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Monday, 22 June 2009
Page: 3910

Senator HANSON-YOUNG (5:42 PM) —I do not wish to debate directly all of the merits of Senator Brown’s motion as I obviously have an interest in the matter, so I want to leave that discussion to those in the Procedure Committee and the other members of the chamber here. Because this has come about from an incident on Thursday afternoon involving my daughter and me, I felt it was necessary to put on record what actually happened.

There have been many things said about what happened last Thursday afternoon when, during the vote on the Greens junk food bill, I was asked to remove my two-year-old daughter, Kora, whom 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 were made by people who were not even here themselves to see what happened and have not bothered to contact me to find out the facts. For the sake of getting the facts straight, I want to 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 into 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 that I am able to continue working knowing that my daughter has the best possible care while I am busy representing my electorate and working hard in the Senate. I am not unique in doing this: other members and senators have done just the same in the past. As a parent of a young child, it would be impossible to do this job without the help of child care, both in Parliament House and back in my electorate office.

When we are here in Canberra, Kora comes into Parliament House, where the nanny cares for her. During the long day, stretching from 7 am to late into the night, I am able to grab what time I can to see her on lunch and dinner breaks. It was around 4.45 pm 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 the nanny back to Adelaide to spend the next few days with her father. They were leaving at 4.55 pm. This goodbye ritual is something the two of us do every Thursday before she flies back to Adelaide. We often drop by my colleagues’ offices and 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 Kora’s toys and getting ready to go. I did not have enough time to go up and then back down to the chamber to vote on the 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 had not missed a vote in this place, and I was not about to start missing them last Thursday afternoon.

Knowing that the vote would only take a few minutes and I was about to not see Kora for a day 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 headcount than formal proceedings. Senators chat away, sitting in other people’s seats—the only rule I had been taught was that you do not move so you cannot be double-counted. I believed the vote would be over in a matter of minutes and we would be able to dash out of the chamber and Kora would go off in the car to the airport, back home to see her dad. I was planning to 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 my office when the bells had rung for a vote and I had gone straight to the chamber, not wanting to miss out on my vote being counted. On both previous occasions my staff had run downstairs to take my daughter from me, but the doors had been locked and Kora and I were stuck inside. No-one, including the President, had raised this with me as an issue in the past. On each of those occasions I left the chamber immediately after the vote, having been there for only a matter of four or five minutes, and gave Kora back to her nanny so I could get back to the work of the Senate. It is important to note that I am not the first senator to do this. As I understand it, 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 it has never caused any harm. In fact, in the mid-1990s a senator who is still sitting here today was able to bring her young son into the chamber in an emergency, based on an understanding she had with the then President.

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 quickly down to help me, the President kept insisting, despite my attempts to find somebody to give her to without disturbing the vote. Luckily, by then my staff had reached the doors and I passed my daughter to them. But through all of the kerfuffle, the President’s orders and people trying to take her from me—and I must point out that people were trying to help, but they were grabbing at her as I was trying to get her out of the chamber—Kora became quite upset and was taken from my arms and locked outside. I, of course, became quite upset as well. For those of you who were here, I think you can all agree that for the brief time it took to count the votes it 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 became upset and cried once she was taken from me.

I think the process of how all 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 the President himself has acknowledged that this could have been handled better, and 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 never have to be repeated. Yes, there are rules, and there are rules for a reason. The Senate is a serious workplace—and I wish some members of this place would remember that 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 they need to be respected—of course they do—and, with that, we must all use common sense.

I am not arguing, and never have argued, that children, or any other nonsenators for that matter, should be present during the normal proceedings of parliament. I do not believe it is appropriate for the Senate to become a creche—far from it. I have never suggested that we all bring our kids into the chamber for debates, or while we give speeches, or during question time. But on rare occasions, just like when we bend the rules to recommit a vote for a senator who missed getting to the chamber in time, surely allowing a little flexibility to a small child who is caught spending a few short minutes with their mum or their dad when the only thing the parent needs to do is sit on the right side of the chamber and be counted is not such a bad thing. It will not happen often, and hopefully not at all, but, if it does, let us 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 did not bother to show up to vote themselves—that what happened to my daughter and me 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.