The ejection from Australia's Senate of a member's two-year-old daughter, who subsequently screamed in distress, ignited a national debate today about whether parents should take their children to work.
First-time mother Senator Sarah Hanson-Young couldn't find anyone to look after her daughter Kora while she voted in the Senate late Thursday, so she took the girl into the chamber with her. The child played quietly for several minutes before Senate president John Hogg ordered her to be ejected.
Kora screamed in distress as a member of Senate staff took her from her mother's arms and out of the Senate door.
"We can't allow children to be in here for a division," Hogg told Hanson-Young.
Senate rules allow senators to nurse infants in the chambers, but otherwise only senators and attendants are permitted inside. The parliament opened its first child care centre this year.
The incident dominated morning news broadcasts.
Callers to ABC Canberra talk radio overwhelmingly opposed children being allowed into the Senate, except when they were being nursed.
"It is a place of business and it's very important that we have people there who are attending" to Senate business, said a working mother of three named Ann.
"I know darn well that with the job I do, I could not take my children; I would not be attending to the needs of my clients if I did."
But another caller, Ruth, pointed out the difficulties of juggling child care and work, especially for senators who work long and irregular hours.
"I think it's quite acceptable in the situation to take your child into the chamber," she said. "I'm sure Senator Hanson-Young isn't going to make a habit of doing this. Some flexibility or some compassion could have been shown."
MPs were divided on the incident.
Senator Bob Brown, leader of Hanson-Young's minor opposition party Australian Greens, said children should never be excluded.
"I don't think there should be any workplace where mothers or fathers and an infant as small as that should be separated in a way that happened," Brown said.
New South Wales state Commissioner for Children and Young People Gillian Calvert said the Parliament was not an unsafe place for children.
"There doesn't seem to be a problem with screaming adults in the Parliament, so I don't think noise is the issue," Calvert told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio.
But former Sex Discrimination Commissioner Pru Goward, now a New South Wales state MP, said children could be "very distracting" and that Hanson-Young should not have been surprised by Hogg's reaction.
Hogg said in a statement today that he "could have handled the situation ... better," and welcomed the Senate plans to examine his ruling on Monday.
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