parents

NSW MP: 'If we want more women in parliament, this has to change'.

The Hon Courtney Houssos is a member of parliament with a young child.

When I decided to enter Parliament I knew that balancing work and family life would be difficult. I also knew I’d be no different to so many other working parents right across NSW.

When I was elected, we decided my husband would switch to part-time work and become the primary carer of our young daughter Anna, giving me the freedom to make the most of my incredible opportunity.

Like any job with long and unusual hours, we try to find family time when we can. For the most part, we have the luxury of a lot of flexibility, but this can prove challenging when significant legislation is before the NSW Parliament, and we find ourselves sitting, debating, amending and running a mental marathon until 2AM.

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Houssos and her daughter Anna. (Image: Supplied)

My daughter is no stranger to Parliament. Just as she did in my previous workplace, she visits regularly, especially for special occasions. She attended my swearing in, and she watched my inaugural speech from the public gallery. For a special treat, she’ll come and have a babycino in the Parliament Café. And, on a couple of occasions, when my husband has had to work on a non-childcare day and Parliament isn’t sitting, I’m lucky to be able to bring her to work with me.

I’m one of many MPs who has young children. Two of my Labor colleagues, elected in March 2015, Jo Haylen and Prue Car, also have children under two. Overwhelmingly, the NSW Parliament has been welcoming.

There’s now a high chair in the café, and they have volunteered to purchase some extra ones for the more formal Dining Room – both of which have made up special meals to accommodate my daughter’s palate. It’s welcome news to parents across the political divide that the Presiding Officers have also indicated they’re willing to do more to make this a family friendly workplace.

But this is not just a question for women. I know of three male MPs whose partners are currently pregnant. If you have a look at the NSW MPs, you’ll see they’re now younger and more diverse, with a range of men and women from a host of backgrounds and walks of life – something I welcome.

Our Parliament needs to look like the community it seeks to represent. It’s great to have people discussing early childhood education and health, or any other issue for that matter, with first-hand experience of it.

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“The standing orders allow breastfeeding mothers to bring their babies into the house.”

Currently, the standing orders allow breastfeeding mothers to bring their babies into the house. It’s unclear what a bottle-fed baby is able to do. But as other parents would understand, reasoning with a toddler visiting their mum or dad that they have to leave – if only for 10 minutes – can be difficult and involve plenty of tears, sometimes for all involved. In my line of work, this could be repeated a dozen times over a sitting night.

Last Wednesday was one such occasion, when I entered the chamber to vote on an amendment to the Rural Fires Amendment (Bush Fire Prevention) Bill – with my 19-month-old in tow. I stopped at the entrance way, unsure if I could take Anna in. I was advised that technically it would be against the standing orders as Anna would be considered a ‘stranger in the house’ and not allowed to be there. Not wanting to make a scene – though fearing I may get one from Anna – I called my husband to come and take her from me.

As I was standing at the entrance to the House, I was offered a ‘pair’ – a leave pass – by the Government Whip. I was there though, and I wanted my vote counted. It is an incredible privilege and honour to be an MP and your votes and words in the House are a testament to what you stand for in public office.

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Houssos with Elizabeth Broderick (Image: Twitter @courtneyhoussos

Like in most workplaces, there are times when more substantial concentration is required, so I don’t think it’s fair to the other MPs – or their children – to bring them along for long debates or Question Time. But it’s reasonable to expect that during divisions, parents can bring their young children into the chamber as they vote, and it’s reasonable for the standing orders to be updated to allow for that.

As more and more large companies like Telstra and PwC lead the way in doing everything they can to make their workplaces more flexible, our Parliament lags behind. Updating our standing orders to allow working parents to bring their young children into the chamber during divisions would be a huge help to MPs balancing work and family. But most importantly – it would move the NSW Parliament a step closer to helping better reflect the broader society we seek to represent.

The Hon Courtney Houssos is an Australian politician. She has been a Labor member of the New South Wales Legislative Council since the 2015 state election.

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