Kate Ellis, Shadow Minister – Early Childhood Education, recently stepped down from the Labor frontbench and also announced that she would retire from Parliament as she has made the difficult decision to prioritise her need to spend time with her family over her professional desire to play a key role at a federal level. Ms Ellis stated that she could not bear the thought of spending at least 20 weeks of every year in Canberra away from her son.

I have seen similar scenarios played out many times over my 30-plus years in management and working life. Our society strives for gender equality however we continue to challenge workers with insurmountable obstacles to their attempts to achieve a balance between work and family. This generally affects women more than men and leads to easily measurable outcomes such as the gender pay gap.

What is not so easy to measure is the loss to our society of the contribution of the worker who chooses family over work. How representative is parliament if no one with young children, or any other dependent(s), feels that the working conditions do not permit them to accept a role?

My working life has changed considerably over the last 10 years. I have been able to manage national businesses, although I am not based in the biggest city; have appointed National Managers, not based on where they live but based on who they are and what they can contribute; and in the last few years, have extended classrooms so that students can attend in the location of their choice, instead of needing to fly interstate. All of this has been enabled by improvements in Information and Communication Technology (ICT) that include phone and web conferencing, collaboration portals, video conferencing, mobile and tablet apps, and so on.

Which brings me back to our parliamentarians. Do they really need to be in Canberra for 20 weeks a year? Is it possible that people with young children, or other dependents, could still make a contribution if the business of parliament is conducted over ICT platforms for at least a part of the 20 weeks? I know this sounds like an untraditional approach but let me provide another angle.

Every now and again, something happens that makes me think that one day we might be required to stop all travel for a while. These thoughts generally occur when I read about the way that the world is responding to a major disease outbreak. At my work, we could easily operate if people had to stay home. Could parliament? I would think that they would have all sorts of continuity plans however, no doubt, the level of communication and, possibly capability, would be reduced if the communication methods are far less than being face to face in Canberra. My point is that any ICT-based system that is built to offer people with young children, or other dependent(s), the chance to balance work and family and still contribute could also be used to continue the work of parliament if its affected by something that stops parliamentarians attending Canberra. I think that is in our interests to do this better than other countries of the world.

Some work is changing, becoming something that you do, not necessarily a place that you go. Of course this doesn’t apply to all jobs. Also, there is no better communication than face to face, no better commitment than a handshake and, especially in politics, it’s important to look someone in the eye. However, people have different needs at different times of their lives. I believe that where we can, we must improve work places by embracing technology to make changes that improve the choices for workers so that we can improve the balance between work and family and benefit from the contribution of those who otherwise cannot be available for work.

*This is the view and opinion of Mal Shaw and not of DDLS and ACTE.

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