By KATE HUNTER
Former Prime Minister and elder statesman of the Australian Labor Party, Bob Hawke suggested on the weekend that Tanya Plibersek shouldn’t be considered a frontrunner to lead the party because she has small children.
Actually, he didn’t suggest it – he came right out and said it.
Tanya was the Minister for Health in the former Government and has become very popular amongst voters after feisty performances on current affairs shows like Q and A. She is the mother of three children. Her youngest, Louis, is two and a half.
Now, I accept that Bob Hawke knows a hundred times more about politics and its demands than most of us ever will. He’s entitled to say what he likes and speculate about the impact of having a young family on a politician’s career.
But it’s what he didn’t say that has irked.
Namely, that there was no mention that Bill Shorten (who will announce his candidacy for the ALP leadership today) also has a young family. His daughter Clementine is three.
You’d think by now we’d have moved beyond this debate. Surely it’s accepted that a woman can do her job well and still care for her kids. That the impact of children on a person’s career shouldn’t be determined by gender.
You’d also think, in this age of dads cutting umbilical cords, enjoying paternity leave and watching ‘House Husbands’ that their responsibilities at home might come into play a teeny-tiny bit in the way they approach work – and the way employers relate to them.
My husband tells me that when he’s been interviewed for jobs, the question – ‘So, do you have kids?’ only comes up in a chatty, social way, ‘Really? I have a boy the same age! Does yours play cricket?’
Kids and their care are rarely issues for men in the workplace.
When a woman gets a new job, the kid question is there, omnipresent.
The child-shaped elephant in the room.
And if she doesn’t have kids, the question often floats unspoken… why doesn’t she have kids? What if she suddenly chooses to have kids?
Is she likely to bail out of the workforce and need to be replaced soon? And if she doesn’t want them – well why not? Is she a little unstable? A bit hard-hearted? Unfeminine, even?
When I was younger (about the time Bob Hawke was Prime Minister) , I used to argue about this with my father. He believed that the ‘maternal instinct’ was more powerful than the ‘paternal instinct,’ so it was easier for men to be away from their children for long periods.
He’d get into the whole hunter-gatherer thing and I’d storm into my room, yelling, ‘So why are you bothering to educate me anyway?’
Thankfully, my father was never in parliament.
But he was an employer, and I’ve no doubt his opinion coloured the way he hired staff.
Bob Hawke is 84 years old and there’s an argument to say, ‘He’s a man of his generation, and we should cut him some slack.’
But there are also people who are saying, ‘Well, at least he has the courage to say what we all know – women with small children are not the best choice for demanding jobs.
I say bollocks to both those arguments .
Bob Hawke is still a powerful presence in the Labor Party, in the media and in the community. He’s an articulate voice in public life.
You can’t choose to revere him on some issues and treat him like your mildly embarrassing grandfather on others.
Tanya Plibersek’s family is her business and no one else’s.
It’s arrogant, ignorant and hurtful to say or think, ‘I feel sorry for her little boy if she gets the leadership.’
No one’s feeling sorry for little Clementine Shorten or worrying about her upbringing.
No one’s wondering how Bill will cope getting from Question Time to preschool if she takes a tumble in the playground. Because the odds are, he won’t have to. There will be a plan in place to deal with unexpected incidents like this. A plan that is similar, I imagine, to the one in Tanya’s family.
I’m always astounded and fascinated by the complex arrangements busy families have in place.
One way or another they all seem to work. The kids are fine.
The bigger issue though, is the sheer wastefulness of Hawke’s attitude (which I know is shared by a lot of people – of all ages and stages).
But how silly to overlook someone who is a fabulous candidate for a job because of their gender or status as a mother.
How short-sighted. How insular. How wasteful.
Many women are quick to say, ‘Well, I could never do a job like that, I couldn’t bear to be away from my children that much.’
Their not-so-subtle inference being they love their child more than Tanya Plibersek loves hers. Take that mother-love gold medal and frame it, ladies.
The truth, of course, is there are a million reasons why most women (and men) couldn’t be leader of the Australian Labor Party. Not being a member of parliament is probably the most obvious. Not wanting to would be another.
But if Tanya Plibersek wants to be leader of her party, then I say she should give it a red hot go.
Just like Bill Shorten inevitably will.