This piece was first published May 16, 2014 in The Ottawa Citizen and is co-authored by then Catherine Mckenna – now, The Honourable Catherine McKenna, Minister of the Environment & Climate Change, seriously, how cool is that?
Op-Ed: Family and politics in balance
Between the two of us, we have six young kids, four busy careers including those of our husbands, and are in the middle of two election races.
A few days ago, Catherine was nominated as the federal Liberal candidate for Ottawa Centre and Reva’s husband, Rana Sarkar, is running for the federal Liberal nomination in Don Valley North, in Toronto.
So the challenge of balancing family, career and politics is something we have been living for the past year.
And while political-speak has always been filled with references to “working families” and “family values”, along with the mandatory kid photo ops, politicians are frequently the first to sacrifice their own relationships and family lives to try to be a part of the political process.
In their book, Tragedy In The Commons, Alison Loat and Michael MacMillan analyzed the findings from a series of interviews conducted with former MPs from the 38th and 39th parliaments. Among the questions was whether they would recommend a political career to others, and if so, what advice they would provide.
While most MPs did endorse the idea of a political career, they cautioned that the toll on family life is both “severe and unanticipated.”
This is hardly surprising, since much like the traditional corporate career, government, political and party life were all originally designed for men with stay-at-home wives.
Of course, this in no way reflects the reality that more than 70 per cent of mothers in Canada are working mothers – and that in order to create programs and policies that best support the greatest number of Canadians, we need their perspective and voices integrated throughout the political process.
And right now, we really don’t have that.
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.
The perceived difficulty of having a family and a political career is a key factor in the continued lack of gender equity in Canadian public life.
So how can we change it?
To start, Loat and MacMillan’s research suggests a series of practical recommendations that would help make the role of the MP more effective, efficient and family friendly.
These include 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 availability of reliable and quality childcare.
However, the need for greater engagement of women and young families goes beyond those seeking elected office, to finding ways to get Canadian families involved in politics again.
According to the Samara report Lightweights: Behind the Ballot Box, only 10 per cent of Canadians report that they’ve participated in formal politics at any level over the past five years – with involvement including volunteering for a campaign, donating to a political party or candidate or joining a party.
If parties want the people they target for votes to actually get involved in the political process, they need to stop making them choose between engaging or family time and instead, look to better integrate the two.
For instance, riding associations still commonly hold meetings over the dinner hour, in pubs and often with unnecessary frequency. Small nudge changes such as reducing the number of events and balancing out adult-only events with family-friendly ones could have significant impact. As could offering childcare and a child friendly environment in the campaign or riding association offices for candidates and volunteers.
Getting families and children involved can help shift the current lack of genuine representation while simultaneously cultivating the next generation of civically engaged citizens. A 2011 study for Elections Canada has shown that youth involved with political activities turn out to vote at a rate of 16 percentage points higher than youth not engaged in other political activity.
We’ve both seen the benefit of doing politics a bit differently.
To avoid being away from her kids another night, Catherine’s volunteers do a regular Thursday phone bank at her house – and are rewarded by a bracelet made by her daughters. Reva brings her three kids with her as often as she can to her husband’s campaign events, including canvassing and door knocking – and encourages others to do the same.
Of course, these are small shifts, but they are a start and reflect the active decision to change what we can from where we are right now.
Ultimately one of the biggest challenges of making political life more family friendly may be the combination of a cultural attitude that sees children as a barrier to successful careers combined with the reality that in all honesty, providing politicians with work life balance benefits that most Canadians would like but don’t have isn’t going to be a popular move. But by doing whatever we can to help parents get engaged throughout the political process, we increase the likelihood that the issues families and working parents face will become a collective priority and not just a personal one. That’s when real widespread change will happen.
Reva Seth is the best selling author of The MomShift: Women Share Their Stories of Career Success After Having Children (Random House: February 11, 2014). Catherine McKenna was nominated on May 15 as the federal Liberal candidate for Ottawa Centre. Twitter.com/cathmckenna
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