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Debate on standing order in respect to visitors on the Senate floor

Speeches in Parliament
Sarah Hanson-Young 22 Jun 2009

I don’t wish to debate the merits of this motion directly as I have an interest in the matter and I will leave the discussion of this proposed change to others in this chamber. But because this has come about from the incident involving my daughter and me on Thursday afternoon I felt it was necessary to put on the record what actually happened.

There have been many things said about what happened last Thursday afternoon here in this place when, during the vote on the Greens’ Junk Food Bill, I was asked to remove my two-year-old daughter Kora, who I had brought into the chamber for a very brief period of time. Many of the things said are incorrect, false and in some cases just plain nasty. Most of these misinformed comments and attacks are by people who were not here to witness the incident themselves and have not bothered to contact me to find out the facts.

I wanted to, for the sake of getting the facts straight, put on record what happened and why I believe we need a mature discussion about how we, as parliamentarians and representatives of our diverse communities, manage these issues better in the future.

For the record: As a senator, I am very privileged to be able to bring my daughter to Canberra from Adelaide on the weeks that parliament is sitting. I employ a nanny who travels with us so I am able to continue working, knowing that my daughter has the best possible care while I am busy working and representing my electorate.  I am not unique in doing this; other members of parliament and senators have in the past done just the same.  As a parent of a young child it would be impossible to do this job without the help of childcare, both in Parliament House and back in my home electorate.

When we are here in Canberra, Kora comes into Parliament House where the nanny cares for her here so, during long days stretching from 7am until late in the night, I am able to grab what time I can to see her on lunch breaks and dinner breaks.

It was around 4.45pm last Thursday that I had taken my daughter Kora for a quick walk around the building to say goodbye to her before she left with her nanny back to Adelaide to spend the next few days with her father. They were leaving the building at 4.55.  This goodbye ritual is something we do every Thursday before she flies back to Adelaide, just me and her. We often drop by my colleagues’ offices and the walk past the chamber, and Kora says goodbye to them as well. 

The bells started ringing during this time and I realised I would not be able to drop Kora back upstairs at my office - where the nanny was packing her toys ready to leave the building - and get back down to the chamber in time to vote on a Bill which I believed was important.

I believe as senators we have a responsibility to attend every vote, and must attempt to be on time on every occasion, not just when the numbers are close.  I have not missed a vote in this place as yet, and I wasn’t about to start that afternoon.

Knowing that the vote would only take a few minutes and I was about to not see Kora for a day or so, I simply brought her onto the chamber floor to sit quietly next to me while my vote was counted. Unlike formal debate or question time, a division only takes a matter of minutes and is more like a head count than formal proceedings. Senators chat away, sitting in other people’s seats – the only rule is you don’t move, so you can’t be double-counted. The vote would be over in a matter of minutes, we would be able to dash out of the chamber, and Kora could go off in the car to the airport, back home to see her dad, and I could go back to my office to work.

I had in the past been caught on my own with Kora, spending a short break between meetings and debates outside of my office, when the bells had rung for a vote and I had gone straight to the chamber, not wanting to miss my vote being counted.  On both previous occasions, my staff had run downstairs to take my daughter for me but the doors were locked and Kora and I were stuck inside. No one, including the President, had raised this with me as an issue.  On each of these occasions I left the chamber immediately after the vote, being in there only for a matter of 4-5 minutes, and gave Kora back to her nanny, so I could get back to work on Senate business. 

It is important to note that I am not the first senator to do this.  And as I understand, in the other chamber, the House of Representatives, members of parliament have brought their children into the chamber with them for votes, not often but occasionally, and there has been no cause of harm. In fact, in the mid-1990s, a senator who is still sitting today was able to bring her young son into the chamber in an emergency, under the-then President’s ruling.

For some reason, last Thursday was different. When the President asked Kora to be removed I was surprised that all of a sudden the rule was being enforced with little warning or conversation.  As I got up to take her to the back of the room, hoping my staff had seen what had happened and were running down to take her for me, the President kept insisting, despite my attempts to find someone to give her to without disrupting the vote.  Luckily by then my staff had reached the doors and I passed my daughter to them.  But through all the kerfuffle of the President’s orders and people trying to take her from me (trying to help I must add), Kora become quite upset with being taken from my arms and then locked outside.  I, of course, became quite upset as well. For those of you who were here, I think you can all agree that the brief time it took to count the votes was extremely tense in this place.  And yet there was no need for it to have transpired like that.  My daughter was not disturbing anyone, she was only there for a few short minutes. She only become upset and cried once she was taken from me.

I think the process of how all of this occurred could have been handled better.    A little flexibility for a couple of minutes, at a time when senators are usually chatting away loudly as formal debate is on hold, is all that was required. I am thankful that upon reflection that Mr. President, you too have acknowledged this could have been handled better. I welcome the opportunity for us to discuss the appropriateness and the need for both enforcement of standing orders and flexibility, based on common sense.

I hope that as mature, intelligent and caring members of this chamber, who all represent diverse sections of our community, we can move forward with these issues and I hope that the incident on Thursday and the experience my daughter and I have had as a result over the past few days is not repeated.

Yes, there are rules, and there are rules for a reason.  The Senate is a serious workplace (I wish some members would take that on board during question time).  We make laws here, we represent our people, we make decisions that are integral to the running of our great nation. Rules are needed and need to be respected, of course, and with that, we must all use commonsense. 

I am not arguing, and never have argued, that children, or any other non-senators for that matter should be present during the normal proceedings of Parliament.  I do not believe it is appropriate that the Senate become a crèche, far from it. I have never suggested that we all bring our kids into the chamber for debates, or while we give speeches, or question time. 

But on the rare occasion, just like when we bend the rules to recommit a vote for a senator who missed getting to the chamber in time, perhaps allowing a little flexibility to a small child who is caught spending a few short minutes with their mum or dad, when the only thing their parent needs to do is sit still on the right side of the chamber and be counted, isn’t such a bad thing.  It wouldn’t happen often, and hopefully not at all, but if it does, let’s not be so rigid in this place that we condemn senators who are also parents, and who take both jobs as seriously as each other.

There is indeed an element of cynicism in politics, yet suggestions - from some who were not even present in the chamber at the time and didn’t show up to the vote themselves -  that what happened to my daughter and I on Thursday was some kind of stunt are offensive and ignorant. 

It is this type of cynicism and crass commentary that implies our parliaments should not be reflective of the communities we represent, and dismisses the responsibility of all parliamentarians to promote respect for others in different circumstances and the importance of family and family values. 

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