The announcement by Kate Ellis, the 39 year old federal Labor MP for Adelaide, of her retirement at the next election to be with her young son came as a surprise, though SA Premier Jay Wetherill was amazed that she had managed to balance her conflicting responsibilities for so long.
Ellis explained: 'He'll need to be in Adelaide [after starting school]. And I will need to be in Canberra if I'm the member for Adelaide, and that's a really big problem for me and for our family.'
But she was worried by the potential wider implications of her decision. 'I would hate for my legacy to be sending a message that you can't be a young woman and go into Federal Parliament because I've made this choice.'
Several Fairfax journalists were dismayed. Stephanie Peatling and Annabel Crabb issued a challenge: 'It's not people who should have to change to make their lives fit politics as we know it. It's politics as we know it that should change,' said Peatling.
'Ordinary workplaces around the country are obliged to change in order to survive and keep good employees — Why not parliament?' wrote Crabb. 'The lesson from Kate Ellis should not be why did this woman leave, but how could we make people like her stay?'
The immediate issue is gender balance. If many women with school-age children (babies and pre-school children travel more easily, supported by parliamentary childcare) thought life as a federal parliamentarian was impossibly conflicted, it would be a major blow to the aspiration of 50:50 representation. Many would be excluded if representation was left to childless and older women.
The wider context is all types of diversity in parliament. Behind much popular disaffection with politics today is the belief that politicians are a separate breed unlike the rest of us. They have become career, professional politicians detached from day-to-day concerns.
Changing the demands on a parliamentarian to ensure greater work-life balance has proceeded slowly on matters such as childcare in the parliamentary building and the right of MPs to breastfeed a child in the parliamentary chamber. Yet these are only solutions for women MPs with very young children.
"The idea of a part-time MP goes back to the time when male MPs, predominantly from privileged backgrounds, combined parliamentary work with another profession or occupation."
There is one radical possibility worth considering. Dr Rosie Campbell of Birkbeck University of London and Professor Sarah Childs of the University of Bristol support job-sharing by MPs. This involves transferring an idea from the public and private sectors into politics. Prospective MPs would stand for election on a shared basis, dividing the pay and the responsibilities (electorate and chamber work).
Campbell and Childs see this idea as a reaction to 'the professionalisation of politics and the narrowing of the political class'. The value of job-sharing, they say, is also that it makes the symbolic point that 'being a representative is a job not just for the professional or unencumbered politician but a job open to all'. The possible encumbrances might be job, family responsibilities of all kinds or disability.
The idea of a part-time MP goes back to the time when male MPs, predominantly from privileged backgrounds, combined parliamentary work with another profession or occupation. It is turning back the clock of professionalisation to retain some of the best aspects of the amateur MP who continues to live and work in their local community.
Many voters regard the system as broken anyway and many MPs and prospective MPs seek greater life-work balance. The problems are lesser in some state parliaments, but rural MPs in all parliaments face the same travel demands and absence from home and family as federal MPs like Ellis.
Job-sharing MPs would face obvious problems as in other spheres. One may be foregoing promotion as job-sharing the role of a minister or shadow minister is even harder to visualise than being an MP. However there is much to be said for shaking up anything which threatens to make parliament less inclusive.
John Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University.