The Inner West’s mother hen

Tanya Plibersek didn’t grow up in the Inner West (believe it or not, she’s a Shire girl) but for the past 16 years the well-loved Member for Sydney has been taking a motherly concern, where appropriate, in the lives of her constituents. More recently, she’s managed to combine raising three children with occupying some of the most senior positions in Australian politics. So who better to speak to for our Mother’s Day edition than the woman who puts the super in supermum?

How will you be spending Mother’s Day?
Hopefully, relaxing at home. My big concession to myself will be not working on Mother’s Day if I can avoid it. I am taking my own mum to the Slovenian [Catholic] church the weekend before Mother’s Day for a little celebration, making a special effort to take her to a church where the Mass is in Slovenian.

What did your mother teach you?
My mother is an incredibly resilient and generous person and I think those would be the most important characteristics she passed on to me. She’s also brave. Leaving home, travelling half way across the world to a new country with no English, no family back up, no one she knew here, I think that’s just phenomenally brave.

Is she a political person?
Not at all. Both my mum and my dad were very good neighbours, very involved in trying to make their community a better place but they were never political. What they taught me was if something needs doing, you do it. That applied both at home and in your community – you just go and do it without any expectation of acknowledgement or reward. If there was a sick neighbour or someone needed help they would just go and take care of it. If you think of community involvement as political I suppose it fits in but they were never really party political, although they liked Gough Whitlam.

So they didn’t encourage you to pursue a political career?
No. My mum always told me I could do anything. I was good at roller skating and baking when I was a kid, she was very encouraging about that, she gave a lot of positive affirmation but none of it was really related to politics. She thought I’d do very well if I married a plumber, like she had. She always said I should marry a tradesman because I’d always have someone there to fix things around the house!

Being a career woman and mother is rarely such a walk in the park
Being a career woman and mother is rarely such a walk in the park

Women who aspire to high political office often choose to remain childless. Is that an option you ever considered?  
I always wanted to have kids and I always wanted three – I’m from a family of three. I never for a moment considered making a choice between having a career and having a family. Both things are really important to me. Sometimes it’s hard to juggle the two but I couldn’t give up either to be honest, I get enormous satisfaction from both.

What, if anything, can politicians do to make that career-family juggling act easier?
I’d say the most important thing we can do is childcare – the availability, quality and affordability of childcare, making sure it’s truly meeting families’ needs. Once your kids are at school things are a little bit more affordable and manageable but those first five years really take a toll on a lot of families’ finances and can really be very stressful.

Would Australia be a more family-friendly society if there were more women with young children sitting in the nation’s parliaments?
I absolutely think so. The best parliaments are made up of as broad a group of people as possible. Of course, not everybody needs to be a mother or a father, not everybody needs to be of child-bearing age. I think it’s great to have some younger people, to have older people – parents, grandparents, childless people – the more diverse the parliament is the better quality decisions we get…
Having more mothers in parliament has already made a difference. The fact that we’ve got a paid parental leave scheme now – a scheme, incidentally, that also includes fathers and adoptive parents – that’s a reflection of the fact that we’ve had more women in parliament. The fact that we’ve substantially increased funding into childcare, again, is a reflection of more women in parliament… because every mother knows that you cannot comfortably leave your children with someone if you’re not confident that that person has the qualifications, experience and temperament to look after your child well.
The other factor is that the younger men in parliament have expectations of them as well. The men of a previous generation had a wife at home that took care of all of those responsibilities and they never had to think about them. That’s changed, most families aren’t like that now, so having more women and engaged fathers in parliament, both of those have been important to the changes that we’ve seen.

Any tips for hard-charging Inner West career mums on how to combine work and family?
Accept all the help you can get and also cook in large batches!

But surely you’ve had a nanny to help you out?  
Like most families we’ve had different childcare arrangements over the years. We’ve made use of paid support, family support and my husband does more than his fair share.

The ALP is known for its family dynasties – would you want one or all of your children to follow you into politics?
No, I’m hoping one of them will be a plumber, one a carpenter and one an electrician! No, that’s a joke, I don’t mind what they do as long as they’re happy. I don’t think politics is a career that gives you terrific work-life balance and my children have seen that so I don’t anticipate that they’ll follow in my footsteps. But whatever they do, as long as they’re happy I’ll be happy for them.

How did becoming a parent change you?
The biggest change is I worry a lot more. I worry about all sorts of things. I never thought of my own mortality before I became a parent and now I think, what if I had a car crash or my plane dropped out of the sky? What would become of my children? You go through your early life feeling pretty invincible; young people don’t think about the risks they’re taking with their own safety. But as soon as I became a parent I started thinking a lot more about how my husband and I had to stay healthy and safe so we’d be around for our kids for a long time.

What do you hope your children will learn from you?
The feeling my own parents gave me was that if I was honest and kind that would be enough. They weren’t pushy or demanding, they were proud of me, and I always felt like honesty and kindness were the things they valued most. I’d like my children to get that feeling from me as well – that if they’re honest and kind then that’s enough for me.


Interview: Nigel Bowen.

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