Parliament unfriendly to families

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Canadians’ work-life balance is off-kilter and getting worse over time. Often, when Canadians say they are unhappy with the work-life balance they have established, what they mean is their professional lives have eaten too far into their family lives. Canadians were asked in a 2012 Statistics Canada survey why they were dissatisfied with their work-life balance, and 59 per cent of those who responded — by far the highest number — stated this was because there was “not enough time for family life.”

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 24/09/2016 (2149 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Canadians’ work-life balance is off-kilter and getting worse over time. Often, when Canadians say they are unhappy with the work-life balance they have established, what they mean is their professional lives have eaten too far into their family lives. Canadians were asked in a 2012 Statistics Canada survey why they were dissatisfied with their work-life balance, and 59 per cent of those who responded — by far the highest number — stated this was because there was “not enough time for family life.”

Many of us feel tension between trying to do our best at work and spending more time with our families. I teach and do research at the University of Manitoba and can hardly imagine a better job. Nevertheless, I still find myself glancing up at the clock, counting down the hours when I can flee the office and head home to play with my three-year-old.

Canadian MPs feel this tension, too. MPs run for office for a variety of reasons, from wanting to help their constituents to wishing to bring about policy change in areas they care deeply about. But MPs quickly discover achieving their career goals as politicians will come at a high cost for their families.

Journalist Steve Paikin documented this cost in his eye-opening book about Canadian MPs, The Dark Side: The Personal Price of a Political Life. Paikin described an orientation session for new MPs following the 1993 election. “Look around the room,” the session guide instructed the new MPs. “Because by the end of your political careers, 70 per cent of you will either be divorced or have done serious damage to your marriages.”

Who would want a job that comes with such a high probability of damage to our family lives?

Samara, a charitable organization that advocates for democratic engagement in Canada, performs exit interviews with departing MPs. In 2013, Jim Farney, Alison Loat and I scoured these interviews for references to MPs’ family lives. MPs described in great detail the pressures the job applied to their families. These included both stress placed on their relationships with their spouses and time with their children robbed from them. Some MPs stated flatly people with young children should not even consider running for office.

There are several characteristics of a political life that make it particularly hard on families. Most MPs spend long hours on Parliament Hill while in Ottawa. On weekends and between parliamentary sessions, MPs return to their ridings. But these are hardly holidays. To the contrary, MPs must use this time to meet with constituents, attend events and do the representational work many of them consider to be a crucial part of the job.

The necessity of travel and, often, two residences is particularly hard on families. Most MPs are away from their families for the entire workweek, returning home from Ottawa late on Friday night and, after time with family squeezed in between constituency events, board a plane back to the capital Sunday night.

Some MPs tackle this problem by moving their families to Ottawa. But this is only a partial solution: MPs then have to leave to return to their constituencies on the weekend and only see their families for short periods on weekday nights. One MP from British Columbia, for example, uprooted his family and moved them to Ottawa. His wife and children missed their friends and community and gained little time with their husband and father as a result of the arrangement; accordingly, they soon moved back home.

Farney, Loat and I identified several possible solutions to the strain political jobs place on MPs’ family lives. These include, for example, shorter and more intense parliamentary sessions, abolishing evening sittings of Parliament and enhanced daycare support for MPs. All of these reforms could be easily and cheaply implemented. Further, Canadians could adjust their expectations of MPs, allowing them time with their families instead of attending countless functions and events in the ridings.

One might reasonably respond to all this by saying many Canadians have stressful jobs that require both travel and time away from their families. Why should MPs be any different?

The answer is because MPs are the people who write, amend and vote on laws that affect my own family. How many outstanding potential candidates have explored the prospect of public service only to take a pass upon discovering the likely consequences of time in Ottawa for their families? And aren’t those the people we would prefer to have writing family policy in this country?

Everyone deserves a happy, fulfilling family life. Canadians shouldn’t have to be willing to give that up in order to run for public office.

Royce Koop is an associate professor and head of the department of political studies at the University of Manitoba.

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