Babies in the Senate

I wasn’t going to comment on the story about the Senate President ordering the removal of the baby of a female Senator, Sarah Hanson-Young, who had brought her child in with her for a Senate vote. It just seemed so obviously an over-reaction by the President that I felt it barely merited comment.

The Senate President, Queenslander John Hogg, is a very decent man. While he is quite conservative in many ways, he is no aggressive culture warrior, so I was surprised to hear his reaction to this and assumed he might have just been a bit more irritable than usual, leading him to take an overly strict approach rather the good helping of common sense which usually applies in interpreting Senate Standing Orders.  Irritableness often does increase in the stress of the final sitting fortnight at the end of a session, when sitting hours are usual longer and there’s pressure being put on to get a large pile of legislation passed.

But I happened to be driving a car around today so I listened to some radio and was astonished – not so much by people voicing agreement with the decision to order the removal of the baby – but by the vehemence and forcefulness of some of the comments from people who seemed to be outraged that a baby had been taken into the chamber in the first place.

This is far from the first time a baby has been brought into the Senate chamber during a vote. Apart from the occasions when former Senator Stott Despoja brought her young chamber in, I can well remember a Liberal Senator giving his final speech in the Senate in 2005 while his young daughter jumped around on his seat beside him the whole time without any objection being raised.

It would obviously be inappropriate to have children – or anyone else – wandering all through the Senate chamber while a matter was being debated, or even during Question Time when it would be impossible to disrupt proceedings because there’s already so much noise and shouting going on anyway.  Pompous pronouncements that Senators should always be focusing on the matters being addressed in the chamber without the distraction of children are laughable – if not actually offensive when being made in relation to this issue.  Far more disruptive and unparliamentary behaviour which is in technical breach of the Standing Orders occurs every day – particularly in Question Time – and all Senators, quite appropriately, spend most of their time out of the Chamber on other business unless they are directly involved in the matters being debated at the time. Any suggestion that it is inappropriate to have a child around in the building during sitting periods is ludicrous.  Senators (and other MPs) already go through more than enough enforced extended separations from their children as part of doing their job.

But Senate votes are not a time when speeches or deliberations are occurring. They are in effect a break in proceedings while the formal vote of all Senators on a matter is being recorded.  All that happens is Senators sit there – usually talking quite loudly amongst themselves – while two people at the front of the chamber cross their names off a list, according to whether they are sitting with the Ayes or the Noes for the question being voted on.  Having a baby there is no disruption – even if it was crying, which I gather wasn’t happening in this instance, at least until she was removed from her mother’s arms.

As I said, there has been no objections when infants have been brought into the Senate chamber in the past. I am at a loss to see why past practice should no longer be seen to apply and I wonder why those who are now loudly saying such a thing is inappropriate have never said so in the past.  But if the Senate President – or the Senate as a whole – suddenly feel they should ignore past practice and decide that such action is inappropriate under any circumstances, then the far more polite thing to do would have been to approach the relevant Senator afterwards and ask her not to do it again, rather than force the child’s removal in the middle of a division. 

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  1. Apparently the child is two. That’s not a baby, and well up to the age where child-care is quite OK.

  2. A sensible comment Andrew.

    I’ve been shocked by the viciousness of the attacks too. The most extraordinary I’ve seen came from Helen Razer. She ended a column full of vitriol with the charming exhortation to the senator to “Do your job”. Lovely.

  3. Thank you Andrew!

    “Apparently the child is two. That’s not a baby, and well up to the age where child-care is quite OK.”

    First: Why is child-care ‘quite OK’ for a two year old? What gives you the authority to make that pronouncement?

    Second: This wasn’t so much about an absence of care, it was about a mother wanting to spend some time with her child before her child flew back to Adelaide without her. How on earth could childcare assist them in such a situation?

  4. After Kirstie Marshall got turfed out of the Victorian Parliament, it is surprising that there were no changes made across all Parliaments to employ a little discretion.

  5. I think the Senate President did the right thing. If he makes an exception for one child (setting a precedent), Senators might feel free to bring in a screaming baby, or a whole clutch of kids whenever they feel like it.

    Then they will get angry if he wants to kick THEIR kids out.

    Senators earn more than enough money to pay baby sitters, so there really is no excuse for bringing their toddlers to work.

    What could be more important than giving one’s full concentration to matters affecting the whole country – unless your baby is dying in a hospital somewhere?

  6. I am amazed by the comments by those who clearly don’t have any understanding of how the Senate actually works. They put in long hours, and do sacrifice a lot. It sounds to me as if the child was NOT being looked after by her mother all day long on the floor of the Senate, as people are assuming, The child came in to visit her Mother before leaving to go back to Adelaide, as I understand it. The division was called and the duty of the mother was to stay so her vote could be recorded. Presumably she would then have taken the child off to wherever she was meeting up with the person taking the child back to Adelaide. Having lived in Canberra, working at the old Parliament House, a place run by men for men, and very difficult for any woman to work in who had family responsibilities, whether a Senator or Rep or merely in the Admin side, I know the hours they work, and the way that everything revolves around the bells. If you make the place family-unfriendly you deny the nation the ability to have access to the talents and energy of younger folk whose unique points of view are valuable and needed. The dreadfullly ad hominem remarks by many women are disappointing, to say the least.

  7. So Lorikeet, if children are to be barred on the grounds of being a distraction, would you also support a prohibition against laptops in chambers?

  8. Good post, Andrew. I was also shocked at the flow of negativity and frank hatred for a young mother doing her job(s). This is nothing new, though, and seems to have become the norm for comments made on the web. Perhaps one day the pendulum will swing back to courtesy and consideration – but that day seems far away.

    I reckon John Hogg is doing his best, and he was the first to admit that he could have handled this matter better. I note that he is welcoming debate about changing the ‘stranger’ rule. So his controversial ruling may move some more positive change in our society.

  9. Lorikeet, one of the key points Andrew is making is that this *isn’t* a precedent. Children have been brought in previously. And there isn’t a great deal of concentration involved in sitting still and being counted. I reckon I could manage that with a lap top and three kids.

  10. Dare I type anything to be seen here ,with Feral Abacus counting !? I actually think this country is in deep crisis,when people imply a sort of jealousy of a mother with a child of two years age ruffling the feathers of many because of a ruling a man had to make quickly,or thought he did!?Seeing I more than often feel,the reason,or one of the reasons I am not a parent,is for the same attitude Razer has adopted..I don’t like Australia much,when it is always some reference to the future,with somebody’s child,or them the bloody parent.Same reason why Bob Brown will be personally punished at the next election.

  11. Feral:

    If Senators are using laptops to read or answer email, play the daily crossword etc instead of listening attentively, I think they should be switched off.

    The same would apply to anyone playing electronic games or who is “wired for sound”.

    If all a person is doing (male or female) is giving a child a quick kiss goodbye, that should be okay. Otherwise they could leave the chamber for a moment or two, depending on what is going on.

    I don’t think a politician would have much time to be a mother (or father) in any case. It doesn’t seem like the right kind of job when a person has that level of commitment and responsibility, unless their spouse is a full-time parent.

    I had to work full-time when I had 2 toddlers, but I think kids really need their mothers at that age. If they have to work, something part-time would be more suitable, unless this is financially impossible.

  12. Banning laptops and the like would just reduce productivity. Most people are capable of multi-tasking, and using spare time until the legislation you are dealing with comes up to answer emails, write blog posts or whatever is just providing better value for money for the taxpayer. The legislative and other workload for politicians is far greater now than it was a generation ago – why introduce measures to reduce their productivity.

    I wrote more than a few blog posts from the Senate Chamber or from Senate Committees – it’s not that hard to follow the general debate whilst dealing with other matters, particularly if you’re not directly participating in the debate.

    Suggesting a politician would not have much time to be a mother or a father just shows the impossible (double) standards people put on politicians. They expect them to be available 24 hours a day 7 days a week, while also expecting them to be ‘normal’ people. There is far too narrow a representation of people in our federal parliament as it is – restricting to those without young children would make it even more unrepresentative.

  13. Andrew:

    I wasn’t expecting that at all – just pointing out the difficulty of doing two full-time jobs at once – with the politician’s job also requiring very long hours and separation from family.

    I don’t think it’s possible to give full attention to more than one thing at a time. However, there definitely seems to be a lot of time wasted in the parliament by nitpickers who seem to deliberately stymie the process.

    I think we should have greater representation (smaller electorates), so the pressure on politicians is less.

    If I email the local councillor, I receive a reply almost immediately (even on a Sunday), but I have now been waiting 6-1/2 months for replies from State and Federal politicians.

    Perhaps the government should do as you previously suggested – cut the pay a bit – but also employ more politicians with the savings.

    Last night I saw Nick Xenophon on TV complaining about the huge cost of maintaining previous Prime Ministers. Perhaps the government needs to give that some thought as well.

    I recently emailed all of the Queensland Senators. Only 2 replied – The Greens with a long standard spiel they send to everyone (a reply at least) – and a Liberal Senator’s assistant promising he would send a WRITTEN reply. I will be extremely interested to see what it contains.

  14. Parliamentariasn and productivity? thats an interesting angle…..

    It does seem rather a non-issue and an overreaction by the President, maybe he knew it was coming

  15. Thanks Andrew. Obviously a lot of the hatred is aimed at The Greens but I doubt if any of the critics realise how the Senate works. When the bells ring, Senators have 4 minutes to get to the chamber to vote, and Senator Hanson-Young had no way of taking her child back to her office and then getting back from where they were walking when the bells started. She was only in there for the vote, not the debate, so no harm there either. As AB says, it’s been done before, but not by a Green. I will never understand why the Greens draw such hatred in Australia so I’m glad of support for the Senator from non-Greens who are not distracted by such trivia.

  16. I’ve never heard so much damned nonsense over the presence of a 2 yr old in the Senate, for a few minutes, spending time with her Mummy before she was taken home – by plane. Have we forgotten the ‘milk of human kindness’; the 21st century knowledge on the importance of the bond between parents and child, and her presence during a vote. They weren’t debating the security of the nation, not even any stupid trick pulled by the Opposition. If people spent any time watching or listening to Parliament, they’d know that what Andrew stated about these voting times is correct. You just have to stand on one side or the other? No need to concentrate – just chat with your friends until the count is over?

    LORIKEET Next you’ll be defending the rights of kids; how parents have lost their parenting skills, or lost their rights in the community blah blah! When you have the opportunity to stand up for women, their roles in the work force, and the love and care for little people, you castigate the woman. I just wish there were more women in Parliament with little ones 30-40 yrs ago when I was raising my boys. Perhaps we wouldn’t have had to wait until now for studies re paid maternal/paternal leave, non-sexist policies in the workforce, other related issues. We still don’t have equal pay? When I think of those responsible for the new Parliament House, no wonder there’s no child care facilities. They were mostly men, and their children were being cared for by their stay at home wives – several would probably have demanded it! There’s plenty of places to eat, drink alcohol, even a blooming gym, but no child care facilites. It’s a long way from Sth Australia to Canberra!

    I support Sarah for wanting a last cuddle with her little one. I understand the toddler’s behaviour was impeccable, until she was separated from her mummy, which is more than can be said about many of the so-called ‘adults’ in both Houses. I wish some of them were still at home – with THEIR mummy!

  17. I don’t know how old Peter D.Jones is or how long he has been in Australia,butlet me assure him, that as a young man myself,before the Greens were even formed..I was generalised as the following A long haired poofta conservationist dole bludging dope smoking elitist.Where you been!? Israel or Al Gore’s real estate!?

  18. Naomi:

    I had no idea there were no baby sitting facilities in the new Parliament House. How archaic is that?

    When I had my first child in 1974, the Queensland Public Service had paid maternity leave.

    There were non-sexist policies in the Australian Public Service when I started working for the federal government in 1985.

    I wasn’t castigating the woman. As Peter D. Jones points out, unless we have been in the parliament, it is hard to know what the procedures are, besides a lot of finger pointing and insults.


    The Greens draw hatred in Australia because of their dangerously extreme policies.

  19. Actually that is a bit incoherent on my part..cognitive dissonnance,so to speak,wether the spelling is accurate.I suppose the Benevolent Society would consider 14% of the world’s population has been abducted by Aliens as a trifle impossible!?And Chatham House would find it impossible to criticize say NASA, for its many blunders, including now wanting to bomb a hole in the Moon looking for water!? It wasn’t so long ago, that, water on the Moon was considered a first A impossibility,so why are the Americans doing it!?Our memories in Australia are rapidly failing us,because we would prefer to allow the liars and deceivers to simply ,like ourselves,had a lack of sleep and couldn’t of really said that!? I mean,at the best of times,we are being told,this could not be,but ,it is a slower recognition,that says,I don’t know but certainly it could be.There are many unanswered questions,that became unquestionable truths that I now perceive as false as dusk being dawn..I am not sure the Business of Business people really in the long run actually helps anyone.

  20. Lorikeet, I’d give you points for consistency, but as Andrew has pointed out, one needs to be alert to potential adverse consequences.

    In any case, behavioural micro-management is demeaning and counter-productive. I’d rather that adults were trusted to behave as adults – most will rise to the occasion most of the time.

  21. When I had my first child in 1963, women had to leave their full time jobs as Commonwealth Public Servants when they married – you could work as a casual, but not permanent. I was working as a Teachers Aide in NSW, from 1974-1983, and we only had the right to Superannuation near the end of that time. Government departments were first with paid maternity leave, but does it cover all occupations?

    When I refer to the politicians who were in senior positions when the new Parliament House was planned, there were some notable males who believed in the ‘1950’s’ attitude to women. Some are still there!Anne Summers book “The End of Equality” about the Howard years, and how many areas relating to policies for women were axed or went backwards. It’s an interesting read – very sobering!

    As Andrew pointed out, there’s been kids in Parliament House before, and the world as we know it didn’t stop – it adds an element of reality I think. We’ve grown to be a pretty selfish lot in latter years. People whingeing about kids here or there, paid maternity allowance, even community swimming pools – I don’t have kids etc. We forget that we all started out as dependent babes, and we now know lots more about the needs of tiny people. If as a nation, we understand the importance of kids with parents and vice versa, then we can accommodate their needs. As I said, I just wish more adults behaved like this little pet! We should also trust the common sense of the parent/s. They’re not going to insist on staying if their babe is crying etc.

    I don’t think that the Greens policies are extreme. In fact, I can’t think of one off hand that I don’t agree with – particularly re the environment, to wit, the planned Gunns Paper Mill in Tasmania(the role of Tasmanian govt in this and logging is appalling) saving the great Whales and Climate Change to name just a few.

  22. Phil:

    Yes, you made some good points. Recently I had a discussion with an eminent psychiatrist who was conducting a study of schizophrenia, and found that he was heavily into “unquestionable truths” or “unquestionable lies/delusions” – depending on how you want to look at it.


    There were clearly differences between the States regarding paid maternity leave for government workers.

    I would certainly not disagree at all that Howard sent women’s rights backwards. Has Rudd done anything to rectify it? I think not. There was certainly no increase in Parenting Payment included in the budget.

    As for people living on Disability Support Pension, I’m sure the budget report mentioned something about looking into people’s real estate holdings.

  23. LORIKEET – “I would certainly not disagree at all that Howard sent women’s rights backwards. Has Rudd done anything to rectify it? I think not. There was certainly no increase in Parenting Payment included in the budget.” I’m not without criticism of the Rudd govt on several fronts, but a constant source of annoyance to me, is that after years of neglect of those on the bottom rung of the ladder after a conservative govt, when a Labor govt is elected everyone expects amazing changes overnight. (the first 6 months? – and the Conservatives with straigiht face calling for a $30 pw increase in pensions??WHAT I screamed?)They pushed pensioners into the horrific state of poverty too many are living in each day

    I can assure you Lorikeet, as a person who was on a DSP, I don’t have any hidden real estate holdings. I’ve noticed in recent times, that many in govt in NSW have up to 10-20 properties? Even on their salaries, how can they afford that? Most have a family home and kids – I don’t understand? I’d like the Rudd govt to spend the same amount of money chasing those who owe the tax office billions, instead of chasing after Centrelink recipients who, individually owe approximately $1500 or so, often through no fault of their own. By comparison, a paltry amount is spent chasing after tax cheats(maxi thieves).Funny how the current affairs shows don’t go after them with equal fervour?

  24. There’s a very good saying that used to be on the NSW DOCS (Dept of Community Services) badge;
    ” IT TAKES A COMMUNITY TO RAISE A CHILD”. I think it’s worth remembering re this topic. Sarah Hanson-Young looks like a very sensible young woman to me. I think it’s sad that she received such vitriolic reaction re having her toddler in the Senate during a vote. It’s not difficult to find out how both Chambers function – it’s not rocket science. I think we should give the parents the credit for knowing their own children’s limits and needs, and show some empathy and understanding. Maybe I’m unusual, but I find it almost impossible not to smile at a little one? We could do with more – smiles that is?

    I hear criticism aimed at (usually the mothers) at Supermarkets or wherever and the same lack of empathy is too often evidenced. Some women are sole parents(through no fault of their own?DV for example).We have citizens here from overseas; not everyone has family close by, or they’re working or aged or ill. Neighbours are often working full time. Due to WorstChoices, many couples pass each other going/returning from work. There’s lots of reasons why parents have no alternatives. I think there should be more child care centres in shopping centres – there was a great one about 20 klms from me, but when the Centre was renovated, guess what??Local govts via state laws could make it a condition of any new centres? Why not? They make heaps of money – the owners are just greedy bastards! I try to help mums when their kids are stroppy or unhappy etc.They usually feel bad enough if their toddler is having a tantrum – why exaccerbate their discomfort? “Can I do anything to help” doesn’t take much effort? Even though many yrs have passed, I can still remember just how damned hard parenting is? I have no sympathy with cruelty or verbal abuse, but ordinary stresses? Yes!

  25. Naomi:

    You might have seen on TV last night, that the government has actually reeled in $25,000,000 from deadbeat dads who had to put in an income tax return to get their $900 stimulus handout. But we are assured this is only the tip of the iceberg.

    I think there would be fewer families living on the streets, if those little apartments were more appropriately priced.

    As for the childraising issues you raised, I think the community has been taught some idiotic things in recent times. While there are some excellent parents around, I think a large percentage are now inviting a “childing”.

    Neither Liberals nor Labor care very much about non-working people or their children, regardless of payment classification.

  26. LORIKEET – I think most parents are genuinely trying to do their best for their kids. Of course, there’s always the exceptions, and sadly, they’re the ones who get media attention – they’re not the norm, as they aren’t considered ‘news worthy’ or suitable for the current affairs programs, which are just like ‘shock jocks’ in my view, and I don’t watch them through choice – they disgust me!

    The outstanding amount owed to the taxation dept is in the billions!But govts don’t spend as much money chasing after them – they’d rather go after those at the bottom of the pile- those doing it tough on too little! Then we get the god botherer and his crew refusing to give them a measly $21 per week a week or so ago! The usual suspects were also whining when wages fell during the Howard years while profits soared? They still came out against every increase – as did the Howard govt for the majority of wage cases?

    I remember thinking once, how easy it is to raise other peoples’ children. I remember my late sister saying, ‘don’t criticize the mistakes of other peoples’ kids, you never know what your own will bring home’? Too true! I looked at my parents with renewed respect when I began parenting. I disagreed with some of their views etc and I amended them with my own, but I didn’t live during the hard yrs as they did, nor did I raise 9 kids. Wow!

  27. Whatever. There is free child care provided in parliament house Andrew, you would know that. Always has been, always will be. This was nothing more than a grab for media attention and the truth is, despite your personal feelings or any precedent – babies do not belong were you ‘people’ are ‘running’ (coughs) our country. This is nothing to do with women’s rights, and even if it did, that’s still not a good enough argument. If you have ever worked outside parliament you will know bringing kids to the office is not done. Try to remember that although you think your children are adorable, everyone else finds them bloody annoying.

  28. To Christy – she wanted to spend time with her child, child-care can’t do that. Ooh my heart bleeds. Boo-Hoo to poor mummy! Pull your head out sweetie, if that’s as far as you can delve into this issue then smash your keyboard before you comment again. Get someone in there who can concentrate on the job of RUNNING OUR COUNTRY and she can bugger off and spend all the time with her kid she wants. It’s her kid, not ours, but it’s our parliament, not hers. If women want to be a part of the work-place then they need to follow the rules that we all do. Otherwise, stay at home and cook, no-one wants you in their office.

  29. Weary:

    Gee, that’s a bit mean. May we assume you are a male? May we trust in the fact that you help with childraising, housecleaning and cooking if your wife works outside of the home?


    I think you need to become a bit more up to date where the modern child is concerned. During the recent school holidays (just ended) I encountered quite a lot of very frustrated parents whose children would not do as they were told.

    I agree that it takes a whole society to raise children, but the kids are being taught the wrong things and adults are being influenced too much by idiots.

  30. LORIKEET – As I said, the easiest kids to raise are other people’s kids. Once again you make grand sweeping statements about how lousy a job today’s parents are – and I disagree! For example, although I haven’t met Andrew, I know from his principles, thoughts, contributions to others, that he and his wife would be doing a great job with their kids. I think parenting is the toughest job, and young parents need our support and encouragement, not our criticism all the time!

    My eldest son and his wife are raising their kids in a loving environment too, with good values – compassion, kindness and consideration of others for example. My other son is too, although his chn are older – I know lots of people are doing a great job now, and have done in the past. You only have to look at what young people are achieving, what their education and informal areas of education are showing, how vibrant etc they are.

    I’m concerned over the sexualization of children, particularly girls, and I think there should be guidelines on advertising content etc. I hate seeing adds in newspapers with pathetically thin models, and I’m disappointed, as I thought the law changed, stipulating,that underweight young women should not be used in this way! I’m also concerned about the growing levels of violence, which unlike other crimes, has risen over the last 10 yrs – particularly against women and kids in their own homes – where they should be secure and treasured!

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