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The mother of all parliaments as Labor honours labour

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Finance Minister Katy Gallagher just one of several women raising children in Labor's mother-friendly Parliament (Screenshot via YouTube)

The change of government and influx of not only women but mothers into Parliament have brought with them an air of optimism among advocates and the parents they support, writes Anna Cusack.

*CONTENT WARNING: This article discusses suicide

AS THE FINAL composition of the 47th Parliament begins to take shape, much has been said about both the impact of the women’s vote and the greater numbers of women who will enter both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

What has received less attention, however, is the influx of not only women but mothers into this Parliament.

Of the 58 female MPs likely to be elected to the Lower House, at least 49 are mothers — a staggering number considering the previous record for the greatest number of female MPs (mothers and non-mothers combined) elected to the chamber in 2019 was 47.

And while mothers were once required to wait until their kids were grown up to recommence their careers, the mothers of the 2022 Lower House are not a homogenous group of fair-skinned grandmothers looking with rose-coloured glasses upon their child-raising years.

Mothers of children of all ages are represented, with returning Member for Bendigo Lisa Chesters welcoming her second child only last year and mothers of under-fives, primary school children, teenagers and adults all taking their seats in the new Parliament.

According to their websites, there are mothers of twins and triplets, mothers who’ve had babies spend weeks in neonatal intensive care units, Aboriginal mothers, mothers from refugee and migrant backgrounds, mothers who observe a diverse range of faiths, mothers who are survivors of domestic violence, mothers of children who have died and mothers raising children in two-mum families.

The new Parliament's mothers are also joined by women with a potentially different slant on motherhood and the pathways to it, including stepmothers and non-mothers not by choice following cancer treatment and unsuccessful in vitro fertilisation (IVF).

The diversity of experience of these mothers has the potential to offer broader perspectives to a workplace that has been traditionally staffed by men whose career trajectories and life opportunities have remained largely unaffected by their entry to parenthood.

Family-focused organisations are hopeful that increased representation of mothers in parliament may lead to greater discussion and higher prioritisation of issues affecting Australian parents, carers and children over the coming electoral term.

Spokesperson for birth rights organisation Maternity Consumer NetworkAlecia Staines, believes having more women in Parliament who are mothers “can only be a positive for improving maternity services and an overall focus on women’s health”.

Staines tells Independent Australia that a national maternity strategy was presented to the previous Government in August 2019 and while some of its recommendations have since been actioned by former Health Minister Greg Hunt, there is still work to be done by the new Administration to see its implementation in full.

Says Staines:

“We hope to see more equitable access to private midwives through higher rebates, homebirth covered under Medicare and reviewing barriers for midwives to enter private practice.”

Of course, the making of mothers and babies is about more than just birth itself. The “perinatal period” is a term used to describe the time from conception through to one year after the birth.

Arabella Gibson, chief executive officer of perinatal mental health charity Gidget Foundation Australia describes the dramatic increase in representation in Parliament as:

“… utterly terrific. To have women with real, first-hand experience of perinatal issues in Parliament will be significant.”

Gibson notes that while roughly 20 per cent of mothers will experience pre-and postnatal mental health issues – translating to 100,000 Australian women each year – many more will struggle with infertility and baby loss.

With the primary cause of maternal death in Australia during a baby’s first year being maternal suicide and the effect of postnatal mental health issues on fathers becoming more well recognised, Gibson hopes to see the new Labor Government match the $25 million dollar pledge made by former PM Morrison during the election campaign. She says the funding is essential to deliver an additional 20 Gidget houses Australia-wide to provide free psychological counselling for parents experiencing perinatal depression and/or anxiety.

While early days with a baby present certain difficulties, the challenges for Australian families don’t end abruptly at the end of the perinatal period with the child’s first birthday.

Not-for-profit organisation The Parenthood has spent the last nine years building a community of over 72,000 parents and carers, advocating together to affect change in key family-related policy areas like adequate and equitable paid parental leave, universal access to high-quality early childhood education, and family-friendly workplaces that offer flexibility and value the child-raising work of parents regardless of their gender.

Earlier this month, members from the organisation met with then-Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese, then-Shadow Minister for Early Childhood Education Amanda Rishworth and Labor’s (unsuccessful) candidate for North Sydney, Catherine Renshaw. During the meeting, Albanese reiterated his $5.4 billion commitment to early learning reform that would see childcare cheaper for 97 per cent of families.

Albanese said:

“Instead of navigating a complex system and overwhelming costs, parents can concentrate on doing what they love doing: simply being great parents.”

Executive director of The Parenthood Georgie Dent is excited by both the prospect of early learning reform under the new Government and the greater representation of mothers in Parliament.

She notes all of Sydney’s “teal” independents who succeeded in their communities ran campaigns to unseat Liberal MPs — all of them are mothers and all supported early learning reform.

Dent informs IA:

“Whichever way you cut it, there is majority support in the Lower House to deliver a better deal for children, women and families.”

While motherhood does not necessarily dictate one's direction while serving in parliament (former Environment Minister and newly appointed Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party Sussan Ley, who successfully argued that she did not have a duty of care to protect young people from the climate crisis, is a mother of three) the change of government and composition of this Parliament have brought with them a renewed air of optimism among advocates and the parents they support.

Concludes Dent:

“It is a very good time to be invested in evidence-based policies to reduce gender inequity and improve outcomes for children and families.”

If you would like to speak to someone about suicide you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Disclosure: This author occasionally volunteers for Maternity Consumer Network.

Anna Cusack is an author, parent advocate and postpartum professional based in Awabakal Country in Newcastle, NSW.

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