How to make Parliament more family friendly

Retired MPs surveyed by a non-partisan think tank overwhelmingly cited the strain on their loved ones as the primary drawback to elected life. Is there any way to make political life easier on MPs and their families?

Demands of elected life can drive a wedge between MPs and their families, scaring off good candidates

New Democrat MP Nathan Cullen, shown at the party's 2012 leadership convention, walks with his wife and twin boys on March 24, 2012. Cullen and his wife moved the family to Ottawa after finding his weekly commute to northern British Columbia too difficult. (Pawel Dwulit/Canadian Press)

Frank Valeriote recalls driving from Guelph to Toronto for counselling to try to save his faltering marriage. As he drove down the highway, he couldn't shake his guilt: the appointments were Friday mornings and he felt he should have been in his riding.

"I don't mind being candid, there's a lot of guilt you feel when you're not at your post," the Liberal MP told CBC News.

While Valeriote's marriage ended in 2013 (he says he has an amicable relationship with his former spouse), the Guelph MP has announced he won't run for a third term. Valeriote has two children under 13, and he'd rather spend more time with them.

Two other MPs, Liberal Ted Hsu and Conservative Rod Bruinooge, have also said they're not running again so they can spend more time with their young families. (Neither Bruinooge nor the Conservative Party responded to requests for interviews.)

We've got to get this place more modern and make it a workplace that ... doesn't break up marriages and ruin people- Nathan Cullen, NDP MP

"I just resolved that they needed my personal attention more than my attention from a distance," Valeriote said.

Elected life is hard on marriages and families, particularly for MPs who spend days every month travelling to and from their ridings.

Weekends offer little respite, with community events and more work to be done. In exit interviews with the think tank Samara Canada, retired MPs overwhelmingly cited stress on their families as a major drawback to elected life.

MPs hesitate to complain publicly about the toll on their relationships. They recognize they are paid well and chose to run for office, and that many Canadians face much greater hurdles in raising children.

But at the same time, there are those who say that if Canadians want a diverse range of people representing them in Parliament, we should consider changing the parliamentary calendar or adjusting House rules to allow MPs to have better family lives.

Toll on families

The strain on family life is something MPs are asked about when they recruit new candidates, Liberal MP Chrystia Freeland says.

"It's probably the biggest issue that I speak to women candidates about," she told CBC News.

Liberal MP Chrystia Freeland with party leader Justin Trudeau on Parliament Hill. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

"It's hard. There's no way around it," Freeland said. In her view, Parliament was designed for men with stay-at-home wives.

"And if we want people who are still raising their families to be in Parliament, and I think that's an important voice, then in the longer term we should think about ways to make the cost on our families, and especially our kids, not so great."

New Democrat MP Nathan Cullen may have one of the hardest commutes. He leaves his northern British Columbia home as early as 8:30 a.m. PT on Sundays, has a five- to 12-hour layover in Vancouver, and gets into Ottawa around midnight or 1 a.m. ET. 

Cullen says for the first few years of his twin sons' lives, he was seeing them one day out of every two weeks.

"That to me is not close to parenting. That's not being the father that I wanted to be," he said.

Modernization a must

Cullen and his wife finally decided the family would move to Ottawa from Smithers, B.C. He still travels there most weekends to see constituents, but on weekdays he can make his kids' breakfast and take them to school, and sometimes make it home for bedtime.

The NDP finance critic says that when prospective candidates ask him about balancing MP work with family life, his honest answers dissuade some from running.

"I tell them exactly how the hours work," he said.

"We've got to get this place more modern and make it a workplace ... that can fit in with people and doesn't break up marriages and ruin people. I think that would be a good goal for all of us."

The 2011 election ushered in many more MPs under 40, leading to a baby boom in the NDP caucus in particular. It's no longer unusual to see an MP toting an infant through the Commons foyer.

And while it's now accepted MPs can breastfeed in the party lobbies, or bring babies into the Chamber during votes, what happens when the children are older?

Shorter sitting week

The House could move to a shorter schedule, which would let MPs spend more time in their ridings. Eliminating Friday sittings, which tend to include a decidedly lacklustre round of question period and about three hours of debate, would provide more time for travel.

Valeriote suggested moving to a two-week on, two-week off schedule to allow MPs to spend significantly longer periods of time in their constituencies. He says the lost sitting time could be made up in the summer.

Liberal MPs Frank Valeriote, centre, and Ted Hsu, right, are both retiring to spend more time with their children. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

MPs could also discuss scheduling votes differently, or bringing in electronic voting to allow voting when away from Parliament Hill. Video technology offers the ability to attend committee meetings remotely, much the way Parliament already allows witnesses to testify from afar.

Other legislatures have made similar changes: the Quebec National Assembly in 2009 limited sitting hours to Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, and the Ontario Legislature in 2008 moved question period from mid-afternoon to mid-morning so MPPs would spend less time prepping for it, more time on other work, and get out of their offices at a reasonable time.

The sitting rules are in the House standing orders, which are set by the committee on procedure and House affairs, one of a few bodies on the Hill that could start discussions on changing sittings or the way votes are conducted.

The board of internal economy, a committee of MPs that deals with administrative and financial matters, and the party whips and leaders could also weigh in.

New Democrat MP Lysane Blanchette-Lamothe, holding her months-old baby in her arms as she spoke to CBC News, said it's difficult to give up time with her son. But she also feels that being a role model can help young women see themselves in leadership positions. That means making hard choices.

"As an MP I have to work weekends, I have to work evenings, and so I have to choose not to attend events or do some things that I normally would do as an MP, or accept to not be with my son as much as I would like to."


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