A family first policy bombshell
29th January 2011
26th September 2012
IT'S SUCH a cliche. A politician - usually a minister, sometimes a premier - suddenly calls a news conference to announce impending retirement. The reason? He or she wishes to spend more time with the family.
Almost always, everyone suspects a less virtuous explanation. The politician in question has got himself or herself involved in a scandal and is running before the gory details emerge, or the factional warlords have quietly ruled that a head has to roll, or inglorious electoral defeat has become inevitable and it has been judged better to withdraw before history scrawls ''loser'' on the runner's forehead.
Thus, when Tasmanian premier David Bartlett called a media conference last Sunday to declare he was stepping down from his state's top political job because he was determined to devote more time to his family, political watchers initially thought they could smell a rat.
Bartlett's approval rating had hit a dire 23 per cent in the polls. Had he seen the writing on the back-room walls? Was there a push coming from the hard men and women of the party?
In fact, he had survived worse polls and anyway, he was only 10 months into a four-year term and appeared to be making a reasonable fist of managing the Labor-Greens coalition that he found himself forced into after the state election ended in a hung parliament.
Beyond the normal muttering from the disaffected that surrounds premiers at any time, not a shred of evidence has emerged to suggest Bartlett was in the sort of trouble that would require a sudden departure. Close observers in Hobart confirmed that just about every one of the premier's colleagues had tried to talk him out of stepping away from the job once they had got wind of his desire to do so. Bartlett's decision, it turned out, appears extraordinary for being just what he says it is: a transformative realisation that the needs of his family were greater than political ambition.
When he called journalists to his Hobart home to make clear his position, he sounded quite unlike a politician seeking an easy way out.
''I was elected when my son, Hudson, was five months old and I … became the minister for education when my daughter, Matilda, was five weeks,'' he began.
''They are now seven and five and I've come to the conclusion over the summer that this job that requires seven days a week of your energy, often 24 hours a day, is becoming or has become incompatible with being a good dad, particularly for my boy, Hudson, who is seven and becoming a young man. He needs his dad around and I've taken the decision that I don't want to miss out on that opportunity to be a good father for him.
''One of my dearest friends said to me just after Hudson was born … she said you only get 13 summers with your kids, after that they're off doing their own thing; maybe they don't want to know you. I've just gone through my eighth summer with Hudson and I'm determined not to miss the next five.''
Bartlett would hand the job of premier to his deputy, Lara Giddings, and step back to a less-arduous ministerial position before leaving Parliament at the next election, in 2014. After that, he figures he can return to a job compatible with his first career in telecommunications and information technology.
He is just 43 - the first Australian premier from that age group known as Generation X, the one that followed the baby boomers and which had little intention of swallowing the self-satisfied verities of the preceding population bulge.
He is, however, the child of circumstances that go a lot further than mere generational influences to explaining why he might suddenly be visited by the fear that his career was robbing him of a close relationship with his son and his daughter.
David Bartlett learned when he was a child of six that his birth name was David Bird. He did not know the details then, but his biological mother had been just 16 when he was born, having had only a fleeting relationship with his biological father, who was only a bit older.
The man who would become premier had been a secret baby. His mother and grandmother left Launceston to hide in Hobart until he was born - the only people who knew of the pregnancy. It was not such an uncommon story in the 1960s.
The baby boy was given up for adoption at birth, and was fostered to a Tasmanian family by the name of Bartlett. He had five ''brothers'' and a ''sister'' and remembers a loving childhood, though he was the only dark-haired child - the others had red hair and fair skin. In fact, he was never formally adopted and remained a ward of the state. It meant the state of Tasmania met the substantial medical bills required to correct a malformation of his lower leg and foot.
Bartlett says that in a way, the state had been his parent, and his decision to go into politics had been a way of paying back the state for its care.
Young David Bartlett, foster child and ward of the state, eventually tracked his birth mother and later, his father, when he was 18. The activist Adoption Jigsaw organisation smuggled documents out of Tasmania's Births, Deaths and Marriages agency, which gave him the clues he needed in his quest. His mother still lives in Launceston, his father in Dalby, Queensland, and are both married with separate families. David Bartlett says he is blessed with two sets of parents: the Bartletts who gave him love, stability and an education, and those who gave him life - and they are all close.
Did the experience of discovering he had been adopted out and fostered and finally tracking his natural parents provide the deepest motivation, all these years later, to throw in the premier's job to be closer to his own children?
Yes, he says. But not because of any psychological or physical hardship as a child. Instead, he says, it was the memory of the love he had received from the Bartletts and the joy of connecting with his biological parents that persuaded him that family meant more than anything.
He had, too, been influenced by the book Raising Boys, by the Launceston-based author Steve Biddulph. The book sold millions around the world, and espoused that boys were different and required their fathers to understand this and become involved role models. Biddulph has been quoted as saying the first rule to good parenting is ''spend time'' and that ''love and time are the same thing''.
Bartlett says his son, Hudson, had started separating from his dependence on his mother and ''was looking for his father'', who often was not there. But even when he, the premier, was home, he had been consumed by political matters and would find himself locked away in what his wife, Larissa, called his ''stare bear'' look. His son had begun resenting even going out in public, because the family was always exposed and Bartlett's attention was on other people.
The matter crystallised when Bartlett read his son's school journal. ''There were far too many entries that started, 'My daddy went to work this weekend, so we didn't do anything,' or 'We did this because daddy was at work.' ''
And so, David Bartlett - admitting he was in the extremely privileged position of being able to make the sort of choice many other men could not make because of financial reasons - chose his children over the premiership.
In doing so, right at that moment in January when so many other fathers were returning to work after summer holidays, many of them knowing they would be all but separated from their children for another year, he turned a cliche on its head.
Plenty of critics attacked Bartlett, saying he should have thought of the sacrifices required when he set out to become premier, but he says many others - particularly older men - had confided that they wished they had done the same thing.
And as for him? He has spent a few days with his family this week in a Tasmanian beach shack, digesting his new role.
''I feel a great calmness now,'' he says, ''And the kids certainly get it - daddy's not going to do that job any more, they say. It feels good.''