grandfather.

My mother started her own business, which my father later joined. Would anyone really think those women didn’t work long hours in their own businesses? Or that they couldn’t handle a politician’s workload? 

Like those generations of women before me – and others before them – I work long hours in a challenging role. Just as I did, my kids have parents who are both in paid full-time work. One of the many reasons I decided to run was because I want to live in a country where having a mum who is in politics is no more remarkable than having an MP for a dad.

Like hundreds of thousands of other families, we get help, and we manage. Our family’s had a paid carer since our eldest was 7 months old. (I’m all for nannies – I’m just not persuaded they should be taxpayer-subsidised.) Like 26% of Australian kids under twelve, my son and daughter regularly get loving care from their grandparents, while my husband and I are at work.

Because I’m away a lot, my husband gets a much greater opportunity to share in parenting than he otherwise might.

There’s another upside. Last year, we took the kids to a campaign launch, for by-election candidate and now state minister Dr Anthony Lynham. My daughter, then four, asked why we were there. I told her that someone was running for parliament and we were there to show support. My daughter looked around the room, and said:

“Which one is she?”

Explaining to my daughter that men can run for parliament, too, emphasized, for me, something I already knew. Having female role models in politics is important for our daughters and sons. I got another reminder after giving a speech earlier this year.

A local stopped me in the street to say how great it was for his kids – two daughters and a son – to see that all three of their local, state and federal representatives were women.

I am proud of what my party has done to increase the number of women in Australian parliaments. The major parties had around the same levels of women’s representation in 1994, the year Labor introduced a mandatory quota. Today, women make up 45% of Labor’s federal caucus while in the Coalition women – with no quota – are languishing at around 20%. Bill Shorten has now set a target of 50% by 2025. Challenge accepted.

Some – in their own self-interest, cynics might say – argue against quotas. The obvious truth is that if affirmative action wasn’t needed, because parties select candidates on merit, then there would already be as many women in our parliaments as men.

To my Liberal colleagues who are arguing for real change, I say more strength to your arm. I’d much rather be congratulating you on your success, than making a partisan point of your lack of progress. I look forward to doing so, soon. You have to prevail because our country needs more women, of all political persuasions, with kids or not, to keep showing that it can be done.

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