Can women breastfeed in New Zealand Parliament? Kind of

"It would be a really good symbolic gesture, but there's lots of other things that need to change."
CAMERON BURNELL/Fairfax NZ

"It would be a really good symbolic gesture, but there's lots of other things that need to change."

Australian Senator Larissa Waters made history this week when she breastfed her infant inside Australian Parliament.

Despite decades of mothers serving in Parliament and a 2016 rule change allowing it this was the first time this had ever happened in Australia. Just last year Carolina Bescana was roundly criticised by her colleagues in the Spanish parliament for breastfeeding her son.

So could it happen in New Zealand? We asked Andie Lindsay from the Office of the Clerk at Parliament, who look after procedure in the house.

"There is no standing order on it whatsoever," Lindsay said. A Control+F of the standing orders proved her correct.

READ MORE: Australian senator breastfeeds baby on floor of Parliament

"Woman who have had children have generally gone out of the chamber to breastfeed."

Indeed they have. After National's Ruth Richardson gave birth during recess in the 1980s a special room near the chamber was established for her to breastfeed. But it wasn't until the 90s that a Parliamentary childcare facility was established.

A standing order from 2014 establishes that the Speaker may use "discretion" to "allow a member to be absent for all or part of a day to breastfeed or care for an infant or child".

But that doesn't solve our initial question: could what happened in Australia and Spain happen here?

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Lindsay notes that while it isn't technically prohibited, MPs are prohibited from bringing any "strangers" into the house, except under specific circumstances. A "stranger" in this context is anyone who isn't an MP or a parliamentary official. 

These strangers are generally high-level advisors or distinguished guests and they are only allowed on the raised floor where MPs sit, not the actual floor of the House. (MPs are supposed to yell "I spy strangers!" if they spot one on the floor - Parliament is weird.)

It would be up to the Speaker to decide whether a baby was either a stranger - and thus allowed in a restricted sense into the House - or something else entirely, allowing an MP to carry their child around the place as they would their briefcase, without having to worry about avoiding the floor.

How to fix this ambiguity? Well the Speaker - currently David Carter - could issue a declarative ruling on the matter, giving parents the confidence to bring their infants in without the fear that they would be booted from the House immediately.

Former Green MP Holly Walker left Parliament soon after having her daughter. She had assumed that she could combine parenting and politics - but soon realised that she couldn't.

Walker told Stuff that a declarative ruling from the Speaker on breastfeeding would be a powerful symbolic move, but would not substantively fix the issues that drove her away.

"It would be a really good symbolic gesture, but there's lots of other things that need to change," Walker said.

"In my experience there were pretty good support areas in terms of breastfeeding, and I had adequate facilities for expressing when I didn't have her with me."

Walker said job sharing agreements for MPs and leaves of absence where the next MP on the list would temporarily take over would be much more meaningful.

 - Stuff

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