Stranger in the House

Before moving to Australia, I spent a few years working in the New Zealand public service, as a policy wonk. As part of that job, on occasion I had to go and sit in the House, ready to advise the Minister sponsoring a bill should the opposition raise a tricky technical point. My colleagues and I were literally on the floor of the House of Parliament, even though we were not elected. We sat to the right of the speaker, and slightly behind, on a bench (padded, thank goodness). There was a line over which we were never, ever to cross. Only elected Members of Parliament could go beyond that line. Woe betide the innocent public servant who answered the Minister’s beckoning finger, and put a foot over that line. A parliamentarian would leap to her or his feet and shout, “Stranger in the House!” and the offending official would be removed.

I never put a foot across the line. Nor did my colleagues.

There is good reason for the rule. It came about when Charles I tried to charge into the House and deal with his critics face to face. He was not a large man, so chances are he wasn’t going to have a great deal of success in monstering people. But he did have the power of the monarchy behind him, so even if he could not have dominated Parliament physically, he could nevertheless do so through the power of his position. Unsurprisingly, the Parliament was not impressed, and so it ruled that no men (hah!) who had not been elected to Parliament could enter the chamber (aside from the servants, such as Hansard reporters,* and messengers). It’s an important rule in Westminster-style parliamentary democracies, that parliaments should be able to debate without fearing the influence of outsiders, or strangers.

But four centuries later, when our society has completely changed, and in countries like Australia and New Zealand and the United Kingdom and Canada and Sweden and Denmark and Norway and Iceland (I could carry on, but you get the picture), Parliament is sovereign, and held to be sovereign in the hearts and minds of people who live in those countries, you might think that the Stranger in the House rule could be relaxed.

Think again. Just last week, in the Australian Federal Parliament, a Senator and mother, Sarah Hanson-Young, was separated from her two year old daughter, for no good reason other than the Senate President deciding that the child was a Stranger in the House. There’s an excellent commentary by Blue Milk, posted at her own place and at Hoyden about Town, and another on Andrew Bartlett’s blog. Both make the point that this was very much an exceptional circumstance; Senator Hanson-Young had made good arrangements for childcare, but a Senate division was called early, and she needed to be there for her vote to be counted. In her usual practice, she was walking her daughter down the corridors to say hello to her colleagues, and goodbye to her, when the bells rang. She had just four minutes to get into the House and be counted, not enough time for her to get back to her office and hand her daughter over to her trusted and beloved nannie. Caught out, she did the only thing possible, taking her child into the House, so that she could do the most trivial part of her job, simply being there as part of the head count. On the order of the Senate President, her daughter was taken away from her, in tears. Hanson-Young stayed there, in tears herself, in order to be counted. She has an account of the events here; it’s very obvious that these were highly unusual circumstances.

Talkback radio (apparently – I don’t listen to it) and letters columns in the paper were filled with outrage. How dare this woman expect to take her baby into her workplace! Other parents don’t get to do such outrageous things!! Sort your childcare out, lady, and don’t come bleating to us!!!

But… but… but…

Other parents do take their children to work. anjum has done it, and so have I, on occasion, when I needed to get something finished at work. All of my daughters have attended meetings, gone to tutorials, and sat quietly in the corner of my office while I have cleared my e-mail and gathered up some work to take home for the day. It happens. And really, the world doesn’t end.

The “Stranger in the House” rule needs to change, to accomodate parents. In the olden days, a child would have been at home with her mother, and it would have been her daddy who was the senator. These days, senators and MPs are female and male, parents and childfree, straight and gay, not as many colours of the rainbow as would be nice, but nevertheless, no longer predictably white, male, middle class, and with a nice wife at home to carry all the childcare. Just maybe, it’s time for the rules to change to reflect that.

The diehard traditionalists might try to argue that if we let two year old strangers into the house willy nilly, then by the operations of the dread slippery slope, fairly soon there will be armed soldiers in there demanding that votes go a certain way. But like all slippery slope arguments, that’s just absurd. Usually, with a slippery slope, it’s very easy to make judgements about each end of the of slope. This is a bog standard feature of slippery slope arguments; the slippery difficult bit is in the middle, not at either end. We all know damned well that a two year old child is not going to influence which way the Senate votes, and is not going to distract her mother from the important task of being counted (if you haven’t clicked through to them already, you should really read anjum’s and Blue Milk’s posts about this point). We also all know that it would be a terrible thing for our democracies to be subverted and taken over by strangers in the house bearing guns. Somewhere in between these two extremes, there is a cross over point, where the harmless entrance of a child turns into undue influence. But Senator Hanson-Young and her daughter were nowhere near that point.

If we are going to be serious about supporting working parents, and supporting work-life balance for all workers, including parents, then we need to look at some of our work practices. We need to get a lot more flexible. That includes being flexible about when children can accompany their children to work. And it includes thinking long and hard about whether some of the rules we have operated by in the past are really still relevant today.

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* Yes yes yes. I know that Hansard did not start until a later time, but I am taking the opportunity to cast a nasturtium an aspersion about just how public servants are regarded.

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8 responses to “Stranger in the House

  1. “when children can accompany their children” and a nasturtium on the maturity of pollies?

    I absolutely agree with you. A newborn breastfeeding in the House was also declared a Stranger several years ago in Victoria. The Speaker Judy Madigan, being a mother and feminist, enforced the rule while acknowledging that it was stupid. There was uproar.

  2. Once I saw that my boss and colleagues brought their children into work when there was no other option, I started doing it too. There is even a TV/video unit which is currently in my office. I have a collection of videos including Shrek, Hooley Dooleys, Aladdin, Saddle Club, and Wiggledance. It is not unusual for parents to take children to work when there is no other option. It’s called parenting.

    Sarah Hanson-Young was in an untenable position. Had she not been there for the vote she would have been lambasted for failing to vote on an issue she and the Greens are passionate about. Had she left her daughter alone outside the chamber she would have been lambasted for being a Bad Mother. She did the only thing she could under the circumstances.

  3. Thank you for one of the better posts that I’ve read about this subject so far (particularly including the history of the stranger rule).

    As a parent I’ve sometimes been forced to take my child to work simply because there was no other alternative. As noted, the world did not fall down. All the work was done.

    This is not to say that I didn’t have an anxious knot in my stomach every single second of the exercise. I felt guilty about possibly disrupting my colleagues, about my child being bored and shushed constantly. As always with parenting, there was a large guilt component.

    What seems to have come out most about the response from the public (and it has been vitriolic – unfortunately I did catch some of that talkback and it wasn’t pretty; worse still it was reflected in the conversation between women in my workplace!) is that there’s no winning. Yes please have children, but it’s entirely your decision, and please, parent quietly and out of the public eye.

    Good to have posts like yours which are calm and informed (and happen to coincide with my point of view of course!)

    Sorry about the long response, but I’m relieved to read something so sensible!

  4. This is so well written, loved reading it. And thanks for the shout out.

  5. When I comment that Parliament, and indeed politics, is frequently not a very friendly environment for women I usually get several people telling me that the laydeez just need to “harden up”. Seems to me this is a case of the institution needing to change, not women (or parents). Thanks for this post Deborah, and for the links to THM :-)

  6. Pingback: Did you see the one about . . . « Homepaddock

  7. Good grief!

    One of the reasons I worked for the Public Service for so long was that they were reasonable about children long before the private sector realised a child not well enough to go to school could sit wrapped up in the corner of an office while mother met her deadlines.

    Seems that attitude hasn’t got right to the top yet

  8. Great post. It’s also worth mentioning that this didn’t take place at 11am, or indeed within regular work hours. Hanson-Young, like all senators, can be required to be in chambers from 9am until well past midnight. They are unable to leave the building. This makes the standard issues of childcare much more complicated, and even when ‘proper’ arrangements are made, it doesn’t stop divisions being called unexpectedly as in this particular case. Most commentators have ignored these unique workplace demands, which are surely above and beyond what ‘average’ parents have to cope with.