The decision by Kate Ellis, the 39-year-old federal Labor MP for Adelaide, to retire at the next election to be with her young son came as more of a shock than most retirements for family reasons. She is a shadow minister and already a 13-year veteran of Parliament. Her explanation was convincing:
"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."
Ellis foresaw 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."
But that may well be one of her legacies. Several writers were dismayed enough to take up this cri de coeur. Stephanie Peatling made a big call: "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."
Annabel Crabb challenged institutions: "Ordinary workplaces around the country are obliged to change in order to survive and keep good employees. Why not Parliament? The lesson from Kate Ellis should not be why did this woman leave, but how could we make people like her stay?"
The immediate context is gender balance. If many women with school-age children (preschoolers are easier to accommodate in parliamentary childcare) thought life as a federal parliamentarian was impossible then this would be a major blow to the dream of 50:50 representation. The goal would not easily be reached if childless and older women predominated among female parliamentarians.
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, not like the rest of the community. In short, that they have become career, professional politicians unlike ordinary people and detached from day-to-day concerns. Even the dress code in the chamber reinforces this view. Parliamentarians are predominantly men in suits, a small proportion of the workforce.
Changing the life of a parliamentarian to ensure greater work-life balance has proceeded at a snail's pace. There have been successful battles to introduce a childcare centre into the parliamentary building and, more recently, to enshrine the right of MPs to breastfeed a child in the parliamentary chamber.
Radical change will be even harder. There is one change that would not help Ellis but would not disadvantage women. That is the idea of limiting parliamentarians' terms to, say, three or four terms so there is more turnover of MPs and discouragement of professional politicians. Ellis' 13 years would become the norm for a parliamentary career and politicians could have a family before or after parliamentary service. A parliamentary career would also be accommodated much more easily with a non-government organisation, professional or business career.
Crabb suggested an even more radical idea that would not change parliamentarians but the very institution of Parliament. Her ideal is the virtual parliament, which would enable MPs like Ellis to take part in chamber work from her home or local office. Technological advances make this possible and the chamber would be conducted by Skype.
The University of Southampton and University of Canberra's Professor Gerry Stoker has brought to my attention yet another possibility. There are academics in Britain – including Birkbeck University of London's Rosie Campbell and the University of Bristol's Professor Sarah Childs – pushing the case for job-sharing by MPs. This involves transferring an idea with a long history in the public and private sectors into the political world. Prospective MPs could stand for election on a shared basis, dividing the pay and the responsibilities.
Campbell and Childs see this idea, with all its complexities, as a response 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 encumbrances might be job, family or disability.
The idea of a part-time MP goes back to the 19th century when MPs, predominantly from privileged backgrounds, combined parliamentary work with a profession or occupation. It is turning back the clock on professionalisation to retain some of the best of the amateur MP who continues to live and work in their local community.
Many will see all these ideas as pie in the sky and as tinkering with tradition. "If it isn't broken, don't fix it." But, for many voters, the system is broken and many MPs yearn for greater flexibility of lifestyle and a lessening of workload. The problems are lesser in some state parliaments because of the greater proximity of MPs to the Parliament, but rural MPs in all parliaments face the same travel demands and absence from home and family as federal MPs like Ellis.
Both a virtual parliament and job-sharing MPs raise problems as they do in all walks of life. Politicians get together in Canberra formally and informally for a lot more than just parliamentary voting, and job-sharing the job of a minister is a lot harder than being an MP.
Nevertheless, there is much to be said for shaking up ways of doing things that have become dysfunctional. Ellis will be long gone before any change happens, but her legacy should be a re-examination of all aspects of the parliamentary status quo.
John Warhurst is an emeritus professor of political science at the Australian National University.