One big step for a female-friendly Parliament

A family-friendly Parliament is not just a political stunt, but an important step for female political representation, writes Peter McKenzie

On Parliament’s first real day of debating, a small baby perched on the knee of Trevor Mallard, the newest Speaker of the New Zealand House of Representatives. Heeni (the daughter of new MP Willow-Jean Prime) marvelled upwards at the stained glass ceiling of the Parliamentary debating chamber. Mallard rocked back and forth in his chair to keep her calm, all while adjudicating an occasionally fiery debate on the new government’s proposal to increase the length of paid parental leave.

It was an inspiring capstone to an eventful day. Two infants were present in the chamber while Parliament was sitting, a rare event. Prime and another new MP, Kiri Allan, had cradled their newborns as they watched the verbal fireworks. Later that day Prime became the second MP ever to breastfeed their child in the chamber whilst Parliament was sitting. The first MP to do so was Katherine Rich in 2002.

These stand in contrast to a centuries-long hostility towards families and children in Parliament. As MP Judith Collins pointed out in her own speech that day, Parliament has long been a patriarchal and unforgiving institution. Two-thirds of MPs are men. Parliamentarians remain in the debating chamber for long stretches of time while Parliament sits. Even when not debating, MPs often can’t leave the Parliamentary Precinct until 10pm. Those who travel to Wellington for part of each week will not see their children for days at a time. That environment has made life hell for female parliamentarians.

While data isn’t available for New Zealand, the United Kingdom’s Parliament provides some telling figures about the consequences of a hostile Parliament. The UK Parliament is currently 32 percent female, only 2.4 percent less than New Zealand - making it a good proxy for analysing gender in our politics. A 2012 review found that 45 percent of British female MPs had no children, compared to only 28 percent for male MPs. Further, those MPs who are mothers had on average 1.2 children, compared to 1.6 for MPs who are fathers. So - fewer female MPs are mothers, and those who are mothers have fewer children. The choice between family and career, whether necessary or perceived, has significant consequences on the lives of female politicians.

Recently, an obscure Parliamentary Select Committee set about changing the environment causing these issues. The Standing Orders Committee is in charge of the special set of rules that apply to Parliament. Earlier this year, led by the last Speaker of the House (David Carter) the Committee explicitly declared that so long as an infant was not disruptive, they could be present in the debating chamber. This first step was affirmed and celebrated by Mallard, who in his first speech as the newly-elected Speaker promised to make Parliament “much more child- and parent-friendly”.

Having more women in our political process changes that process, and occasionally changes the results.

The ground-breaking actions of Prime and Allan, and the decisions of the obscure Standing Orders Committee, are not just novelties. They are crucial in helping make our Parliament more representative. Currently, 34 percent of Members of Parliament are women. New Zealand ranks 32nd worldwide in this respect. Innumerable factors affect the proportion of women in Parliament - from ingrained societal sexism meaning fewer women are encouraged to enter politics compared to men, to women having less access to the kinds of ‘old-boy’ networks which often help potential politicians find the opportunities they need to get started.

But certainly one of the most decisive factors depressing female representation in Parliament is the perception that aspiring female politicians, just like in many other professions, must choose between their family and their career. Given that, the sight of two MPs nursing their children and being celebrated for doing so by MPs of all political stripes can only reassure female political aspirants that balancing a career and kids will be possible (albeit not easy) and that they will have people to support them.

Having more women in Parliament is important for a number of reasons. The most obvious is that our Parliament is supposed to be a House of Representatives. But when its gender ratio is skewed so heavily in favour of men, it is anything but ‘representative’.

More than that, having more women in our political process changes that process, and occasionally changes the results.

Research by Claire Devlin and Robert Elgie in Rwanda shows that having more female politicians creates a more accepting and kinder political environment, where cooperation is encouraged. That may be due to ingrained socio-cultural norms around how women are expected to behave, or it may be due to other factors. Regardless, the impact is positive. It hasn’t just been observed overseas either. It could be seen on that first day of parliamentary debate. Partway through the debate on paid parental leave, National MP Sarah Dowie rose to speak. She quickly established her commitment to productive engagement with the government, and was rewarded with a promise from Labour MP Iain Lees-Galloway (the Minister in charge of the paid parental leave legislation) to cooperate on bipartisan amendments to the legislation. A single event, but an example nonetheless of how female MPs often cooperate productively instead of engaging in partisanship.

Tània Verge, Ana Espírito-Santo and Nina Wiesehomeier found that when more women were present in the Spanish and Portuguese legislatures, men and women are more satisfied with their political system and democracy in general. This is because the system is perceived to be more inclusive and representative. In an era of populism and dissatisfaction in the vein of Trump and Brexit, greater satisfaction and confidence in our political system can only be a good thing.

Steps like these are not just political stunts, nor mere novelties. A truly family-friendly Parliament would revolutionise New Zealand politics, allowing more babies like Heeni to marvel at the action in the heart of our democracy.

Finally, John Sides has collated numerous pieces of American-centric research which indicates that when more women are present in elected office, the policy outcomes from politics are likely to be different. It indicates that women are more likely to advocate for traditionally “women’s” issues - such as parental leave, abortion, women’s health and pay equity - in the same way that politicians with a working-class background tend to be more favourable of labour regulation and worker’s rights, regardless of party affiliation or ideology.

Together, this research shows that greater female representation in Parliament is not just a matter of fairness, but is also desirable in order to achieve better policy results, more cooperation, and greater satisfaction with our political system.

So how do we improve going forwards? The Standing Orders Committee indicated that their acceptance of infants in the debating chamber was just a first step. Another may be allowing MPs to be temporarily replaced in Parliament by the next highest-ranking person on their party’s list while they care for their child - essentially paternity leave for politics. Or perhaps (as former MP Holly Walker suggests) Parliament could sit for five days a week instead of three, but for fewer weeks of the year, so that MPs spend fewer weeks at a time away from their families. Parliament could increase the size and capacity of its childcare facilities, which currently have a long waiting list for acceptance. Other MPs, whether fathers or mothers, could bring their children to the house in support of newer parents with infants as a demonstration of solidarity.

Finally, Parliament could do things as simple as shifting its sitting times forward, so that instead of being stuck debating until 10pm at night, parents could get home in time to read their children a bedtime story.

These are hardly revolutionary reforms. The Parliaments of Scotland, Wales, Ontario, British Columbia and Quebec have all condensed their sitting times, so that debates finish earlier and fewer weeks of the year are consumed. Similarly, Norway, Portugal and Ireland have large, dedicated childcare facilities. These Parliaments have recognised how crucial it is to support MPs, not unnecessarily challenge them.

Whatever actions we take, it is important that we keep the issue of female political representation at the forefront. Steps like these are not just political stunts, nor mere novelties. A truly family-friendly Parliament would revolutionise New Zealand politics, allowing more babies like Heeni to marvel at the action in the heart of our democracy.

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