First published by the Sydney Morning Herald, 7 May 2015

As the government prepares to announce its plans to reform childcare subsidies for working families, it was interesting to see how the issue of children appeared to be impacting on one of the parties it will be negotiating with to get its changes through the Senate. When Christine Milne announced she was standing down as Greens leader, she said: “I am soon to be a grandmother.”

Adam Bandt, meanwhile, tweeted his support for Milne’s replacement, Dr Richard Di Natale, citing his own impending fatherhood as a reason why he was happy not to be handed the leadership baton: “Congrats Richard & new team! V happy to hand over Deputy to focus on new baby (due in few wks!)” he wrote.

Children and high flying careers often don’t mix well, and in parliament, they are particularly difficult for women. In her recent book The Wife Drought, Fairfax columnist Annabel Crabb cited a study by Andrew Leigh, a Labor MP and an economist, which unearthed the statistic that in the current parliament, male MPs and senators could boast, on average, 2.1 children each, while their female counterparts averaged 1.2 each.

The 44-year-old Dr Richard Di Natale, a father-of-two, and his female deputy, single mother-of-one, Larissa Waters, fit the pattern perfectly. The Greens have also, unusually, chosen a second deputy (Scott Ludlam, father of none) – but otherwise the pattern of male party leader-female deputy fits the trend that we’re starting to see across the country. In federal politics there’s Tony Abbott and Julie Bishop on the Liberal side, and Bill Shorten and Tanya Plibersek on the Labor side. In NSW we have the combos of Mike Baird and Gladys Berejiklian (Liberal) and Luke Foley and Linda Burney for Labor.

While becoming deputy is now almost commonplace for women, leadership is still a rarity, and with Milne gone, the country is now looking like a clean sweep of men at the top. In fact, since the resignation of the Northern Territory’s Delia Lawrie as opposition leader last month, just one of the 18 heads of government and opposition leaders in federal, state and territory governments across the country is a woman: at the recent COAG meeting, Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk stood out like an exchange student from the girls’ school doing a special elective subject at the boys’ school across the road.

It wasn’t so long ago that we seemed to be living through some sort of feminist version of Camelot: joining Julia Gillard as PM was a female Governor-General, Quentin Bryce, and Nicola Roxon as the nation’s chief legal officer. In NSW briefly in 2011, women could add to that list a female premier (Kristina Keneally), deputy (Carmel Tebbutt) and a female governor (Marie Bashir).

Now 40-something men are in power across the country: the federal opposition leader Bill Shorten is 47, in NSW the leader and opposition leaders are 47-year-old Mike Baird and 44-year-old Luke Foley. In Victoria, the leader is Daniel Andrews (42) and the opposition leader is Matthew Guy (41).

One of the things that is happening here is that, as parents delay having children, the peak years of leading in politics is clashing with the peak years of child-rearing. As the federal government tries to get its measures to improve the way families can balance work and home life, it will be negotiating with independents, many of whom are men from conservative and christian backgrounds, including Family First’s Bob Day, and former DLP member John Madigan. Let’s hope that new second-time mum (and Labor Opposition leader in the Senate) Penny Wong, can work with the new Greens team, Di Natale and Waters, and the government to knock out a package that will help families like their own.

Read the the story online at the SMH.

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