Childcare division that rang alarm bells

The Australian
20 June, 2009
By Pia Akerman, Drew Warne-Smith and Patricia Karvelas

WHEN Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young took her two-year-old daughter Kora for a walk around Parliament House late on Thursday afternoon, it was part of a regular ritual.

While Kora's nanny remained in Senator Hanson-Young's parliamentary office, packing up toys in readiness for a 5.55pm flight back to Adelaide, mother and daughter enjoyed a few final minutes together, waving goodbye to the rest of the "Green team". But as they passed the Senate chamber, the bells started to ring, notifying senators of a vote.

A floor away from her office, Senator Hanson-Young did what she's done at least twice before: took Kora in with her.

"I didn't think it was a problem," she told The Weekend Australian yesterday. "No one even blinked an eyelid until the president stood up."

As she passed the chamber's bar -- a border beyond which only senators are allowed -- Senator Hanson-Young says she had no idea of the firestorm about work-life balance that was about to ignite. But others are not so sure.

Renegade Nationals MP Barnaby Joyce yesterday branded her actions a "political stunt" and supported the ruling by Senate president John Hogg to have the toddler ejected.

"She has a strong political position on the need for more childcare, and she has every right to hold that position," said Senator Joyce. "But she should debate it through the chamber without using her own child as a prop."

Neither did Senator Joyce, a father of four, have much sympathy for the circumstances that led to the rookie Greens senator nursing her reportedly quiet and well-behaved child while the vote took place. "You get paid $127,000 a year to not get caught out, and a $32,000 allowance," he said, noting that had Senator Hanson-Young asked for help, a Coalition MP could have "paired" with her for the vote.

The stunt accusation is one the South Australian senator rejected yesterday as she flew to Adelaide with Kora to reunite with husband Zane Young, who posted on his Twitter page yesterday that he felt "very protective of his girls".

And for those nearby, as Senator Hanson-Young heard Kora screaming through the locked doors of the Senate after handing her to a staffer, the mother's distress was as plain.

But regardless of her motives, the merits of her actions and a seemingly inflexible workplace were hotly debated on talkback radio and in internet blogs yesterday.

Former sex discrimination commissioner Pru Goward, now a state Liberal MP in NSW, believes Senator Hanson-Young was "out of step" with the community's expectations of parliamentarians. "You can't be distracted. The chamber for a parliamentarian is like an operating theatre for a surgeon. It's where the main business is done," Ms Goward said.

But for others the issue reflects the need to modernise parliament's century-old procedures, as well as the challenges of juggling life as an MP and parent.

Former Democrats senator Natasha Stott Despoja, who readily admits to taking her a baby into parliament on several occasions without rebuke, says claims that Senator Hanson-Young disrespected her role were farcical given the behaviour of so many parliamentarians.

"Every day politicians show disrespect for the sanctity and role of the parliament," Ms Stott Despoja said.

"Why do we reserve such anger for a hard-working mother and a well-behaved child?"

Media articles are posted for the purpose of criticism, comment, scholarship and research under "fair use" provisions and may not be distributed further without permission of the copyright owners, except for "fair use."