Friday, June 19, 2009

Parliament Is No Place For Children

The observation is often made that watching question time in parliament is reminiscent of watching the playground at a kindergarten where children sometimes become rambunctious with each other, some become bullies, and some become targets. Personal attacks replace reasonable debate of the issues, and colourful language sometimes overrides the usual sensibilities of a polite society. The comparison between politicians in parliament and unruly children in the playground is so popular, it is ironic that when a real child is taken into the parliament it causes a controversy of major controversy.

When Senator Sarah Hanson-Young took her two year old daughter into the chamber for a vote, ironically on legislation relating to the advertising of junk food during children’s television programs, she was not prepared for what happened next. Following standing orders, which allow only Senators and attendants in the chamber, Senate President John Hogg ordered the child to be removed. At this point the two year old girl became distressed and began to cry. A staff member took the girl outside, but her cries could still be heard inside the Senate chamber as the doors were locked for the vote.

It was obviously upsetting for the child, and nobody likes to listen to the sound of a child crying. But the truth is that no great tragedy was occurring here. Nobody was hurting the child, and the separation was only for a relatively short period of time. Children left in the care of doctors for medical procedures might also cry when taken away from their parents, but we as adults recognize that the upset is only a minor thing compared to the need for the child to be treated. While this is a different situation, it remains a relatively trivial event, despite being awkward and a little unpleasant.

The question however is whether or not this situation should have been handled in that way, or if a better approach could have been found. The Greens are proposing to change the rules to allow politicians who have very young children to bring them into the chamber with them. It is quite clear that when the rules of Parliament were first drawn up generations ago, politicians were all men, and such a scenario simply was not contemplated. Perhaps it is appropriate in the 21st Century to change the rules to reflect the reality that society and its standards have changed. It would seem reasonable to do so.

At the same time, the existing rules have been in place for a long time. I wonder how it is that this situation actually arose in the first place. Surely all the Senators would know that so called strangers are not permitted in the chamber, and alternative arrangements would be made for the short term care of their visiting children. The sitting of Parliament is a scheduled event, so it should be no surprise that a politician might be required for a vote. Even if the rule is a bad rule and should be changed, it has been in force for long enough for politicians to be aware of it and make the appropriate arrangements if necessary.

Even more importantly, why would anyone want to take innocent vulnerable children into such a place where they will be exposed to all those ill-mannered politicians displaying bad behavior which would not be tolerated in a school yard? It should be obvious that Parliament is no place for children.

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