opinion

OPINION: If our Prime Minister was a woman, his family holiday would be unthinkable.

You know how it is.

It’s the holidays. You have the car packed, a flight booked, but everything at work’s just gone nuts.

“I just have to get there,” you say. “I just have to get all my emails done, get that Out Of Office on, and I’ll be able to relax.”

But maybe your boss is sick. There’s a restructure. A crisis brewing. A project that’s veering off course.

“It’s really not a great moment to take leave,” you say to your partner at home. “The timing could really be better.”

“Don’t even think about it,” they say. “The kids are so looking forward to this. It’s been a big year, we’ve barely seen you. We need some family time.”

You feel guilty. You feel conflicted. It’s all been booked for ever. But… what’s everyone going to think when they get your Out Of Office email response in the midst of all that chaos.

Yeah. This is the scenario I like to imagine was unfolding in the Morrison house this week, as the Australian Prime Minister’s wife, Jenny, had the suitcases open on the bed, and Scott was pacing, a phone in each hand.

“People are saying I should stay,” Sco-Mo, is saying, as the the fairy lights flash off his plaid cotton pyjamas. “Quite a lot of the country is on fire, everyone’s angry, and people seem to think it’s my fault.”

Jenny Morrison has zero tolerance left for this shit. “The girls need a father, Scott. They can’t just see you on the TV. And besides, you need to take them to the pool for a bit so I can have a bloody cocktail. I’ve earned a cocktail, Scott.”

Of course, imaginings of life at Kirribilli House are fiction.

But what’s not is that there’s a debate raging about whether or not it’s okay for the Prime Minister to take a holiday at a truly terrible time – in the middle of a climate crisis-related bushfire catastrophe. When premiers are declaring an official State Of Emergency over Christmas. When we are all living in a tinder box, and it’s ever hotter every day, the sparks keeps coming and the only thing between many of us and it is an exhausted, volunteer troupe of heroes.

But, hey, there’s never a good time to take a family holiday, right?

Politicians are famed for having absolutely terrible work-life balance. We can scoff (I frequently have) at the fact that this year, the parliamentary sitting days tallied up to about three months, meaning that the window for getting shit done seems perilously small.  But actually, politicians of all stripes spend an enormous amount of time away from their families, and it rarely ended well.

ADVERTISEMENT

I once got to interview Senator Penny Wong about this, and she said that such a simple change as the Senate sitting weeks coinciding with school terms would make a big difference in the longevity required for an effective politician. At the time, she had a young family, and was blisteringly aware of the impact of her fly-in, fly-out schedule on her wife and daughters.

My interview with Senator Penny Wong. Post continues below. 

At the opposite end of the spectrum is Barnaby Joyce, whose wife Natalie famously said that her four daughters struggled with their dad, because he was never around.

“I’ve always been a single mum,” she said. She added that their youngest daughter, Odette, had a prickly relationship with her dad, Barnaby, even before their marriage broke down. “[She’s] never known anything but politics. Every time he’d come home she actually wouldn’t go near him… She’s stand-offish because he wasn’t home. That’s really hard,” Natalie told The Weekend Australian Magazine this year.

Accomplished MPs like Kate Ellis and Kelly O’Dwyer removed themselves from political life at pivotal moments in their careers to be present in their children’s lives. Divorce and relationship breakdowns are almost accepted as a toxic side-effect of the job.

And so, a few days away with the kids before Christmas seems like a reckless act from an embattled PM, but if there’s one thing I have learned about families, it’s that you can never estimate what kind of sizeable crisis might be going on inside one from afar.

A holiday’s a holiday, and generally the nation is in support of children getting to see their fathers occasionally.

But here’s something I know for sure. If Scott Morrison was a woman with two primary school-aged kids, she would have cancelled this trip.

ADVERTISEMENT

And the reason why is summed up by this insightful, funny comment posted in our Mamamia Outlouders’ Facebook group this week:

Comment in Mamamia Outlouders Facebook group. Image via social.
Comment in Mamamia Outlouders Facebook group. Image via social.

A female leader with young children is so acutely aware of how much harder she has to work to just appear credible, to just to dare to do more than one thing at once, that she couldn’t possibly be seen to publicly elevate her family over professional duty.

Witness the women who mark ambiguous BUSY time in their work calendars to sneak to a ‘visit-the-classroom’ afternoon. See the mothers who haven’t taken a sick day in five years because personal leave has nothing to do with themselves anymore, it’s about saving every single one of those hours for dealing with the feverish babies and the vomiting tweens.

Listen to the women who are hiding in school-hall doorways whispering into their phones at this week’s end-of-year presentations, because their boss thinks they’re at a meeting. Or the ones who know that saying they need to leave early every Tuesday to take Betty to the speech pathologist has everyone rolling their eyes, so they just hide their bag in the stairwell and sneak out when they think the high-ups are otherwise engaged.

Listen to Mamamia's daily news podcast, The Quicky, all about what it's like inside a mega-fire. Post continues below. 

ADVERTISEMENT

If women are seen to prioritise family, they are weak. They are not committed. They are distracted.

Jacinda Ardern is the world’s most visible new mother. Her little girl Neve is 18 months old. The Prime Minister of New Zealand took six weeks maternity leave and ever since, she has barely missed a day. No matter the time, no matter the location, when the shit has hit the fan (and oh, how shitty that fan has been) Ardern has been there, at the mic, giving it everything. Tired, pale, drawn, but always there. She is never going to give an inch to the commentary that birthing a baby should slow you down. Keep going, her work-ethic transmits, or they’ll use you as an example of why women of child-bearing age should not have these kind of jobs.

It’s not like that for Sco-Mo. With a comfortable majority under his belt and a lifetime of learned privilege of being a successful professional chap, he knows that everyone will forgive him a little family time. Even if things are a little disastrous in the old backyard right now.

He knows to his bones that he can "have it all". It's not even a question that would have flickered across his mind as he accepted that little glass of Business Class orange juice.

And if he is demonstrating work-life balance, I'm glad. Even if the timing is truly disastrous. There isn't a piece of me that believes Sco-Mo is going to save us from the climate emergency. Or the bushfires. Or the heatwave. I doubt that practically, his absence will change a thing. His presence certainly hasn't so far.

But controversially, I do believe in having it all. I believe that you should be able to rise to the top of your game and not have to sacrifice all personal relationships along the way. I believe that the only way for us to have sane, humane leaders is to stop asking every successful person to prioritise conference calls over bedtime stories and inbox-zero over family dinner. I also think allowing room for work and family in professional life is the only way we’re ever going to achieve gender equality in the workplace.

But. As we observe the breezy arrogance with which a Scott Morrison can nick off for some restoring quality time with his tribe and know he’ll be fine on his return, the question is obvious – would he be so cavalier if he were a Mum, not a Dad?

And the answer is also obvious.

That Out Of Office would never have gone on, and that family “holiday” would have quickly converted into an afternoon at Questacon. At most.

The suitcases would never have made it off the bed.

00:00 / ???