Is politics anti-family?

Another Australian politician has resigned to spend more time with his family but this time the family mantra is not tacked on to a struggling career in order to add moral weight to the political decision sadly many examples of dubious resignations are available.  Most commentators believe that the Tasmanian Premier, David Bartlett’s decision is a genuine desire to spend more time with his young family.

Premier David Bartlett talking to workers at the McKay Timbers.

Most of the media coverage relates to the political context of Bartlett’s decision but the circumstances for the decision are not unique as some previous SafetyAtWorkBlog articles show.  Political careers can lead to suicide attempts, depression and mental breakdown.  Certainly this occurs in other professions but at some point the structure of the occupation needs reviewing if a work/life balance is to be achieved.

Politics has always been a time vampire that has required the welfare and development of children to be given a lower priority than public service.  Several articles note that Bartlett made his decision, amongst other reasons, after reading a school journal of his son’s in which it was noted that Bartlett was working yet another weekend.  It is also no surprise that such a decision has occurred after the Christmas/New Year break when many professionals spend “quality” time with their families.

Much has been made of the current government’s parental leave scheme introduced on 1 January 2011 but it can be argued that a more significant achievement could come from providing as much occupational continuity as possible through the work/life balance structures and ideology.

Many political commentators have written about the lack of variety in our political leaders’ experience and wondered how new politicians can be drawn from outside the legal and union professions.  Money does not work as better returns can be achieved in the private sector.  The parliamentary superannuation scheme is extremely generous but that has been tightened up and only becomes accessible in the future.  Bartlett’s decision shows that for many with a young family, politics can be costly on family development and parental obligations.

It is unlikely that Parliament will ever become an “employer-of-choice” unless it shows that public service is equally applicable in the home.

Bruce Montgomery in the Crikey newsletter stated on 24 January 2011:

“Bartlett became a father in his late 30s and premier at 40, after only four years in the parliament. That is his main problem. Orthodoxy in Tasmania is that backbenchers have toddlers, ministers have teenagers, but premiers have empty nests, favourite restaurants and burn the midnight oil. Or, as Giddings and Julia Gillard prefer, you dedicate your life to politics from the start. Bartlett’s timing for a political career was out of phase with his family. His rise was too sharp.”

There are many social points to be made from this quote, but the reality is that a political career can be anti-family, particularly for those political professionals with ambition for the top jobs in their jurisdiction.

Rather than wrap David Bartlett’s decision in too much political analysis it is worth quoting Bartlett in his 23 January 2011 press conference:

“…I’ve come to the conclusion over the summer that this job that requires seven days a week of your energy, often 24 hours a day is becoming or has become incompatible with being a good dad, particularly for my boy Hudson who is seven and becoming a young man, he needs his dad around and I’ve taken the decision that I don’t want to miss out on that opportunity to be a good father for him.  One of my dearest friends said to me just after Hudson was born and just after .., or just before I was elected to the Parliament, she said you only get 13 summers with your kids, after that they’re off doing their own thing, maybe they don’t want to know you, I’ve just gone through my eighth summer with Hudson and I’m determined not to miss the next five.”

“QUESTION: Premier what was the crystallising moment for you to make this decision?

BARTLETT: There are a couple, I started thinking heavily about this I must say when Hudson brought his school work home this year, he’s doing very well at school but he …., each child in the class is required to write a journal on a Monday morning of what they did on their weekend and there were far too many entries that started “my daddy went to work this weekend, so we didn’t do anything” or “we did this because daddy was at work”. And that started me thinking about him and about Matilda but he being a seven year old I think is coming to that point in his life much more that he needs his dad….”

It may be that ambition must be curtailed when one chooses to start a family, just as the environmental reality is that one cannot have sustainability without a reduction in economic growth or the OHS reality that safety incurs short term costs for long-term benefits

It is long overdue that two social movements that have echoes in workplace safety begin to integrate – work/life balance and mental health.  Both campaigns have the social benefit as their main aim. Balancing work and life pressures results in better individual, familial and social development.  Recognising mental health as a legitimate workplace management issue will provide similar benefits but from a different starting point. In short, everyone needs to look at the way we work and make sure that what we do does not exploit our families, our health and our social obligations.

Kevin Jones

4 thoughts on “Is politics anti-family?”

  1. My father was a local councillor for 33 years and it unquestionably did detract from family life. He spent countless evenings away from home so he could attend meetings about town drainage and so on. We did sometimes resent his strong sense of obligation to ratepayers.

    On the other hand, it did give us a sense of the way the community worked as a whole – a kind of appreciation for the need to be part of a bigger effort.

    Now that I am a mother, I would not contemplate following in his footsteps, let alone into state or federal politics. I want to be there for my own little ones and, more selfishly, I don\’t want to miss out on them either. When they are older, I\’ll increase my contribution to the community as an active member of groups like the CFA and LandCare but never as a politician.

    GG Quentin Bryce said during a 7:30 Report interview:

    \”For a very long time now I\’ve been saying to young women, you can have it all, but not all at the same time. How important it is to take very good care of yourself, of your mental and physical and spiritual wellbeing, it\’s hard to do. It\’s easier to be a workaholic than to have a truly balanced life.\”

    I think the same applies to men and it\’s to David Barlett\’s credit that he\’s drawn that conclusion.

  2. I spent 12.5 years as a local government councillor – with 2.5 years prior to my daughter\’s birth

    in the end I made the decision to leave as my young daughter needed more of me – yet now she sometimes makes noises about me re-turning to politics

    there is an expectation that politicians at all levels are on-tap 24x7x52 – which is hard on families

    I set boundaries that Sunday evening was family night with my husband, my daughter & my mother – yet I was under pressure often to abandon this – but 7 years after I retired from politics, we still have Sunday family nights

    I found people turning up at front door of our home at 8.30pm on Sunday evening to complain of non catastrophic events & issues – even our Mother-Daughter visit to a hairdresser got de-railed for over 30 minutes due to tirades by agitated member of the community outside the hairdressing salon

    yet being a parent broadened me as a politician from being mainly Green-focused to more inclusive & community focused eg childcare, aged care, libraries, sports facilities

  3. The problem with politicians who resign for genuine family reasons is that they are the politicians with the very values I would like to see remain in Parliament.

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