“Mummy, I wish that Kevin Rudd was still prime minister.”
So goes the refrain of Labor MP Terri Butler’s sevenyear-old daughter and fiveyear-old son.
This is not because they particularly miss Rudd’s programmatic specificity or sauce-bottle shaking. They just reason that if Rudd was still PM, their mum would not be in Federal Parliament.
Butler, 39, who won Rudd’s Brisbane seat of Griffith in a byelection in 2014, says it’s “hard to overstate” the impact a full-time political career has on families. As she writes in a new book, Labor of Love, published next week, she became a “gold medallist in mother guilt” when she first came to Canberra.
“When I go to the school, all the mums and dads seem to know each other and I sometimes feel like a bit of an outsider. Even the grade two Facebook page is a mystery to me,” she writes.
But despite this, Butler, who is Labor’s spokeswoman on domestic violence, equality and universities, insists all the effort is worth it. “Often things that are worth doing aren’t easy,” she told Fairfax Media,
She also wants other people to come along for the ride. Acknowledging that faith in democracy is at a “low ebb”, she argues “don’t just expect others to do the heavy lifting”.
“If people of good will decide that politics is just pointless … they are in danger of leaving [it] to the passionate, extremist few.”
Butler’s book not only comes amid declining support for both major parties in Australia. It also comes as other parliamentarians publicly negotiate their home and political lives. Minister for Revenue and Financial Services and mother of two, Kelly O’Dwyer, has recently returned to work, after becoming the first cabinet minister to give birth during her term in office. Earlier this year, Labor frontbencher Kate Ellis announced she would retire at the next federal election so she could spend more time with her young family.
Butler has been an ALP member for almost 20 years and was a workplace relations lawyer before entering Parliament. She says participating in politics – whether as a party member, official or politician – is not strange or scary.
“I think being involved in politics is just something that people do alongside their lives. It’s not this thing that only zealots do and people that have no other life do,” she says.
The book details many examples where politics and the personal collide: such as charting a careful seating plan at her wedding to union official Troy Spence because they are from different factions of the ALP (and so had Left and Right faction guests); of offering peanut butter sandwiches to keep her kids happy during meetings; and of the pain of miscarrying while working on an election campaign in her mid-20s.
When asked why she chose to include this last detail, Butler replies: “I wanted to say politics is something you do while real life’s happening.”
Butler, who will be known to viewers of question time as one of the most vocal and expressive MPs on the Labor side (seated just behind Labor leader Bill Shorten) says she and her husband rely on an “army” of people to help them do their jobs.
Butler’s parents live with them on a shared block, Spence’s parents help and they also pay a carer to look after the kids. The Queensland MP stresses it’s important to be upfront about the support they have.
“You can’t give people the impression that you’re some sort of superhuman because they think they can’t measure up to that standard,” she says. “I’m doing this not because I’m intrinsically better at it than any one else, but because I’m willing to put my hand up.”
Writing a book has become something of a rite of passage for Labor MPs. In the past two years, up-and-comers Clare O’Neil???, Tim Watts and Sam Dastyari??? have written books, while senior frontbenchers Andrew Leigh, Chris Bowen and Mark Butler have also been published on various political themes.
But when asked about her ambitions in politics, Butler replies with a modest – and impersonal – goal: “I want us to be in government.”
She is still in touch with her predecessor in Griffith, although does not to ring him frequently, given his busy international career.
“I’m very fond of Kevin. I have to say, I try not to bother him too often.”