Call me a sucker for punishment, but this is a question that’s been on my mind since Social Democrat TD Holly Cairns raised this issue yesterday:
The “ridiculous” lack of maternity leave for politicians is a major barrier to women entering public life, it has been claimed.
Social Democrat TD Holly Cairns is pushing to introduce maternity leave rights for all elected representatives after the issue was again highlighted following Helen McEntee’s pregnancy announcement.
Ms Cairns has offered to pair with the Justice Minister for all votes if changes to allow her take maternity leave are not introduced before she gives birth next year.
Ms McEntee announced her pregnancy over the weekend. She will become the first senior Cabinet minister to give birth while in office.
Politics is not like any other job. In almost any other job, you have a boss, who you answer to at all times. You have defined duties. There are things you absolutely must do, every day; deadlines you have to meet; a certain amount of productivity that’s expected.
That’s not the case in elected office. The simple truth of it is that once you’ve been elected a TD, the job is safe for five years, and nobody – nobody – can take it off you, in any circumstances, excepting if you’ve been sent to prison, or made a bankrupt. It’s perfectly possible, in theory, to win an election to Dáil Eireann, and never set foot in the place. If you don’t believe me, look at Sinn Fein’s Westminster MPs – they abstain, albeit on conscience grounds, with no consequence.
What’s more, you have staff. A politician who wished to take eight or nine months away from the job could assign the handling of constituency queries to the taxpayer funded staff we provide for them. Letters about potholes would still be sent to the council. Parliamentary questions – written ones, at least – could still be submitted to the Government. Most TD’s offices would work just as well without the TD as with them there.
The only part of the job that actually requires the physical presence of the elected TD is the part where they sit in the Dáil chamber, and speak, and vote, themselves. But neither of those things is compulsory. One Fine Gael TD of yore – John F. Conlon – spoke about three times in his 20-year career as a TD.
So in practice, a female politician who wants to take time off to have a child can do that if she pleases. And she’s actually in a better position than someone in the private sector, because she can do so while receiving 100% of her salary, as opposed to the practice in some offices of paying a reduced amount.
But the bigger problem is this – by what mechanism, if parental leave for politicians was introduced, would they be replaced for the period of their absence?
We go to the polls every five years, or more often, to choose our representatives. If, for some reason, a politican resigns, then we have a by-election.
In almost every other profession, someone going on maternity leave is replaced by a temporary replacement. But how can you do this with politicians?
In the European Parliament, every elected MEP has a nominated replacement, in case they have to leave office. But this replacement only gets the job if the MEP resigns, or leaves office. They don’t fill in if the politician takes a week off.
And imagine the controversy that would arise if a temporary replacement – elected by nobody – was the deciding issue on a matter of major controversy. It’s not hard to imagine a budget, passed by one vote, where the deciding vote came from somebody’s temporary replacement. In those circumstances, the public might justly wonder why policy was being decided by somebody who has never been elected at all.
Isn’t there a simpler alternative? Since the only really important things that a politician needs to do, which cannot be done by his or her staff, are to speak, and vote, couldn’t we just make remote speaking and working possible?
There’s no particular technological reason why a TD or Senator could not cast Dáil votes from the comfort of their sitting room, or contribute to debates via zoom, or Microsoft teams. This would allow politicians time at home with their families, and newborns, while allowing them to do the only parts of their jobs that are constitutionally reserved to them. And such a function would also cover other unavoidable absences from the workplace – illness, foreign travel, and so forth.
The concept of introducing a complicated mechanism of maternity leave, and replacement politicians, is, by contrast, likely to pose problems.
They have a unique job – one, remember, that they actively sought, and which is very well paid. There is no need to complicate matters by introducing parental leave, with all its attendant complications.