Let’s start with a likely point of agreement: Premier Alison Redford has shown poor judgment by flying her daughters’ friends around on government aircraft.
Nevertheless, Ms. Redford has raised a valid point on the need for an overdue conversation about how to make political careers more appealing to working parents – particularly mothers with young children.
Political-speak is drowning in references of “working families” and appeals to “family values” – now clichéd to the point of parody. Ironically, politicos are often the first to sacrifice their own personal and family lives for the opportunity to be a part of the political process.
As part of its MP Exit Interviews project, independent political think tank Samara spoke with MPs from the 38th and 39th parliaments. Among the questions the former parliamentarians were asked was whether they would recommend a political career to others, and if so, what advice they would provide.
While most MPs endorsed the idea of a political career, they cautioned that the toll on family life is both “severe and unanticipated.”
The perceived difficulty of having a family and a political career is certainly a contributing factor to the continued lack of gender equity in Canadian public life. According to the advocacy organization Equal Voice, women currently make up an average of 25 per cent of Canada’s municipal councils, provincial legislatures and the House of Commons.
Government, political and party life were all originally designed for men with stay-at-home wives, and not enough has systemically or culturally changed to address this. To increase talent recruitment and engagement, changes should be made, just as they have begun to be made in the private sector.
Samara suggests a series of practical recommendations, including moving to shorter, more intense parliamentary sessions (to cut down on travel between Ottawa and the ridings) and adjusting the parliamentary schedule to minimize evening sittings. Other measures could include better use of technology in order to reduce the need for in-person meetings and, of course, the provision of reliable and quality childcare.
To improve parental engagement in politics, parties should also consider adopting these some of these recommendations at the riding-association and community level.
Ultimately, the biggest challenge in making political life more family friendly may be the combination of a cultural attitude that still sees children as a barrier to a “successful” career and our collective reluctance to provide more perks to politicians, a group currently not viewed with much sympathy.
From my own research with working mothers across Canada, I know that greater flexibility and better access to quality childcare options is what the majority of families urgently need. But it’s by implementing these changes for politicians that we can increase the odds of getting innovative programs and policies for the greatest number of Canadians.
Why? Because more single moms, working moms and fathers with young children and busy working partners are exactly who we need actively engaged in politics and government – and we need them now, while their children are young and they are personally struggling with the shared challenges of navigating careers and families.
It will make Parliament more representative of the Canadian public. And the more these parents are engaged in public life and politics, the more likely their issues will become a collective priority, not just a personal one.
Reva Seth is the author of The MomShift: Women Share Their Stories of Career Success After Having Children.