Struggling to get his head around Brittany Higgins’ explosive allegation of being raped in Parliament house, the Prime Minister drew on the ‘clarifying’ advice of his wife Jenny: “You have to think about this as a father first. What would you want to happen if it were our girls?” The Canberra Press Gallery immediately got what Mr Morrison’s homespun wisdom missed: “Shouldn’t you have thought about it as a human being? And what happens if men don’t have a wife and children? Do they reach the same compassionate conclusion?” Channel Ten’s Tegan George asked. But to the PM, she was speaking a different language: “being a husband and a father is central to me … so I just can’t follow the question you are putting.”
Rather than clarifying, it was a confusing moment for a nation going past itself without truly grasping what was happening. But it was also a starting point to begin thinking through the culture of our pre-eminent workplace and ways to improve it for all those who work there and for the millions of Australians looking to Parliament for a model of how things should be done. They look now and see a culture of worst practice; how might it be a model of best practice?
This is no simple matter of house cleaning. What is needed speaks to profound societal, cultural, economic and political shifts aimed at removing entrenched hurdles facing men and women that deny them equality in all aspects of their lives.
Here the Prime Minister was broadly right in that it does all get back to “our children.” For the inequality that structurally underpins all aspects of our society, including Parliament house and perhaps making it to the dream job of working there, begins years earlier. Indeed, it begins at birth and in what have been the skewed and fundamentally unequal pathways leading to what is considered the most active form of citizenship, representing an electorate or state in the nation’s Parliament, or indeed taking on the highest Parliamentary role of Prime Minister of the nation. It begins in all our homes where representations of equality and the role of men and women in our own personal lives begins sending messages to children about their own roles in society.
There was an instructive synergy during the week. While Parliament was grappling with the reverberations of Brittany Higgins’ experience, Jay Weatherall and Nicola Forrest from the Minderoo Foundation spoke at the National Press Club about the importance of the first five years of a child’s life. Their Thrive by Five campaign about extending quality early childhood education throughout the country is based on research showing that the size of a child’s brain reaches 90 per cent of an adults by the age of five. Early childhood is a time for critical lifelong learning and well-being. Talking, reading, playing and singing with babies and toddlers is so important in shaping thinking and emotional patterns for life and influencing learning, relationships and resilience.
It is not only a key time for a child’s development (who later may indeed become a political staffer or prime minister), but it is also an important time for parents who spend time during those first years, bonding with their children. Those years of a child’s life are equally important to the parents’ future engagement with their world as to the child. It is for this reason that there are many men who are wanting to be equally involved in that stage of their children’s lives. Those men and women, all parents, should also be able to think about their own roles, once their children are engaged in the education framework, as representatives in Parliament. This will better enable them to think through the impact of their political decisions as if those decisions were directly happening to their children and all children, as human beings.
The father of Malala Yousafzai articulates this in his support of the State of the World’s Fathers 2019 report. It shows how fathers can teach their children, both boys and girls, to value equality and to make it their own. To support their wives and partners. And the report demonstrates how fathers themselves benefit from more equitable relationships and involvement in the equal parenting in the first years of their children’s lives. Moreover, equality in caregiving is key, the report advocates, to thriving families and societies. The report provides clear steps for closing the care gap, a critical part of advancing gender equality. It illustrates how two facts are interlinked: no country in the world has achieved equality in unpaid care work between men and women, and no country in the world has achieved pay equality between women and men.
Parental leave that encourages and supports men to share the care with their partners is critical to changing the culture, making equality in all areas of society, including in Parliamentary behaviour, an undisputed given in our democracy.
Parental leave that encourages and supports men to share the care with their partners is critical to changing the culture, making equality in all areas of society, including in Parliamentary behaviour, an undisputed given in our democracy. It is a real and practical way for Prime Minister Morrison’s hope, shared at the United Nations Women Australia breakfast at Parliament House last Thursday 25th February 2021, ‘that we can live in a society where we can truly say that women are respected’ to be more than a pure plea. Professor Diane Elson of Essex University conceptualized the framework of three interconnected dimensions of policy on unpaid care work to include; recognition (of the work), reduction (of the extent of it), and redistribution (the sharing of it). Beyond those three ‘r’s, the conception of representation, which calls for carers’ increased visibility within the policy environment, in relevant negotiations and advocacy processes, and for men to be equally advocating those principles, is key to the move towards equality.
Nordic countries are well known for their progressive approach to promoting shared care at home. Sweden, was the first country in the world to allow couples to split parental leave (in 1974). In its efforts to achieve gender equality, each parent is entitled to 240 of the 480 days of paid parental leave. Each parent has 90 days reserved exclusively for him or her. Should one of the parents decide not to take them, they can’t be transferred to the partner.
Australia remains five countries behind the OECD average for father’s entitlements to paid parental leave, behind countries such as Romania, Slovenia, Spain, Lithuania and Bulgaria.
Annabelle Crabb makes the point in her 2019 Quarterly Essay Men at Work: Australia’s Parenthood Trap: ‘Parliament is – in many respects – a brightly lit model village of our national sentiment.’ In the first few weeks of the Morrison-Frydenberg new team in Parliament, the question of parenting didn’t even come up. When she spoke with them directly about the issues of juggling parenting with working, ‘both their models were about coping with or compensating for absence.’ Like Crabb, we are not questioning the love or commitment of men who haven’t shared the care of their children with their partners equally, or implying that people who don’t have children can’t develop this empathy, although we are all children at some point. However, an inequality in parenting and non-paid labour in the home, impacts on the way people live out their lives, and the way they hear questions and see the world around them and the way they act in their workplaces, and how they make decisions impacting on other people’s lives.
It is fundamental to the future health of Australia’s democracy, and to the future of our Parliament’s culture of commitment to equality, that a mix of people with different life experiences, better reflects and fulfils our democratic structure. The more we enable Parliamentarians to co-parent, and bring this experience into the Parliament, the more likely those personal experiences, as much as their spouses, will underpin those representatives’ responses to policy. It will encourage their commitment to ensuring the halls of power are truly representative, not only from the perspective of gender, but around many diverse life experiences.
If as a society we share the care, not only as parents, but in providing early childhood education for all, then Australians will be better placed to share the benefits and share the power- the salient message and goal of the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation, at the University of Canberra.
This article was originally published in The Canberra Times, 2 March 2021 Professor Kim Rubenstein and Trish Bergin are co-Directors of the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation in the Faculty of Business, Government and Law at the University of Canberra.