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Why an Australian politician’s brave act might help change the tightrope act between balancing work and family

As the outgoing Federal Member for Perth fronted television cameras on Wednesday morning, a collective gasp went up across the nation (or at least the internet).

Tim Hammond, a rising star of the Australian Labor Party and tipped to become a Minister, if not Cabinet member if Labor should win the next election, resigned. He had been in Parliament fewer than two years.

With his wife Lindsay and one of his three children by his side in a rainy Perth park, he told reporters he ‘could not reconcile’ being the father and husband he wanted to be, while serving in Labor’s Federal Parliamentary team.

“I thought I had an appreciation of how to manage my duties as a Federal Member of Parliament in a way that did not have such an impact on my family,” he said. “I got that wrong. I just did not anticipate the profound effect my absence would have on all of us.”

He may (although I’ve yet to see it) be criticised for not understating or appreciating the gravity of the job he was taking on. The thing is, being in politics or public life attracts pressure like not many other jobs or vocations. Your time is not yours: it’s the Party’s; it’s your electorate’s; it’s your constituents’. Your every move and often the moves of your staff, are monitored, documented, with political adversaries on the opposing team waiting for you to trip up. And the same applies with adversaries on your own side, who are looking for their own chance for promotion.

I don’t really care that the job was bigger or more demanding than Mr Hammond might have thought. I’m sure he discussed with his family how they would manage it.

I care more that when he decided that his wife and children were suffering at the cost of his being away so often and for so long, he did something about it. Some people will call it failing. I call it gutsy.

Even if you do choose to see the prioritisation of his family by Mr Hammond as a failure, there’s only one name I need to mention to put the situation into a bit of context: Barnaby Joyce.

Everyone you talk to seems to have the same conclusion about Mr Hammond – that he’s a good bloke, well respected across the aisles and in both houses. That the WA-based Minister for Finance, the Hon. Sen. Mathias Cormann, who has two small children himself, issued a statement after the resignation saying he was ‘genuinely sad’ speaks volumes.

‘While we are political competitors, we are also friends and colleagues involved in the same profession focused on making a positive difference to our community and to our country,’ the statement reads. ‘Tim is a very decent, highly capable individual with a bright future in whatever he decides to do next.’

It’s not news that it is nearly impossible to have any semblance of a family life when you’re a politician. But when you come from WA, every time you fly to Canberra, you’re dealing with a two or three hour time difference; you hit the ground running at 7am on Monday morning usually having arrived at about 11.30pm the night before, and you don’t stop until you get home on Thursday night. There, you refocus your efforts on the local electorate you represent. It’s brutal. I once fell asleep on my former politican boss’ couch around 10.30pm one weeknight, waking to hear her voice – thank goodness – coming from the live broadcast from the Senate Chamber on to the nearby television, not the office itself.

With apologies to our many West Australian readers who are acutely aware of this, WA is gigantic. The UK fits inside it 11 times. Its electorate of Durack is more than 1.5 million square km. Three times the size of France. The logistical challenges of serving an electorate this big, then travelling to the West Australian capital, are immense.

The reality is that Parliament is full of male members with support teams comprised of wives and grandparents at home, keeping kids fed, watered, at school on time, and much, much more.

The other reality to consider here – and it does not escape me – is that sacrificing career opportunities for the sake of family is something that nearly every woman does. Many willingly, many because it makes economic sense for the family; and many with a sense of resignation.

Most interested and capable women never even make it to Federal Parliament, because of structural, financial, cultural and practical barriers. And it’s not fair that it works this way, but it’s only through the actions of people like Tim Hammond that further attention will be drawn to the issue, and that it *might* become a workplace issue, not a women’s issue.

Likewise, it’s the publicity with which Mr Hammond has prioritised his family and exposed the depth of soul searching over his battle with desire for public service and devotion to his roles as father and husband, that will give other men permission to change their lives.

I’m not much a fan of the word balance: as if we were all walking a tightrope line through our lives. But we are awake now to the fact that life is more than work, paying bills and retirement. Both men and women want fulfilment not just career but in family life too. The old model doesn’t serve us anymore. What happened in Perth this week is another step forward in breaking the mould.

 

 

 

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