House debates

Wednesday, 22 August 2018

Ministerial Statements

Lyons, Dame Enid Muriel, AD, GBE

11:51 am

Photo of Jason FalinskiJason Falinski (Mackellar, Liberal Party) Share this | Hansard source

Can I first reflect positively upon the contributions of the members for Mayo, Lyons, Braddon, Boothby and Forrest, who all spoke of the significance of Dame Enid Lyons. The member for Boothby told me that she hadn't really had a chance to properly consider her speech, but it was probably one of the best researched speeches that I have heard given on a motion of this nature, in particular her reflection upon the emotional context in which Dame Enid Lyons would have given her first speech, which Dame Enid did in the chamber after her husband had recently passed away and in front of so many of those who, she probably felt, had caused his early death through the stress that they had caused him.

Dame Enid Lyons was a pioneer for women in politics in Australia. It is 75 years since Dame Enid was elected the first woman in parliament. She paved the way for so many women to follow her journey to public life. In today's parliament there are 76 women. Enid narrowly won the seat of Darwin in Tasmania for the United Australia Party at the 1943 election. At the same election, Dorothy Tangney was elected as a Labor Party senator representing Western Australia. She was the first female senator to be elected.

Dame Enid's election in 1943 was not her first stint at politics. She narrowly lost the 1925 election for the seat of Denison by only 60 votes. Enid also supported her husband, former Prime Minister Joe Lyons. Enid and Joe were Australia's first political couple, and their children were the first children to live in the Lodge. In fact, the Lyons children were famous across the nation, with Joe and Enid inviting the press into the privacy of their home to take pictures of what was then a very new thing in newspapers. Of course, we need to also consider that travel in Australia in the 1920s was not as easy as it is today. So for Joe and Enid there was only one practical solution, and that was to move their family to Canberra.

Enid and Joe campaigned together. Enid made speeches and radio broadcasts for her husband and also alongside her husband. They thought of themselves as a team, and a true team they were, sharing and advancing so many of the political ideals and ideas that formed much of early Australia. But when Joe Lyons died in office in April 1939, Enid's greatest contribution to public life was still to come. Enid was left a widow, a widow with 11 children. Her husband's death was tragic and a tremendous loss not only for her but for this nation, whose democracy, at that point, was less than three decades old. She made the decision to enter parliament in her own right. It was a decision that, at the time, could not have been taken lightly. Her maiden speech, which many of the speakers today have referenced, was one that, no doubt, would have had more poignancy than most other maiden speeches, given the circumstances in which it occurred.

The anniversary of her first speech occurs next month. She must have thought very long and hard about what she would say in the chamber, given the death of her husband, and given that many of the people who had known him so well and caused him so much angst would be listening. She was re-elected twice, and after those elections Enid became the first woman to be in cabinet when she became the Vice-President of the Executive Council in 1949. She was widely credited with the Menzies government's decision to extend child endowment beyond the first-born child. This was a significant advancement for Australian families. It was a significant advancement for the federal government at a time when most people looked to their state governments, not to the Commonwealth, for such measures. To take this measure, as the Menzies government did—at a time when many people presumed the role of the Commonwealth government was a very limited one—was significant, but it was also a reflection of Enid and her husband's view that the family was the core of our society and anything the government could do to help advance that institution it should do. She advocated fervently, sensibly and, most importantly, persuasively for the raising of allowances paid to returned service women.

She was outspoken against the debarring of married women from employment in the Public Service. I was amazed to read only the other day that it was the Fraser government that actually got rid of the provision in the Commonwealth Public Service Act that said that when a woman became pregnant she had six months before she had to resign her position in the Commonwealth Public Service. Such provisions, it is amazing to think, Deputy Speaker Gee, were still in force in our lifetime. When you think about those things it is important to remember the massive advancements that we have made in the provision of equality of rights for all people in Australia, including, in this instance, pregnant women who are employed by the Commonwealth Public Service. Dame Enid Lyons was talking about this in the 1920s and 1930s, and the fact that it was not acted upon for 40 years is, I think, a testament against apathy and inaction—things are not inevitable. There is a current generation of people who believe quite fervently that things just get better. But this particular instance shows that it took nearly 40 years for something that was one of the core issues of one of the most important parliamentarians in the history of our nation to actually get advanced and to take effect.

In this very emotional speech, Enid's first speech, she canvassed policy ideas on an absolute multitude of issues. These issues were very relevant at the day but, when we go back and look, there was extraordinary foresight in those speeches as well. It is incredible that, even back in the 1930s, Dame Enid was talking about decentralisation. That's something that, frankly speaking, we have continued to try, but it has not successfully happened. I had someone the other day talking to me about traffic congestion on the northern beaches in my electorate of Mackellar. They said: 'Didn't the Fraser government try decentralisation? Whatever happened to that?' In actual fact, I was amazed to find in Dame Enid Lyon's first speech that she'd been talking about it in the 1930s. She also said—talking about her political philosophy:

… the problems of government were not problems of … statistics, but problems of human values and human hearts and human feelings …

She also said:

I hope that I shall never forget that everything that takes place in this chamber goes out somewhere to strike a human heart, to influence the life of some fellow being.


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