She wore red too… Like Julia Banks before her and Julie Bishop before that. Minister Kelly O’Dwyer wore red today while announcing she won’t recontest the next election. One of the most senior women remaining in the Morrison Government, O’Dwyer explained calmly that her decision was driven by private and family reasons. The truth – or otherwise – of that claim will likely be picked and pulled apart by the media for the days to come.
Wearing red has become a symbol of silent protest amongst Coalition women. A protest against the tiny number of them who hold senior positions in the government. A protest against the continued threats to their preselection. A protest against the difficulty of winning that preselection in the first place. It cannot be easy for women in the Liberal Party right now, and perhaps it has never been. The Party has a problem they can no longer continue to sweep under the blue carpet of the ministerial wing.
The factors contributing to O’Dwyer’s decision were no doubt many and varied. Her seat has become a marginal one, she’s been in the parliament for a decade and the government she serves is unlikely to be returned. However – for now at least – let’s take her at her word. The mother of two said, “In composing photo books and looking at the special moments over the Christmas period I’ve seen how many I missed, and I know how many I will miss. I no longer want to consistently miss out on seeing my children when they wake up in the morning”.
Those are heartbreaking words for anyone to read. For a person to be forced to choose between a job that is fulfilling and that they love, and watching their family grow up, is a shame. It’s not a conundrum confined to political life by any means. Many Australians struggle with the balance of work and home lives, often facing financial changes that government ministers like O’Dwyer don’t. This is a nationwide problem, one of increasingly stretched working hours and constantly growing cost of living pressures.
It’s a problem that won’t be solved while we continue to lose women like Kelly O’Dwyer from parliamentary ranks. The purpose of a parliament is to be representative of the nation’s people and for that to be true, it has to include parents of young children. If we don’t have people with current and firsthand experience of the pressures that families are facing in the community, then we won’t get our law-making on behalf of those families right. And if the rest of the country is craving better work-family balance then those who make our laws need to have it too.
You might ask, if it’s all so hard then what about the Prime Minister Scott Morrison, or the Leader of the Opposition Bill Shorten? Why aren’t they resigning to be with their young families too? Why does it always seem to be the women who quit?
Well, quite frankly, it’s harder. It’s harder for women because of the long-held – and wildly different – societal expectations we place on mothers and fathers and that we place on ourselves. We know it’s harder because, as Annabel Crabb points out, male politicians have an average of 2.1 children and women, only 1.2. Men parliamentarians feel comfortable becoming parents a second time over, women are more likely to keep their families small and more manageable. The impact on their respective lives’ is different. At the time her book, The Wife Drought was published, forty percent of women parliamentarians had no kids. Political life is tougher on mums and especially those who hold senior positions.
“I no longer want to consistently miss out on seeing my children when they wake up in the morning.”
Federal parliament sits roughly 20 weeks of every 52. For every politician whose family doesn’t live in Canberra (i.e. 99 percent of them) that means they’re away close to half the year. Throw in ministerial responsibilities on top of that and the travel requirements double, at least. To be Prime Minister or Leader of the Opposition? More than a handful of nights each month in your own bed is family time worthy of a hearty pat on the back. It’s completely unsustainable for involved parents of young children.
There has to be a better way. For politicians to be connected to the communities they represent, they need to live amongst them – not just drop in occasionally. For politicians to understand and be connected to the lives of ordinary Australians they need to, you know, actually be allowed to spend some time with them and hear their concerns. The Canberra bubble is real but it’s not a creation of politicians themselves. It’s born of the system we created at federation, more than 100 years ago when there certainly weren’t too many working mums around.
Something’s got to give because at the moment what is giving, is women in the Liberal Party. Combined with the multitude of difficulties that they’re already facing from within their own ranks, this additional structural one is simply too much. Major political parties that want to be truly representative need to attract, nurture and promote female talent, and our democratic framework has to work for them – not against them – once they get there.
If things don’t change soon, we’ll see more and more women dressed in red tendering their resignation… and it’s families all over Australia who pay the price.
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