Babies and the Beehive: Trevor Mallard's big plans for a child-friendly Parliament

''It's always going to be hard for a young mother to be in Parliament, but part of my job is to make it as easy as I can for them''

By Wendyl Nissen
The high-profile birth of baby Neve to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern last year may have had many presuming Parliament was sent into a flurry of activity to get the place ready for a child.
But, in fact, thanks to the Speaker of the House, Trevor Mallard, plans to change the long-standing tradition of a child-free Parliament were well under way before the Prime Minister's pregnancy was even announced.
It all started with Labour MP Willow-Jean Prime who came into Parliament with her new baby, Heeni. Many may remember the photo of Trevor sitting in the Speaker's chair while holding Heeni as the House debated extending paid parental leave legislation in November last year.
"That was a deal I made with Willlow-Jean when we were on the campaign trail," says Trevor.
"We were up north and Willow-Jean was having her first meeting with Jacinda at an afternoon function with the community and her mum was there to look after baby Heeni, but after she had a feed she was a bit uncomfortable and so I offered to take her outside and settle her down.
"The expectation was that I would be back in 30 seconds with a crying baby, but I managed to settle her, to the amazement of everyone. So I said to Willow-Jean, when she was elected, to bring Heeni into the House and I would hold onto her."
Trevor admits he's a bit of a baby whisperer after one of his three children had colic, carrying them on his shoulder until they were soothed.
And he loves babies. He's a grandfather of six and by his own admission, "I'm not at all scared of babies!"
Trevor holds baby Heeni during a House debate.
In fact, the day before this interview he received a text in his office from Education Minister Chris Hipkins who had his new baby girl, Isabel, at the Parliamentary café and required some of Trevor's baby-minding skills.
"I was more than happy to rush over and hold her," he laughs.
However, being the chief Parliamentary babyminder does have its drawbacks. He went to put on his Speaker's robes recently and was wearing a suit he hadn't worn for a while, only to have someone point out that he had baby spill all down the back of it.
"Fortunately, some Dettol wipes came to the rescue and I sat there in session smelling of disinfectant."
Trevor says the first female MPs to bring children into the debating chamber at Parliament were Ruth Richardson and Katherine Rich, and 50 years ago Whetu Tirikatene-Sullivan was the first to have children while she was a sitting MP.
"There was a lot of tension at the time and even around the time Ruth Richardson had her children, it certainly wasn't welcomed," he says.
"Parliament was still adjusting to having women around because it really was an old boys' club. To be fair, 100 years ago farmers would come to Parliament while the cows were dry and in between the lambing season for a short period to govern the country.
"They would come by boat or train and they would come for a couple of months, so Parliament became a gentleman's club with billiard rooms and bars."
Since then, times have changed considerably and Trevor believes New Zealand wants a Parliament that looks a bit more like our society, involving gender balance, age range and ethnic diversity.
"Having mothers and babies around the House humanises the place," says Trevor.
"I think there is something a bit special when there is a baby in there and also, just knowing the incredible hassle it is for mothers who have to spend a lot of time expressing milk and stuff like that. It's much more efficient to breastfeed, so if we can help them do that it makes them more efficient and happy in their jobs as well," he says.
Trevor started looking into making a more child-friendly Parliament two years ago when he talked to the Standing Orders Committee about allowing babies into the debating chamber, something which is now very much encouraged.
He then moved to free up an atrium near the chamber to MPs' children. "It used to only be available to MPs, which was a waste."
He also gave carers and spouses security clearance so that they could move about the buildings the way MPs do.The swimming pool, previously only for MPs and staff, was also opened up to families.
"Earlier in the year we had a regular Thursday morning baby swim class, which was quite fun," says Trevor.
And the room which used to be called "the wives' room" and then "the spouses' room", has now been renamed "the family room".
It has also been updated to make it a nice environment to feed a baby, change a nappy, heat up bottles or food, and have some family time, all while being close enough to the debating chamber to make it feasible for MPs to use.
One project taking longer to come to fruition though is a playground, mainly because of shocking building costs involved, and because you can't just bolt together red and yellow plastic outside Parliament.
"It might undermine the tone of the place, so we have to make sure it fits in."
He's known as the Beehive's baby whisperer and Trevor's on a mission to make it as child-friendly as possible.
But there are a couple of things Trevor hasn't been able to push through, which he hopes will change eventually.
At the moment, some MPs can't get home to the regions because Parliament doesn't finish until 6pm on a Thursday and Air New Zealand flight schedules have changed.
"Invercargill MP Sarah Dowie, who has young children, often has to fly to Dunedin and then drive or cab from there to Invercargill to get home at about midnight on a Thursday," he says. "If she could leave an hour earlier, she could get a flight and be home by 7pm.
"I firmly believe that getting home in the evening in time to put the kids to bed and read the books adds a lot of value."
Trevor proposed there be a rule change that gives a bit of discretion to let MPs go early but have their votes count in the last hour.
"Unfortunately I haven't been able to convince the right people to make that change, but perhaps in time," he says.
Another rule he wants changed is allowing primary carers or parents to be able to enter the debating chamber to bring babies to their mothers for breastfeeding, bottle-feeding or "a burp or a cuddle".
At the moment ,Parliamentary messengers have to bring the babies in because of strict rules about who can go on the floor.
"That didn't get through either, mainly because there's a lot of old-fashioned tradition about who should be allowed in the House, so I'm hoping that will change eventually."
Trevor is also working on the fact that MPs do not have paid parental leave because they are not employees. But they do get compassionate leave and as the Speaker he can interpret that however he wants. So he's anxious that if a young parent needs time off for a new baby they can get that without it being prevented by another MP of the same party who may want that time for political purposes.
"Each party has a certain number of leave slots, so I don't want to see a young mother being made to come back to Parliament before she and her baby are ready because she's been pressured by another MP in her party to have time off to attend a political event."
Trevor believes Parliament should lead the way as far as being a family-friendly work-place, and he hopes that the changes he has put in place will encourage more women to get into politics.
"It's always going to be hard for a young mother to be in Parliament, but part of my job is to make it as easy as I can for them."

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