When Kate Thwaites was pregnant with her second child last year, she got angry. She got angry at the fact that, despite the widespread availability of sophisticated (and secure) videoconferencing tools, parliamentary rules deemed her unable to participate in parliamentary debate unless she travel to Canberra. That would require two weeks of quarantine before jumping on the plane and that she miss important medical appointments.
“The current restrictions mean that for those of us with young families or with medical issues, it is really hard to get to Canberra to represent our constituencies,” she said at the time.
Thwaites is one of the baby boomers – an historically large group of parliamentarians who either gave birth or were pregnant during 2020. With workplaces across the country swiftly adapting to the new normal of COVID-induced flexible work, Thwaites and others, such as Labor’s Anika Wells, decided to become vocal about how they were being denied the right to represent their constituents via a virtual parliament.
Thwaites is one of the baby boomers – a historically large group of parliamentarians who either gave birth or were pregnant during 2020.
As it turns out rules were changed and MPs were able to engage in all their normal Canberra-based duties, save being able to vote on legislation.
“But, from my point of view, being able to speak on legislation was really important,” Thwaites told BroadAgenda. “And we did it much like everyone else has being doing it – looking down a camera on our computer from our electorate offices. For me, it was a really positive experience.”
Four months later and the debate about the need for flexible work for parliamentarians is picking up momentum.
Writing for ABC News, journalist David Speers made the point that introducing flexible work arrangements could, potentially, broaden the types of people attracted to politics. So much so that it could become more representative of the broader community.
“This is a question of who we want representing us in the nation’s parliament,” Speers wrote. “Do we only want those who are willing and able to spend nearly half the year away from their families?
This is a question of who we want representing us in the nation’s parliament. Do we only want those who are willing and able to spend nearly half the year away from their families?
“Or do we want to attract a true representation of society by making the place a little more accommodating for the many women and indeed men who simply won’t cop that degree of separation?”
Dominique Allen, a socio-legal scholar researching anti-discrimination law and equality at Monash University, says rules around flexible work arrangements via the Fair Work Act don’t apply to federal politicians – but perhaps they should.
Under the Fair Work Act, employees have a right to request flexible work arrangements, but employers can refuse on reasonable grounds.
“We are speculating that it will be harder for employers to refuse now because they have seen how flexibility can be accommodated during COVID,” Allen said.
“Having been through the experience more of these discussions will take place.”
Thwaites agrees and says the experiences of 2020 are certainly driving a renewed vigour in calls for more flexibility around the demands of parliamentary work.
“There has been a lot of talk for some time about the demands that the fly-in, fly-out Canberra lifestyle puts on MPs,” she says. “It can be really difficult, especially for those travelling long distances and from remote areas. For women especially, they might be deterred from politics because they think there is no way they can juggle all the competing demands.”
Sonia Palmieri, and expert in the field of gender and political leadership from Australian National University, says she is all in favour of greater workplace flexibility but harbours concern that there is no replacement for “the cross and intra-party networking and socialisation that occurs face to face, both for plenary and committee meetings”.
There is no replacement for the cross and intra-party networking and socialisation that occurs face to face,
“If we want to avoid, or perhaps more precisely, start to break down the escalating political polarisation that is creeping into our democracy, we need MPs of all persuasions to talk to each other,” Palmieri says.
While this can happen in virtual settings, it is more likely to occur in incidental and accidental circumstances such as “when people are in the same queue buying lunch, or going to a restaurant with committee colleagues after the day’s hearing”.
While there is no suggestion, more flexible work arrangements would see the end of face-to-face meetings, Palmieri says it would ideal if individual MPs had control over their engagements.
“Let’s rewrite the Standing Orders in such a way that individual MPs – not the party – have some agency in determining what is best for them, depending on their circumstances, and equally allow them to change their mind. I’m not sure this would be a cost saving measure, but a functioning democracy does cost money,” she says.
Meanwhile, Thwaites will not be at the first sitting of federal parliament on February 15 – either via Zoom or in person. She has taken leave of parliament for the first month.
“Newborns take up a lot of time and a lot of mental space,” she says. “I’ll be taking that month off and then my plan is to return to Canberra and bring baby with me, along with a support person, COVID restrictions allowing.”
Amen to that.