ns have come to regard our revolving door of prime ministers as something of a structural weak point in our democratic process.
But maybe there’s a silver lining.
Across the ditch – in the land of the long white cloud – New Zealand’s new Labor opposition leader, Jacinda Ardern, faced immediate questioning last week about her intention, as a 37-year-old woman, to fall pregnant in the near future.
“The question is, is it OK for a PM to take maternity leave while in office?” demanded Mark Richardson, a former cricketer turned radio presenter, who had just the previous day used his national platform to confess to defecating off the back of a jet ski.
Right-wing radio shock jocks. Everyone’s got ’em.
Instead of leaping from her seat to throttle her knuckle-dragging interlocutor, Ms Ardern trod the path of so many female leaders before her, insisting she’s totally down with answering this question herself – no one likes a whiney woman – but insisting the question was “totally unacceptable” to ask of other women.
“It is a woman’s decision about when they choose to have children, and it should not predetermine whether or not they are given a job or have job opportunities,” Ms Ardern unleashed.
Just to be clear: In , it is unlawful for employers to quiz female employees about their intentions to have children.
For the avoidance of doubt, I asked our sex discrimination commissioner, Kate Jenkins, to clarify. This is what she said:
“Under the federal Sex Discrimination Act, it is unlawful to discriminate against an employee on the basis of their sex, pregnancy, potential pregnancy, family responsibilities and breastfeeding. This includes, for example, refusing to employ a woman because she is – or may become – pregnant, unless there are genuine health and safety concerns.”
“Section 27 of the Sex Discrimination Act specifically states that it is unlawful to ask a woman during a job interview whether she is pregnant or intends to become pregnant if that information is requested in connection with determining whether to offer her employment.”
Only last month, the NSW president of the n Medical Association, Brad Frankum, wrote to members after it came to his attention hospitals had been asking female candidates for advanced or specialist trainee positions about their pregnancy plans, either in formal interviews or informal chats beforehand.
But if the question is whether it is possible for a prime minister to take time out from his or her fixed term for parental leave, it’s a question New Zealand’s northerly neighbours – us – have answered in the affirmative.
For the past decade, there has been a bi-partisan experiment with a novel new job-sharing arrangement for the position of prime minister, in which PMs leave their post frequently to recover from a painful physical procedure – not childbirth, but the altogether more humiliating procedure of removing a knife lodged deep in one’s upper lumbar region by one’s colleagues.
Former prime minister Tony Abbott had only a brief two-year spell in office before being forced by colleagues to take an extended period of leave from which – after approaching two years – he seems keen to return from.
Kevin Rudd was only PM for two-and-a-half years before taking a three-year extended break – more than enough time to deliver a child, breastfeed it to World Health Organisation standards, and have it constructing full sentences before he returned to work.
But while fresh female leaders still face intrusive questions about their ability to their juggle work while potentially raising infants, no-one thinks to quiz ‘s male leaders on their ability to juggle their aspirations for a lengthy tenure with the increasingly fevered tantrums and dummy spits from backbenchers that would make any toddler blush.
It all begs the question why such an innovative job-sharing arrangement should not be extended to all members of parliament – to facilitate more mothers, or fathers, juggling the demands of full time parliamentary work and exhausting travel to and from Canberra.
In addition to taking extended parental leave periods – which several have – why shouldn’t two MPs with parental responsibilities share the job of one? Given the tendency of part-time working parents tend to regularly chip in work well beyond their paid hours, n taxpayers would likely be ahead on the deal.
The right to request flexible working arrangements – including part-time work – is enshrined in n anti-discrimination laws. But it is strangely absent with it comes to the persons who actually make those laws.
Perhaps ns could have retained the skills of talented mothers such as Kate Ellis or Nicola Roxon if such flexibility were extended to all.
In the broader workplace, the best way to neutralise employer concerns about potential female employees skipping work to change nappies is to not confine periods of parental leave to one parent – usually the mother.
Why not enforce a “use it or lose it” period of lengthy paid leave for fathers? Or, for a cheaper option, force parents to split existing parental leave entitlements down the middle? Three months for mum to recover physically from birth and give breastfeeding a go, and then three months for dad to take over, easing the transition for mum back to the workplace?
It might not suit everyone, but if employers knew that young men and women were just as likely to take time out to rear children, they could extend their unlawful inquiries about parenting plans to men as well as women.
Or, better yet, they could stay mum on the subject altogether.