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Monday, 22 June 2009
Page: 3908

Senator CHRIS EVANS (Minister for Immigration and Citizenship) (5:34 PM) —I rise to support the amendment moved by Senator Brown, because I think it is the sensible way to take forward the issue that has been raised by these circumstances. I was not in the chamber at the time—I was in the middle of a cabinet meeting—but I have seen the footage and the coverage of the matter and I have spoken to the President about it.

The thing I want to make absolutely clear is that there is no way the government would have supported a motion disagreeing with the President’s ruling. His ruling was absolutely correct and in alignment with the standing orders, and I think Senator Brown has conceded that. It is important that that be put on the record. Senator Hogg, the President, made a ruling which exactly upheld the standing orders of the Senate and he performed his functions as he should have. The fact that he was gracious afterwards in saying that he could perhaps have handled the matter better is a tribute to him. The fact that he was conciliatory, gracious and sensitive is a mark of the man and has greatly enhanced the way this matter has been handled. He has also made it his policy not to speak about it in the press and to try to deal with the issue. He was aware that Senator Hanson-Young was upset and he wanted to deal with it as sensitively as he could. I think he has done that. I think he has done himself great credit in this and has confirmed why the Senate thought it appropriate to make him President.

I also want to put on the record that I have no truck with the view that this was a Greens stunt. I have seen the footage of what occurred in the chamber. I have seen the reactions. This was not a stunt. This was a normal, human reaction in a difficult situation, and I think that to make allegations about stunts et cetera is not helpful. I think this was a difficult circumstance where everybody behaved as they do in emotional and difficult circumstances and it all got a little untidy in the Senate. That is just the way people are and how those circumstances develop. So I do not think there is any question of blame or criticism of people. As I say, I think everyone has reacted fairly maturely after the incident and people are aware that Senator Hanson-Young was upset. From what I could see, she was crying in one corner and the child was crying in another corner—it was generally going very well from the President’s point of view! It left him in a very difficult situation. The bottom line is that the parliament needs to continue to look at the way we deal with work and family balance and how we deal with issues of children and our families in trying to do our jobs here.

As you know, this government has made a very strong commitment to trying to promote women into the parliament. In this chamber, we did have 50 per cent female representation. I think female representation is just below 50 per cent at the moment. We take it very seriously. I think the parliament is better for the larger number of women represented. We have had to make some changes to accommodate women. Of course, I quickly add that that does not mean that women are responsible for children; all parents are responsible for children. It has been about trying to make parliament more accessible for members of parliament who are mothers. That is why the rules were changed to allow breastfeeding in the chamber, in recognition of the increasing number of young women who were breastfeeding babies and trying to do their jobs. It was an appropriate response from the parliament to that issue. I think people generally accepted that that was a good move forward.

This government is very committed to trying to improve work and family balance, be it by supporting the childcare centre opening at Parliament House—a long overdue development—or through our paid maternity leave policy. We are sensitive to work and family balance and trying to deal with responsibilities as parents and as parliamentarians, but it is equally the case that we are in a workplace. I always compare us to fly-in, fly-out workers. That has been my approach to the Senate over the years. I arrive on the last plane and leave on the first. With all due deference to Canberra, I do that for my work and family balance. I try to get home as quickly as I can to try to maintain some sort of balance in my life and take my parenting responsibilities seriously.

Bu this is a workplace. It is the Parliament of Australia. Getting the balance between our responsibilities in the proper operation of the parliament and bringing children in is a very difficult issue. I do not have a finalised view on that. I think we ought to take this very seriously before we get to the point of widening the current arrangements. I must say that, if I had been in the chamber, I would have immediately offered a pair to Senator Hanson-Young. That should have been how we dealt with it at the time, but that is easy to say after the event. Since I was a whip many years ago, I have always argued very strongly that family commitments are the first priority for pairs and that other obligations—be it travel or whatever—come a very long second to people with family or health related issues. Both sides of the parliament have always paired anyone who needed it. Pairing the Greens has been a good development.

I think referring the matter to the Senate Standing Committee on Procedure to work through some of those issues is an appropriate way to deal with it. As I have said, I do not think we will necessarily be supporting a broad widening of the capacity to bring children into the parliament during divisions, but I accept that there have been instances in the past, as Senator Brown said. It does often cheer the senators up, but there is a question about the appropriateness of having children in the chamber during a division. I assumed it was just the Greens trying to get an extra vote on Senator Brown’s bill, but then it occurred to me that Family First would probably do better out of such an arrangement! How many kids have you got, Senator Fielding?

Senator Fielding —Not enough!

Senator CHRIS EVANS —I do not know whether it was intended that they be counted. I think the amended motion is a way of resolving the issues. I think everyone has acted perfectly appropriately. I do not have any criticism of anyone involved. Having the Procedure Committee look at the practicalities is a sensible way to proceed. I am not suggesting that we are going to support any particular change. Neither the government nor the senators have had a chance to discuss that at the moment. We think it is a difficult issue, but we are certainly happy to have a look at it and see if any changes need to be made beyond those which we agreed to a couple of years ago.