Wednesday, 7 October 2020
RYAN, the Hon. Susan Maree, AO
I rise to pay tribute to a woman who was a trailblazer in this place and whose actions spoke not only to her own generation but those who followed. In 1975, the Honourable Susan Maree Ryan AO campaigned on the slogan 'A woman's place is in the Senate'. Time would also prove that it was a woman's place that was in the cabinet, in the High Court, in Government House and, indeed, in The Lodge. Susan Ryan's actions and achievements paved the way for these to happen. Indeed, Susan leaves an enviable legacy that transcends partisan politics and profoundly changed how Australian society operates.
Susan Ryan was principled, determined and incredibly hardworking. She entered the Senate in 1975 before spending seven years in opposition. During this time, she served in a variety of roles, including shadow minister for communications, the arts and the media and, later, Indigenous affairs. She later became the first woman in a Labor cabinet, serving as a Minister for Education, Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women and the Special Minister of State. However, Susan was much more than Labor's first cabinet woman. She was an exemplary public servant. Susan spearheaded policies that lifted year 12 retention rates from one-third to two-thirds. Susan was also the architect of the Sex Discrimination Act and the Affirmative Action (Equal Employment Opportunity for Women) Act. This made sexual harassment illegal and bolstered women's economic empowerment. It meant women could study whatever they wanted without restriction. It meant women could have a career and children—not one or the other. It meant women could buy a home without needing the husband or father alongside them. The women and girls of today stand on Susan Ryan's shoulders, just as she stood on the shoulders of those before her.
Women have not had the role models to look to that men have, because it is only in relatively recent history that we have witnessed women in power. Like men, women need to be able to look across the country and see themselves represented at every point of significant influence. The concept that 'if she can do it, so can I' is a very powerful motivator. Men take for granted that they have role models of power and influence. For women, this is a relatively recent development. Take, for example, my cousin, Margaret Bonfield, who was the first female cabinet member of the UK parliament almost 100 years ago. She was the first female member of the Privy Council in its history. In those days, women—like our party's co-founder Dame Elizabeth Couchman—had to choose between public life and having a family. The legacy of these women—along with Susan Ryan—is left for us to champion. This includes promoting economic and social equality for women.
In 2018, the government—led by my predecessor, Kelly O'Dwyer, Minister for Women and former member for Higgins—released the inaugural Women's Economic Security Statement. This investment of $119 million had three key pillars. The first was to increase workforce participation. The second was to improve earning potential, and the third was to promote economic independence. I am proud that last night the budget included our second Women's Economic Security Statement, with $240 million in measures and programs to support new cadetships and apprenticeships for women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics—an issue that's very dear to my heart—job creation and entrepreneurialism, and women's safety at work and in the home. These measures are needed now more than ever to help regain the strides we had made pre-COVID to increase women's work participation and to decrease the gender pay gap.
As the Treasurer said last night in his budget speech, Australian women made up the majority of those who've lost their job during this COVID crisis. As the health restrictions have eased however, these jobs have started to come back with 60 per cent of the 458,000 jobs created since May filled by women. This is a welcome development.
There is so much to do in this place to support women, not because of COVID-19 but despite it. As a working mother of four, I know at a very personal level the juggle that has been exacerbated by COVID-19. Australia will be forever indebted to Susan Ryan's public service. We must pick up the baton from the women who went before us and continue their important work. I extend my sincere condolences to Susan's partner, Rory, and her children, Justine and Benedict, and her grandson, Amir. May she rest in peace.
I rise today in memory of Susan Ryan. Susan was a senator, a feminist, a mentor, a hero and a friend. She lived a great Australian life, of which we are all beneficiaries. I know I certainly am. She was born in Camperdown but spent her childhood in Maroubra, among the surf and the sun and the Catholic Church. She was educated by the Brigidine nuns, and I know a lot of girls that were educated by the Brigidine nuns—good feminists, all of them. They taught the girls to be confident and unconventional, proving their service through action. According to Susan, there was a clear link between her time at the convent school and her feminism. She said:
If convent girls did what the nuns told them—examined their consciences, tried to find the truth, stood up for themselves, strove for altruistic ... motives—it is no wonder they took to the second wave of feminism like ducks to water.
Susan's absolute passion for justice was deeply influenced by that time with the Brigidine sisters. You could see it, even as she was what my godmother would have called 'a lapsed Catholic'. She was culturally Catholic throughout her life. She was someone who believed passionately in the fundamental truths of not just Catholicism but any religion—what we owe to each other; the service that we owe to each other.
At a time when only five per cent of young women went to university, she won a scholarship to the Sydney Teachers' College. She had to actually pay back the scholarship when it was discovered that she was engaged. From there, she became a teacher, a mother, a publisher, an activist, an academic and, finally, a parliamentarian. Her decision to take the plunge into politics was motivated by her frustration at the limits of activism. Susan was a founding member here in the ACT of the Women's Electoral Lobby, but she concluded that, while lobbying was absolutely vital and critical, women would never achieve full equality without direct representation in the rooms where the decisions are being made. She said:
How much more efficient, I thought, how much more effective, if we were in there making the decisions, instead of knocking on the doors trying to attract support.
In 1975, there was not a single female member of the House of Representatives. It really seems impossible to think of that in our lifetime—my lifetime and yours, Mr Deputy Speaker Zimmerman. Susan ran for the Senate that year as a 33-year-old single mum, with her remarkable slogan, 'A woman's place is in the Senate'. It was revolutionary then and it is iconic today. Susan's politics were always clear. She could never tolerate discrimination of any sort—not against the old, not against the poor, not against women. This simple idea shaped everything that Susan Ryan did as a senator and everything that she did as Labor's first female cabinet minister. Her crowning achievement—what she called the most useful thing she did in her life—was the Sex Discrimination Act. She'd originally developed it in opposition as a private member's bill before having the opportunity to legislate it when Labor came to government. This is a very important point for parliamentarians who would hope to learn something from Susan Ryan's legacy: she didn't treat opposition as a time to relax and cruise. She was working every day, preparing for the opportunity and the honour of governing.
It seems completely uncontroversial now for us to say that it's unacceptable for an employer to advertise 'I want to a man to fill this job,' or, 'I want a woman to fill this job,' or, 'No-one who's pregnant need apply, and, if you get pregnant, you're able to be sacked,' but it was certainly not uncontroversial when Susan Ryan introduced the Sex Discrimination Act; it was incredibly controversial. I remember a little bit of it as a child. Looking back on the history books, Fred and Elaine Nile and organisations like Women who Want to be Women organised protests and accused Susan of, 'Making men eunuchs in their own kingdom.' One of the things that is extraordinary about this is that it wasn't just Susan's political opponents on the other side of the chamber who were critical of this; it was many of her own colleagues, fighting hard in marginal seats, saying: 'Susan, please. Why do we have to do this? It's so controversial. Can't we just let it drop?' I think it's such a tribute to Susan Ryan's clarity of vision, her commitment to change and her courage but also her courtesy and her light touch. She was prepared to fight this as hard as it took, but she did it with such good spirit and good grace.
We look back now deeply grateful for these changes. It took all of her willpower and all of her skill and experience to take this one idea—that gender based discrimination should not be allowed in our workplaces—and make it reality. We owe her a great debt for that, because it's never easy being the first. It may seem easy in hindsight, but it's not. People will criticise you, they will ridicule you and, when you win, they'll claim that they agreed with you from the very beginning. Susan is celebrated now, but she walked through fire to do what she did.
I want to finish this condolence with a reflection on Susan Ryan as a person and a mentor in the Labor Party. I could talk all day about her professional achievements. She did so much in the education, in the aged care and in the disability rights portfolios, but even if I spent the whole afternoon talking about all of those achievements, what you would miss is her vitality and her warmth. She was enormous fun. She loved literature, she loved music, she loved nature, she loved life, she was deeply proud of her Irish heritage and she was the absolute opposite of a snob.
I remember going to Labor Party conferences as a young activist, long before I was elected to parliament. Susan would fight all day on the conference floor, and then she would sit long into the evening with any of the young activists who wanted to talk to her—never too busy to give a word of advice or have a laugh, a drink or a chat. She was encouraging and she was supportive. Even after her extraordinary success in public life, she had time for people. We remember Susan for her amazing life, for all she did to make a career like mine possible and for all she did for Australian women. Her loss is immense for her family, for her partner Rory, for Justine and Benedict, for her grandchild, Amir, for our party and for this country.
Let me associate myself with the remarks made and the tribute paid by the member for Sydney. The Hon. Susan Ryan—Officer of the Order of Australia, a true groundbreaker, a crusader for justice, a champion for equality, a role model for many—arrived in the Senate in 1975, the ACT's first female senator and a single mother of 33 years at the time. She went on to become Labor's first female cabinet minister when the Hawke government was elected in 1983, and one of her enduring legacies is her private member's bill to outlaw discrimination on the basis of gender, which became the Sex Discrimination Act 1984.
Susan Ryan was born in Sydney in 1942—the same year and the same town as my mother. My mother was involved in feminist causes and groups when I was growing up. She, like many of her generation, had left school at 16 and, in the 1980s, with her children, at a young age, she'd gone back to university to finish her high school education and to obtain a degree. As a child growing up I remember that Susan was often someone spoken of in hallowed terms by my mum around our dinner table and held up as a role model to myself and especially my two elder sisters. Susan Ryan said in a newspaper interview in 2017:
I felt from the youngest possible age that it was unfair, intolerable really, that females were regarded as second-class citizens.
This was the same lesson my mother sought to instill in me and my two sisters.
As others here, including from the Labor Party, who know her life and career much better than me, have said, much of which we now take for granted today is only possible because of the trail that Susan Ryan blazed. As she said in her own words, this was a trail that would allow women to be able to pursue opportunities 'unencumbered by stifling stereotypes', that 'There should be no unfair obstacles put in the way of their achieving independence,' and that 'Women and men should be judged on their merits, not on how far they reinforce some socially useful or commercially contrived norm.' As she wrote in an opinion piece last year on Bob Hawke's legacy, she entered national political life at a time when 'it was not unlawful to sack women who married or became pregnant' when 'maternity leave was scarcely available' when 'women could not get home loans' or personal finance loans' and when the educational opportunities afforded to girls were highly restricted.
After leaving parliament in 1987, Susan Ryan went on to hold roles as the Age Discrimination Commissioner and the Disability Discrimination Commissioner. She brought the same sense of purpose and justice to these roles as she did to her parliamentary career, to compel her fellow citizens to recognise that older Australians and Australians with a disability deserve to live a life of equal dignity, purpose and opportunity as the rest of us.
The causes that Susan Ryan championed remain with us today, and there is more that must be done—but we have a good role model to hand. To my mind, she is Australia's equivalent of a Ruth Bader Ginsburg in terms of the role model she provided for women and the enduring impact she has had on stifling social legal norms which held back our country. Susan Ryan's championing of the rights of women, through the force of her intellect, the persuasion of her arguments and the power of her example, allowed her to shatter glass ceilings at a time when the ceilings were made not of glass but reinforced concrete. She blazed the trail in the true meaning of the term, burning a pathway through a dense forest where none had existed before, for others to follow in her turn.
I extend my condolences to her partner, her children and her grandchildren. May her legacy inspire us to continue to fight discrimination in all its forms, and may her memory be a blessing to us all. Thank you.
Susan Ryan was the first in her family and the first in her school to win a scholarship to go to the University of Sydney. She studied education and, like many women of that generation, expected to go on to a career in teaching. After graduating, she married public servant, and later diplomat, Richard Butler. She recalled, 'Because of this, I lost my scholarship and had to pay back the scholarship money,' and she noted that this wouldn't have happened had she been a man.
In 1965, they moved to Canberra. For the next six years, she was active in the ACT, becoming a founding member of the wonderful Belconnen sub-branch of the Labor Party. She spent two periods living overseas when Butler was posted first to Vienna and then to New York. There, she was influenced, as Christine Wallace has noted, by the work of Kate Millett and Betty Friedan—and, of course, Germaine Greer was then part of the mix, along with Gloria Steinem.
Susan returned to Canberra in 1971 with her two children but without Butler, who she divorced the following year. She became involved with the Women's Electoral Lobby and continued her activism with the Labor Party while completing her master's degree at the Australian National University and being employed as the head of the Australian Council of State School Organisations. She was elected to the non-governing ACT House of Assembly in 1975 and ran unsuccessfully in 1974 for preselection for the electorate of Fraser, which I had the honour to represent as the last member for the then ACT electorate of Fraser prior to the creation of the Victorian electorate of the same name. She was defeated by Ken Fry but won preselection as the Labor candidate for the Senate in 1975. She ran under the fabulous slogan 'A woman's place is in the Senate', but her timing was unfortunate in that her election coincided with the dismissal of the Whitlam government. She told journalists that she:
Her trailblazing was recognised in the ACT following her death by a wonderful cadre of feminists who acknowledged her prominence and her role as a standard-bearer for a broad movement of resolute and sophisticated change-makers. She was remarkable because she expressed the wisdom and conviction of her peers, many of whom still inspire the current ACT Labor team and whose values are embodied in our progressive and egalitarian ACT Labor branch.
Her work was in so many fields. In the Sex Discrimination Act, she reshaped a nation for the better. As Susan Ryan recalled, prior to that act:
… it was not unlawful to sack women who married or became pregnant, or just because they were women. Maternity leave was scarcely available. Women could not get home loans. Girls' education was restricted and fewer girls got into higher education. Much of our community thought all of this was OK.
She endured ferocious political attacks but managed to continue without losing that sense of optimism and idealism. She didn't become hardened or embittered by the attacks. She simply carried on in her wonderful Susan Ryan way. As Chief Minister Andrew Barr has noted:
… she will be fondly remembered by those who knew her, and those that are continuing the fight for Labor values today.
As my colleague Senator Katy Gallagher has noted, she was 'an incredible support for so many of us who have followed in her footsteps'. Destroy the Joint supporter Sarah Jeffery said:
I saw her speak in parliament in 1983 on a school excursion to Canberra. She was impressive. I remember being shocked by the abuse and ridicule she received from the rows of men in opposition. She just kept talking. I was 15 and she made a huge impact on me. I have always been grateful for her legacy.
Leone Joice said:
… in 1984 my sister, as a young Engineering Survey Draftsperson, kept a copy of the Anti Discrimination Act displayed prominently on her desk, so coworkers didn't say she was taking a job away from a man.
When Susan Ryan received an honorary doctorate from the Australian National University for her work to advance human rights, the MeToo movement was emerging and she saw an opportunity to push against obstacles that should never have existed but still did. As she told the Canberra Times:
… I feel more than disappointed, deeply distressed that women are still battling things that they shouldn't have to battle.
… … …
Women need to act collectively and support each other on these big issues.
She campaigned on age discrimination and on disability discrimination and she pushed the frontiers in so many important ways. One of the great reforms for which she has largely gone unheralded was the campaign from the Women's Electoral Lobby in the ACT submitting to the Tariff Board in the 1970s that the tariff on contraceptives be reduced. As a free-trading feminist myself, I can think of no better reform to be championing.
Susan Ryan laid the groundwork for so much in the modern, progressive Australia we have today, and she is remembered fondly here in the ACT for all that she achieved.
Susan Ryan was a force for good, a go-getter, a person who broke down barriers, with an infectious passion for progress. Susan made life better for so many Australians, particularly women. She will be sadly missed. Susan, just like me, grew up in Maroubra, and she never lost her love of the surf, the ocean and the rolling waves, particularly of her home beach of Maroubra. It's no coincidence that the last thing that Susan did on this planet was go for a swim in the ocean.
Susan attended Brigidine College at Randwick, the same school that my wife went to and the same school that my eldest daughter will begin high school at next year. After travelling the world with her diplomat husband, Susan settled down in Canberra in the early 1970s. Her passion, her intellect and her talent were quickly recognised, and she was elected to the ACT House of Assembly. In 1975 she ran for one of the first two Senate spots for the ACT. She ran under the slogan 'A woman's place is in the Senate,' and she was spot-on. When she got to the Senate, she made sure that she delivered on her campaign slogan, setting quickly about reforming outdated laws and ensuring equality for women in our country.
In 1983, on the election of the Hawke Labor government, Susan was appointed as the Minister for Education and Youth Affairs and the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on the Status of Women. It was in that latter portfolio where she really made a difference and quickly set about changing Australian society and ensuring greater equality and fairness and the removal of discrimination against women. She set about breaking down some of those discriminatory mores that existed in our society at the time. She established the Sex Discrimination Act, the equal employment opportunity for women principles and the Public Sector Reform Act. These legal reforms introduced long-overdue changes to Australia that were, at the time, opposed by some in our society but ensured that Australia moved in line with international conventions that we were signatory to around the rights of women. Those reforms ensured that it became illegal for a woman to be sacked from her job simply for falling pregnant. They made it illegal for women to be discriminated against in the workplace. They made sexual harassment in the workplace unlawful and ensured extra funding and support for working women through child care.
When Susan introduced these reforms, of course there was the typical opposition from business groups and from family groups and, indeed, from some within her own party, the Labor Party, and certainly from many in the coalition, on the conservative side of politics, at the time. These were predictable arguments—that the reforms would destroy business and that they would destroy the nature of the family unit and Australian society. Susan clinically and quickly dismissed all of those arguments and pointed out the benefits that would flow to Australia for women, for our society and for our economy from these reforms. And, indeed, she has been proven right. For my generation, when we look back it's almost unthinkable that that's how we existed at that time and that anyone could oppose a reform that ensured that a woman couldn't be sacked from her job for falling pregnant. Susan fought hard and she won those battles and she gave those rights to women, and our country is better for her tenacity and for her powerful advocacy. As the father of four daughters, I sincerely thank Susan for leading the way and breaking down those barriers and ensuring that my daughters, and thousands of other women throughout the country, can live with dignity and respect in Australia.
After parliament, Susan never lost her passion for progress and equality, and she became the pro vice-chancellor of the University of New South Wales in my electorate, in the community that she lived in, and she was the president of the Australian Institute of Superannuation Trustees. We all know that she continued in the role of breaking down the barriers, in 2011 becoming the Age Discrimination Commissioner and in 2014 the Disability Discrimination Commissioner. She never stopped fighting for the rights of the marginalised. Susan was very proud of her Irish descent, and that descent made her a very proud and staunch Australian republican. She was at one stage the national director of the Australian Republic Movement. I often had great conversations with Susan about the importance of Australia recognising our independence and our identity and finally having one of our own as our head of state. It was great to see her speak last year at Old Parliament House on the 20th anniversary of the failed 1999 republic referendum and to see that she hadn't lost that passion for this important issue. Hopefully, one day we can get around to finally voting on becoming a republic and having one of our own as our head of state.
In conclusion, I thank Susan for her wonderful contribution to Australian life. Australia is a better community, a better country, because of the work that she undertook. She leaves a great legacy of equality and justice. And for that, we thank her. I offer my sincere commiserations to her partner, Rory, and her children.
'I know what you're thinking—I'm old, very old. And you might be wondering: how did I get to be so lucky?' This is a quote from a video called The Power of Oldness, a campaign undertaken by Susan Ryan when she was Age Discrimination Commissioner. It is an upbeat video, showing a gentleman with grey hair participating, contributing, and showing off his wisdom and skills. It's typical of the positivity and optimism that Susan Ryan brought to everything she did. But the video ends with a harsh dose of reality. The man walks into a starkly lit room, clearly having a job interview. He no longer looks confident and seems to have aged. A young woman clearly in recruitment or HR says, 'I'm sorry. We're looking for someone younger.' Susan Ryan knew all too well that age discrimination was real and was holding this nation back. I had the privilege of getting to know Susan when I was the shadow minister for ageing. She was so generous with her time and her ideas and sage advice. I will never forget our one-on-one meetings, where she would offer up her wisdom on ageing, aged care and the rights of older Australians.
The tragic part of all this is she passed away too soon. On 10 October she would have turned 78 years of age, well short of the median life expectancy of 84 to 85 years of age for a woman of her era. Don't get me wrong—Susan Ryan lived a full and bountiful life. She achieved a great deal throughout her time. She was an educator, a scholar and a political campaigner. She was a foundation member of the Women's Electoral Lobby in the early 1970s, a body that promotes women's issues to political candidates and mobilised women's political power. She can be credited in large part with our victory in 1972. She was immensely proud of the work she did in that campaign. In 1975 she was elected, as my colleagues have said, as one of two senators for the ACT, on the slogan: 'A woman's place is in the Senate'. Under Prime Minister Bob Hawke, she served as Minister for Education and Youth Affairs and Minister assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women. We know she was instrumental in the implementation of the Sex Discrimination Act, the Affirmative Action (Equal Employment Opportunity for Women) Act, the Public Service Reform Act, and the Equal Employment Opportunity (Commonwealth Authorities) Act. Even with all these great achievements for women, former Prime Minister Paul Keating said her greatest achievement in the education portfolio was lifting the retention rate, from three in 10 to nine in 10, for year 12 retention for young people.
After leaving politics, she contributed immensely to Australian political life, in superannuation, in industry and in academia. In July 2011, Prime Minister Julia Gillard appointed her as the inaugural Age Discrimination Commissioner with the Australian Human Rights Commission. It was during this time she worked alongside other warriors in the field, including Everald Compton and former Labor Deputy Prime Minister Brian Howe, and contributed to the Gillard government's Advisory Panel on Positive Ageing. She contributed numerous policy papers addressing aged discrimination in the workplace, the insurance industry and housing, just to name a few.
The Advisory Panel on Positive Ageing was a permanent panel within the Treasury, directly advising then Treasurer Wayne Swan and working with the department to address the ageing of our population. Tragically, in a moment of partisan madness, the former Liberal Treasurer Joe Hockey sacked the panel in December 2013, just six months shy of its delivering a blueprint for an ageing Australia. With the panel forced to find private funding to complete its work, Susan Ryan's work became merely consulting. Not long after that, the Abbott government choose not to appoint a new Disability Discrimination Commissioner, rather making Susan Ryan both Age and Disability Discrimination Commissioner. I know for a fact she loved to work in disability, but she was frustrated to think the government might consider ageing a type of disability. The Labor opposition at the time promised her that we would reinstate a stand-alone discrimination commissioner for ageing and one for disability.
Susan Ryan's passion meant she was determined to keep the nation focused on population changes coming our way. As the Abbott government planned to increase the working age to 70, there were major shifts to be made on how we address mature-age workers. Apart from the discrimination of companies looking to recruit younger people, the insurance industry made it even harder. Mature workers couldn't be covered by workers compensation let alone access private life and disability insurance. She made great inputs into policy in this area. Most notably, she developed and helped us with the development of policy for mature-age workers. She understood the need to retrain and support workers as they reached the age of 50 years. She actually inspired me to consider a coordinated approach to assist people from the age of 50 to access career advice and support, like an employment check-up, and to reinvigorate the Corporate Champions program. Unfortunately, our nation has not embraced the need for age-friendly communities in a way that Susan foresaw.
Susan Ryan was a dear friend of the former member for Oxley, former Labor leader, Treasurer, foreign affairs minister and Governor-General, Bill Hayden. Bill has been like a mentor to me and a giver of sage advice. Bill and his wife, Dallas, had known Susan for decades, and their daughters worked together briefly. Every year the member for Ipswich, Jennifer Howard, stages the Hayden Oration in honour of Bill Hayden. In 2019, Bill chose Susan Ryan to deliver that speech, just 13 months ago. It was the last time I had a really good opportunity to speak with her in depth. She spoke of the reforms undertaken by the Whitlam and Hawke governments and Bill's role in that. She was as passionate last year as she was in the 1970s. Let me quote from her speech at that Hayden Oration: 'It is Labor that provides reform in governments. Our opponents do not. They aim to maintain the status quo. Because of this necessary focus on reform, Labor governments typically experience much tougher electoral climates than our opponents. People fear change, and reform necessitates change. Voter fear gives the conservatives fuel for their fear campaigns. Nothing changes here, as Labor's disappointment in the 2019 election demonstrates.'
It saddens me to think Susan Ryan is no longer with us to provide that advice and inspiration. But one thing about her life is her work towards equality. In that oration she talked about the fact that in 1977 Bill Hayden made her the Labor spokesperson for communications, media and the arts. 'In 1979 he added the status of women to my responsibilities,' she said. It was one of the most important decisions any Labor leader had ever made. 'It was my portfolio from that time until I retired from parliament in 1988,' she said. She kept it.
After the 1977 election result, another disastrous result for Labor, Bill decided to have an inquiry, with Neal Blewett and John Button to head up the inquiry. For the first time Labor decided to get submissions from young Labor women on the history of women's votes. Such an exercise was novel, according to Susan. It was thought, by the way, that women would follow the voting decisions of their husbands. 'Not so,' she said. Armed with this startling and persuasive data, and with Bill Hayden's support, she said: 'I set out on a long process of developing women's policy for Labor. This process involved consulting women's organisations of all kinds and individual women as far as possible. This activity resulted in Towards equality, a document setting out a raft of detailed policies designed to overcome the social and economic disadvantages experienced by women. In 1982, Bill as Labor leader wrote a foreword to the document and launched it.' And so it goes.
She also went on to make this very important comment: 'In 1983, the election marked the first time more women than men voted for Labor. As minister assisting the Prime Minister on the status of women I had a big agenda.' It was that Towards equality agenda that she had, and a lot of election commitments to be undertaken based on the Bill Hayden document.
It really saddens to see that she's no longer with us when you consider what she did. I want to finish with this statement from Bill Hayden. He sent this to me today. He asked that I read it. I think it's a fitting way to conclude. It shows all about Susan, her mentoring role to young women, and it sets out something about her. She gave Bill 36, the second-top grade for any Labor politician going into the 1972 election. Gough Whitlam got 33. Bill was seen as more pro-women's-rights than Gough. The only person above in all the parliament was Tom Uren. I think the Leader of the Opposition would be delighted about that. He got 37. Andrew Peacock got 30, but a lot of his colleagues were negative, according to the Women's Electoral Lobby in 1972. She would have been shocked when Bill said this. This is the statement from Bill. I will read it entirely:
When the news of Susan’s death was broadcast of the ABC radio news Sunday week ago, my elder daughter Georgina came and told me about the news flash. I was absolutely devastated because Susan and I had been good friends. We sat beside each other in the Cabinet and we would often chat about personal matters like family. On one occasion, not long after our youngest daughter Ingrid started high school, I told Susan that I was worried Ingrid was not doing as well academically as I believed she could and I was thinking perhaps of getting Ingrid apprenticed in a hair dressing salon. Susan expostulated loudly—
You can just imagine her doing that—
Predictably, she gave me a very firm talk about liberation for women. Susan knew Ingrid well as she did all our children from their coming to Parliament House since they were very young. Susan said the future for Ingrid as for all women was through education; Susan said: she can do it; she is bright and able. Susan was right. After a change of school environment Ingrid flourished going on to obtain an accounting degree at the University of Queensland, becoming a member of the Chartered Accountants Association after successfully sitting their rigorous exam, and now close to thirty years distinguished service with the United Nations including serving administratively in UN peace keeping missions including in Cambodia, Timor Leste, Afghanistan, Central African Republic, Chad, South Sudan and Darfur Sudan where she administered military peace-keeping forces from Nigeria and Thailand, and currently, following her appointment by the Secretary-General of the UN in 2018, Ingrid is serving as the Deputy Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General to the UN's Assistance Mission in Afghanistan and does reporting for the UN Security Council and has appeared before it.
These things came as a direct result of Susan Ryan's intervention in the Cabinet Office against my thinking, so I am eternally grateful to Susan. Throughout the intervening years, Susan would often enquire how Ingrid was getting on; Susan's interest was genuine. Among my very many fond memories was Susan's uninhibited penchant for singing Irish songs with gusto – and as in her approach to those who opposed her on women's rights issues Susan annihilated the uncooperative notes.
She wasn't a particularly good singer, but she loved it. Bill finishes:
I am extremely grateful to Susan Ryan and miss her. Vale Susan Ryan.
I say to Bill Hayden, 'Amen to that.' Susan, your legacy was to lead Australia, in your words, 'towards equality'. Our country owes you so much. My deepest condolences to your family and friends.
Much has been written and said about the great Susan Ryan since she passed away. Universally she's been described as a genuine trailblazer and a champion for women. She was highly astute and wily when she needed to be, and she proved time and time again she had the bravery and fortitude to take on a system in her quest for fairness and equality. It's clear also that she wasn't the sort of person who was easily shocked. But back in 1962, when the then 20-year-old Susan married a junior diplomat called Richard Butler, she was astounded to discover that this might bring about the end of her then fledgling career.
Susan was the first person in her family to win a scholarship to the University of Sydney, where she studied education. But, after getting married, she lost her scholarship and had to pay back all of the payments she'd received from the Department of Education. She recalled at an interview in 2012, 'It didn't happen to the blokes. When I tell that story today, young women think that I am making it up, and, well, they might.' Sadly, that was the way things were in Australia in the 1960s. Until 1967, when a woman got married she had to resign from her job in the Commonwealth Public Service.
When Ryan entered politics and became a minister in the Hawke government in 1983, it was still entirely lawful for a woman to be sacked for being married or being pregnant. Susan and Richard divorced in the early seventies, and he went on to become a United Nations weapon inspector. Susan, meanwhile, became highly engaged in politics, emerging as a feminist leader and a founder of the Women's Electoral Lobby in Canberra.
At the age of just 33, she was elected to the Senate at the same election at which the Labor Party suffered a landslide defeat after the dismissal of the Whitlam government. The year was 1975, and she was just one of six women in federal parliament—only six! Interest was high in the young feminist's election to the male-dominated parliament. Media stories at the time included comments on her gender, age, hair, clothing, marital status and the fact she was a single mum to two children—the type of reflection today's members and senators sadly still see repeated, perhaps not so often though.
When she sought Labor pre-selection, she was referred to in one report as 'the attractive 32-year-old mother-of-two, a divorcee'. In another she was 'tall, slight, with green eyes and chestnut brown hair and an Irish face'. In her maiden speech, which we now call the first speech, she noted that as a female parliamentarian she was a member of a particularly small minority group. And I note happily this week that the Senate achieved a record 42 per cent female representation with the swearing in of Senator Lidia Thorpe. Susan Ryan would be proud of this development.
As soon as she was in parliament, Susan showed she was there to make a difference, launching headlong into work on serious policy reform and gaining the respect of the Labor caucus. During this period she also set up a Labor national Women's Policy Committee and travelled around Australia to improve women's understanding of the party.
When Bill Hayden became Labor leader in 1977, Susan Ryan was handed the shadow portfolios of communications, the arts and the media, making her the first woman on Labor's federal frontbench. In 1983, when Bob Hawke regained power for Labor, she was made education minister and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on the Status of Women. She was Labor's first female cabinet member, an historic title she will carry forever.
Susan's exceptional achievement of course came in 1984 with the passage of the Sex Discrimination Act—among the most comprehensive pieces of legislation of its kind in the world. That act made it illegal to discriminate against women in employment based on their marital status or pregnancy. More than 20 years after she lost her scholarship at the University of Sydney, simply for getting married, Susan Ryan righted many wrongs. She ended the systematic, embedded and overt discrimination that held women and girls back so that the power of the patriarchy, the power of men, could continue without challenge. Susan Ryan challenged the power that held the sisterhood down and she won. The Sex Discrimination Act also outlawed sexual harassment in the workplace. Until then, women who dared to complain had no recourse. Mostly, they were told they would just have to put up with it. Standing here, almost four decades later, it is bewildering to recall that those reforms were opposed by many in our society, particularly community conservative groups and some politicians.
Susan was labelled Australia's 'feminist dictator' and was the target of a 'Stop the Ryan juggernaut' rally, organised by Fred and Elaine Nile. If only she could have been a feminist dictator; equality for women may actually have happened by now. Reform can be difficult and Susan never wavered, and we feminists today, those who believe in the equality of women, must never waiver. We must always continue her fight and the fight of so many others to ensure true equality for women.
Susan Ryan's other great passion was education. Under her watch, year 12 retention rates doubled and participation in TAFEs and universities improved markedly. One of my predecessors in the seat of Brand, Wendy Fatin, was the first woman from WA to be a member of the House of Representatives. Wendy served alongside Susan Ryan in the Hawke and Keating ministries and, like Susan, she was passionate about women's issues. In fact, she was appointed in 1990 as Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women, the role Susan held for five years, until 1988.
After leaving politics, Susan did not give up on social change, serving as Australia's first Age Discrimination Commissioner and later as Disability Discrimination Commissioner. Just weeks before her death, she was speaking out in the media against the horrendous conditions in the nation's aged-care homes. Susan Ryan was a true pioneer for women in this country. She was a progressive who was full of energy and ideas and, above all, she was effective. She was a proud feminist. I am a proud feminist. Labor women, myself included, owe Susan an enormous debt of gratitude. She blazed the trail that we're all following. Thank you, Susan. You will be remembered as a truly great Australian.
It is an incredible honour to be able to stand in the Australian parliament and speak on this condolence motion for Susan Ryan and to follow so many of my Labor comrades in reflections on her extraordinary life and extraordinary contribution to Australian society. She was many things and it is very difficult to contain them to just a series of adjectives, but she was an absolutely proud feminist. The member for Brand made that point very clear. It was really the hard-slog work of women like Susan Ryan that paved the way so that all of the Labor women you see before you today can stand in this parliament. A lot of my colleagues made note of the fact that her first election slogan, which was one that she carried for many years, was 'A woman's place is in the Senate'. Later in life, I remember a conversation with her where she said, 'We need you in the House, in the Senate and, indeed, in all realms of politics where decisions are being made. We need feminists in those positions'—women who appreciate the structural inequalities that continue to exist in Australia.
Whilst we rightly praise Susan for the role that she played in leading the changes that were quite radical for Australia at the time and culminated in the Sex Discrimination Act 1984, Susan faced a number of rejections of that bill before getting to that point. By 1984 there was a certain level of maturity and an understanding of some of those issues. Australia had just signed the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, and the Sex Discrimination Act was the perfect measure for the implementation of that international commitment here in Australia. If Susan Ryan had done nothing else in her life, that one piece of legislation would have been a most important contribution. It changed the lives of Australian women forever and in a very good way. It is really very difficult to imagine what life was like for women prior to that piece of legislation.
My colleague from Brand made reference to the extraordinary lived experience that Susan brought to the Senate. She was a brilliant scholar. She trained to be a teacher and had a Commonwealth funded scholarship to undertake her studies. Then she got married, and, for this 'wrongdoing', she was asked to repay it. She was already a graduate from her degree. She had already graduated, but she was asked to repay the Commonwealth scholarship because she was now a married woman—and we couldn't possibly be supporting married women, because their place was definitely not, at that point, in this House or in the Senate. I guess it is little wonder that Susan Ryan, having lived through that experience, came to the Senate with a fire in her belly to ensure that she would never be silent when she confronted discrimination against women in this nation.
As I said, she tried to get that bill passed through the Australian parliament as a private member's bill originally. One of the great strengths of Susan Ryan was that she was a collaborative worker and she really didn't have a lot of time for the factional divisions that often take up a lot of time in this establishment. She didn't have much time for that. She reached out across political parties to try and get the job done. She had an appreciation that she had a certain amount of time in this place, and she was going to make a difference. She didn't waste her time. Having been defeated in her efforts to get a sex discrimination act across the line with a private member's bill, she waited and waited and worked across the aisles and got people engaged in that process and did what women are exceptionally good at doing, and that is actually bringing people together to make things happen. She got that Sex Discrimination Act passed through parliament, and we all remain so very deeply thankful for her persistence and her dogged determination there. Had she not been the brilliant feminist, the great scholar, the great visionary and the pragmatic warrior that she was, we might not have seen that piece of legislation in Australia.
Chair, are you looking at me to segue out?
You can hop out of the chair. I reckon Susan Ryan would be honoured that I managed to stop the Australian parliament for a brief moment in order to make this further contribution to her life, and it was a bloke that we had to give permission to to leave the chamber! She would like that. She would have a smile on her face.
I just want to offer two very personal recollections of Susan, and they are of my last two meetings with her. One was at an anniversary for WEL, Women's Electoral Lobby, which she was a founding member of. It was an important anniversary for WEL, at Sydney. We were gathered in the Sydney Town Hall, and all of the amazing women of her generation and her era were gathered in the room. What a powerhouse of feminists. I walked in awe of all the women that were gathered there.
Susan ran a punishing kind of life and set herself so many goals—to still be rallying against injustice wherever she found it and certainly trying to find remedies for gender inequality wherever she found it. She would probably be offended, almost, by my statement saying that she was still running a hectic legislative and reform program to the very end, because she would say to you: 'What the hell? Don't expect me to be retiring and playing bridge here. That is not what I do! Why would you be shocked that I'm still a reformist to the day I die?' Literally, I know she was on that phone, ringing many of my colleagues, with her outrage and her deep concern about what was happening in aged care in Australia. So it was terrific to catch up with Susan at the Sydney Town Hall. She was there with all her colleagues, and it was a real night to remember. You were reminded, in a very tangible way, of the debt you owe to those women that go before us and pave the way for us to be here to be able speak in this House today.
There is another moment that I want to reflect on. I'm very thankful to the member for Sydney, Tanya Plibersek, for organising a Status of Women committee one night for Labor women here in this House. We were gathered in the member for Sydney's office, and Susan came to brief us with her enormous skills and expertise that she had attained as Australia's inaugural aged-care commissioner with the Human Rights Commission. Susan was there to ensure that we younger Labor women had a very sound understanding of the needs of older women in Australia and the crisis that was looming in terms of issues around safety and housing for women in Australia. I must say, I am now on an inquiry regarding homelessness and housing in Australia and another inquiry examining domestic and family violence in Australia, and Susan Ryan's words of wisdom are with me on each and every day that I sit in those inquiries. I am eternally grateful for her taking time to tutor younger women coming through. She had a very generous spirit and was deeply committed to mentoring and training, and that remained part of the gift that she gave to all of us Labor women coming through behind her.
I was gutted when I heard of Susan's death. I was really shocked. I had no sense that she was anywhere near passing this world. As I said, she was a feisty feminist warrior each and every time I encountered her. I will always remember her in that light and remain eternally grateful for what she did in her life for all of us and for what she did later in life in making sure that those of us coming behind her were well schooled in the history of the struggle for gender equality in Australia and for the rights of older Australians and, indeed, that we remain dogged in our pursuit of injustice wherever we might find it. Vale, Susan Ryan.
I rise to speak on this motion of condolence for Susan Ryan AO, and I'm proud to follow the member for Newcastle, who is walking in those footsteps. It is a cliche to say that Susan Ryan was a trailblazer but, for someone that does hiking, the trailblazer makes it easier for all those that come after them. They mark a trail and say, 'You can come this way; I have made it easier for you.' Susan Ryan certainly achieved great things for women and for Australia as that trailblazer. Someone always needs to step up first and to go out in areas that are perhaps unknown to achieve that progress for all. Being the first woman around a Labor cabinet table was a remarkable achievement, and obviously Susan has paved the way for many others. Some might say too few, but certainly in Labor we are doing our bit.
Susan was an incredible leader—as an advocate for women's issues, as the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women in the Hawke government, and, in later life, as an advocate for older women when she became the Age Discrimination Commissioner from 2011. That's the capacity in which I first met her. Through her leadership, Susan changed our country for the better. It is no coincidence that, during Susan's time in government, great advances towards equality were made and, most importantly, have mostly held up firm. Susan introduced the Sex Discrimination Act in 1984, giving women equal rights in the workforce for the first time—no more getting sacked for getting married or falling pregnant or the like.
Women make up half our population, and they need to be involved in decisions that affect their lives. They need to make decisions that affect their lives. When women are absent from the decision-making table, it should be no shock that the decisions that are made without them will negatively impact on women. Susan led by example, and women have followed her, particularly in the Labor movement. I'm very proud that 47 per cent of our federal Labor caucus are women. Unfortunately, we're not in government, and the current government benches seem to be a little bit bereft of women—and this matters, because we know that, for young girls, if you can't see it, you can't be it.
After seven years of conservative governments, the lives of Australian women have, sadly, worsened. It's easy to see after last night's budget that things have worsened. In 2013, Australia was ranked 23rd in the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Report—not good enough, you might say—when measuring the gap between men and women in health, education, work and politics. Last year, we slipped back to 44th out of 153 countries—and you would be embarrassed to see the countries that are ahead of us. So we are sliding backwards, and we've seen no improvement from the Morrison government. Last night's budget left women out almost completely.
Perhaps the reason the Morrison government's policies are heavily weighted against the interests of Australian women is that the government's cabinet table is dominated by men. In fact, the Morrison government's very important Expenditure Review Committee—the one overseeing all government spending—is made up entirely of men. This is at a time when women need solutions to the systemic problems that Susan Ryan fought against so often—systemic problems such as women over the age of 55 being the fastest-growing group of homeless Australians, and 40 per cent of older single retired women living in poverty. That is an obscene statistic in 2020. That's a shameful legacy for this parliament.
Encouraging women into the workforce is good for the economy and it is good for women. So why does child care in Australia cost between 30 per cent and 40 per cent of the average household income, when the average in the OECD is just 11 per cent? The current Child Care Subsidy scheme, introduced by then Minister Morrison as social services minister, is one of the most expensive in the world. As Treasurer, now Prime Minister Morrison voted eight times for cuts to penalty rates. Women make up the majority of workers in retail and accommodation, where those penalty rate cuts have hit the hardest. Cutting penalty rates has made it harder for these women to put food on the table and pay the rent and has exacerbated the gender pay gap that Susan Ryan fought so hard to close.
Instead of policy that will improve the outcomes for women, we have seen policy half-measures, like allowing women to raid their superannuation to escape family violence. Susan Ryan knew of this and campaigned and lobbied Labor members, as we heard from the member for Newcastle, almost to the day that she died. She knew the importance of women being able to safely flee from family violence. We also know that women already retire with significantly less superannuation than men. This policy will only increase their chances of poverty or homelessness in later years. Instead of implementing any of the multitude of recommendations from recent reports and inquiries which could be protecting women right now, the Morrison government has launched yet another parliamentary inquiry into the family law system.
Education was also something that Susan Ryan knew the benefit of. The government's university funding reform, supposedly designed to increase enrolments in STEM subjects, will mean students wanting to study humanities subjects, predominantly female students, will be paying more than double for their degrees. All these policy decisions matter. There should be people like Susan Ryan sitting around the cabinet table who can raise these issues. We know that women are going to bear the brunt of the social and economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. The government's stimulus response has a clear bias towards male-dominated sectors such as construction, rather than any feminised part of the workforce, and so it goes on. When strong women like Susan Ryan speak up, and when they're in leadership roles, progressive societies can be lulled into a false sense of security. Susan was a strong leader, and other women have followed in her large footsteps, but the current government has not prioritised women in its leadership at all. At best, women are an afterthought and, at worst, they are discriminated against by deliberate policy decisions.
The issues we stand up for, more than just the roles we play, are who we really are. Susan Ryan made it very clear who she was from the very moment she entered public life, and Susan did not waver. She was an inspiration not just for Labor women but for Labor men as well. She advocated for what she believed in for her entire life. Susan Ryan gave her all to this country. Her passing is a terrible loss, but she leaves a lasting legacy. Women will continue to follow in her footsteps, and that will make this country a better place. I'm going to finish with the 'Irish Blessing', that Susan Ryan knew so well.
May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind always be at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
the rains fall soft upon your fields.
And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of His hand.
Susan Ryan and I left Parliament House—the Old Parliament House—and politics within days of each other in January 1988. I left for New York. She left for the world of publishing. I'd had the good fortune to watch her closely over her previous three years of being a minister, when I was a young journalist in the press gallery. I arrived at the start of 1985, and as a junior reporter in the 2UE network's bureau, I was tasked with covering the Senate! That meant, every question time, I was sitting above the Senate in the old parliament—which felt a lot closer than the distance we feel now between us and the press gallery—and I watched the second Hawke ministry in action. On the other side was Senator Fred Chaney leading the opposition team. On the government side was Senator John Button. And Susan Ryan very clearly held her own amongst that team, including Gareth Evans—and I should be able to rattle off a whole lot of names in the Senate at that time. They were an amazing mob to watch. But, of course, Susan Ryan stood out because she was the lone female there on the front bench.
At the time, I don't think I realised the significance of her being there. She'd already been there for three years, and, prior to that, prior to being the first female federal Minister for Education and the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on the Status of Women, she'd been the first woman senator for the ACT. She'd been the first woman on Labor's federal front bench, appointed by Bill Hayden in opposition. And she, as I say, had spent a term there, so she was part of the team. The Sex Discrimination Act had been passed the year before I arrived in Canberra, and so the challenges it faced along the way were lost on me. It was in law, and, as a young woman, that seemed absolutely right to me. I want to take you back to that time—and there are enough grey hairs in this chamber right now to remember some of those days. This was a time when the surname of Templeman was considered a symbol of gender inequality. My fellow gallery journos joked about changing it to Templewoman, but they settled on Templeperson, and I'm still known by that to this day by older, most of them ex-, gallery journos. That's the era we were in, and that's the era in which she fought her biggest battles. When I look back on this, I can now see what an enormous challenge it must have been for Susan Ryan in bringing forward such landmark legislation. It does seem unbelievable now that it was not unlawful to sack women who married or became pregnant or simply because they were women. Sadly, not even today is it unbelievable that someone might want to do it, but it's incomprehensible that the law would provide no impediment to it. Susan Ryan's fight for women to have maternity leave or to be able get a home loan in their own name and for girls to have an equal opportunity to have a higher education—all things she oversaw improvements in—would have been hard-fought battles. There are still many of those areas where we need to keep progressing.
Having witnessed the treatment of a female Prime Minister many years later in this country, it's no surprise that Susan faced exceptionally stiff opposition to her Sex Discrimination Act—but she withstood that opposition and she got that made into law. She stood out in a very male-dominated chamber. On the floor, her intelligence, her competence and very often her wit would shine through.
Her respect for me as a young journalist was evident in the way she responded to questions in media conferences. Her press secretary, Greg Holland, would talk me through issues about which I had little background, and we didn't have the benefit of Google in those days. I covered mainly the issues around education, and we cannot forget how she doubled the number of girls who would complete high school in those years—a phenomenal achievement. Unlike some ministers at the time—and I won't name names—I always knew a media conference with Senator Ryan would be to the point, would give me a grab and would turn complex education policy into something useable. I was grateful for that. She and Democrat Janine Haines, who was first deputy leader and then leader of the Democrats, were the two women in that chamber who demonstrated to me, simply by going about their jobs, that women did belong in the Senate.
While I can't claim to have known Susan Ryan well at that time in the 1980s, I was really grateful to cross paths with her decades later when I became a Labor candidate. As I've heard it said already this afternoon, she was very generous with her time and in talking through issues. She was still, at that time, fighting for fairness, and I think she did that until her very last day. She was Age Discrimination Commissioner and then, obviously, Disability Commissioner at the Human Rights Commission. In more sociable environments, such as the Irish Friends of Labor, we got to see her warmth and her love of a song. She was always warm and always welcoming to me as a younger Labor woman coming forward. What she achieved changed the expectations that women could have, especially in the workforce, and for that we should all be very grateful. I'm certainly honoured to have known her a little bit during her life, and I'm very pleased to pay tribute to her today. Vale, Susan Maree Ryan.
My first memory of Susan Ryan is of when I was invited to a Young Labor function when I was about 19 years of age. It was hosted by John Dawkins, who had been a colleague of Susan Ryan. A number of us Young Labor people got together and got to know Susan Ryan. I have to say, there's a rumour that young people can party harder than older people. That certainly wasn't the case that night! We were very much left behind. It was a wonderful night, but certainly what first struck me about Susan Ryan was her vitality, her passion, her commitment to the Labor cause and her enjoyment of a good time. But I don't think I understood the impact that she had had that night, really. I was pretty young, and the history of the Labor movement was not something I was studying at university.
For my 21st birthday I got her autobiography as a gift. I read that autobiography, and it was only then that I appreciated the enormous contribution that Susan Ryan had made while in parliament as a Labor minister and as a senator for the ACT. As a 21-year-old, it did strike me as quite strange that someone who was at university, who had their whole life ahead of them—something my parents never, ever spoke to me about was getting married or finding a partner. All they wanted me to do was to get a good education and get a good job. For me, it never struck me that, if I was to get married or if I was to have a child, that my path would somehow be changed. That had never crossed my mind until I read that book and realised that there were generations of women that had had those barriers put in front of them, and it was people like Senator Susan Ryan leading the charge to take those barriers away. It was a seminal book for me, paired it with the wonderful, vital woman that I'd met at that party.
In looking at that legacy, it is a huge legacy. 'A woman's place is in the Senate' in 1975—winning in that election. It would have been a very difficult time to have won and made that momentous individual achievement but, at the same time, lose a Labor government. It needs to be recognised that, during that time, despite losing a Labor government, she was only one of the two first senators to represent the ACT, and the first woman and the first Labor representative for the ACT in the Senate. She was the 11th woman to be elected to the Senate. Prior to her election to the Senate, she served in the non-governing ACT Advisory Council, briefly representing the ACT seat of Fraser. She had a significant career, spanning 12 years, and, following her election in our country's 28th election, she was re-elected to the Senate a further five times. This was a significant milestone. But not only was it her length in the Senate that is so important; it's the contribution she made here—and her contribution was significant. Whether it came to youth representation, or whether it came to education, she made incredibly important achievements in these portfolios, including the increased retention of year 12s. But she also, of course, as many speakers have said before, introduced the private member's motion in 1981 that was the foundation for the Sex Discrimination Act in 1984. So, even within, she was advocating. She was pushing the boundaries and trying to get change.
In 2003, Susan Ryan addressed the Australian Women Speak conference in Canberra. She said: 'We can celebrate progress, sometimes glacially slow, sometimes faltering, towards the implied if not said objective of those that framed the Australian Constitution. This objective, as I infer it, is the participation by women fully, on an equal basis with men, in our political institutions.' She proved to me, as well as to many others, that this could happen. She often said that what spurred her on to effect the change of the Sex Discrimination Act was when she experienced herself her prospects as an educator ripped away following her decision to marry. From that, she then continued to advocate for change. I think that change has certainly led the way for people like myself to be in parliament. But also, when I was at uni, all those many, many years ago, it never crossed my mind that my decision to get married, or who my father was or who my husband was, would have any implications for my prospects. It never crossed my mind that that would be the case. Only a few decades ago, it had been, and Susan Ryan changed that—and I am absolutely forever grateful.
After that infamous Young Labor gathering, I didn't see Susan for many years. Upon being elected to this place, I did have the absolute honour of talking to her about age discrimination, particularly older workers, who she was very passionate about changing the prospects for—older women and men that found themselves unable to get into the workplace. Her passion just continued to be there for those older workers, particularly older women, who she saw as incredibly vulnerable as time went on, especially where they may have been in a partnership and may have been making sacrifices, not working as much, certainly not accumulating superannuation, certainly not in a higher-paying job, and then, if divorce was to happen, being left out on their own and having no real ability to regain those losses. She was incredibly passionate about that. She worked against disability discrimination as well and did an amazing job in that role as well.
So her contribution to public service, both within government and within the discrimination commission structure and in her general private advocacy, is much to be admired. Many of us can only hope that we have as much of a life and make as much of a contribution as Susan Ryan did. I think we all hope and aspire—I certainly do—to be able to leave a mark by making things better for those that come after us. So I would like to thank her for that and recognise the huge amount of amazing contributions she made.
As an aside, I might say that, in an interview, she did mention that the reintroduction of higher education fees was something that made her leave politics. As I said at the beginning, the gathering was hosted by the person that came after her in education, the Hon. John Dawkins, so they had clearly made up, because they did enjoy that night together and they seemed to be very good friends. Despite her anger at that, I saw no animosity that night, and they had clearly made up. Vale, Susan Ryan. We all hope that we can achieve as much as she did to pave the way for others, to eliminate discrimination and to allow those that are most vulnerable to reach their opportunity. Vale, Susan Ryan.
It's an absolute pleasure to follow my very good friend the member for Kingston, who is of my vintage. We were students together in the 1990s. She and I knew each other then, and we were both very interested in higher education policy, so it's quite nice and fitting to follow her in the condolence debate in respect of the passing of the Hon. Susan Ryan AO, someone who made an indelible mark on my friend Amanda's life, on my life and on the lives of many people around Australia, particularly many women and older people around Australia. I want to offer my sincere condolences to Susan's friends, to her family and to all of her fellow Australians, who in fact are suffering the loss of this person, who was a great leader and a woman of great courage.
In 1977, which was coincidentally the year I was born, Susan Ryan became the first woman on our federal frontbench. When Labor returned to government in 1983, she became the first woman in a federal Labor cabinet, under Prime Minister Hawke. I want to just mention something that I think really demonstrates the courage that she showed. In 1978 she was one of only a handful of women in the Senate. It was a very different place back then, with very few women, and the politics of the time were very different as well. In that year, she moved a motion in the Senate to disallow a measure that stopped abortion clinics from being established in the Australian Capital Territory. This was an incredibly controversial thing to do. She stressed that she was doing it for democratic principles, not about the issue of abortion per se but supporting self-government for the territory. But nonetheless she copped a lot of abuse and threats in relation to moving that motion. For context, this was seven years before Queensland police raided an abortion clinic in what is now my electorate of Griffith, 24 years before abortion was decriminalised in the Australian Capital Territory and a full 40 years before abortion was decriminalised in my home state of Queensland. So that gives us an idea of what the politics must have been like at the time, and I suspect those of us who are in the parliament today, whether we agree with the motion or not, can only imagine the bravery that it would have taken to move that motion. She was someone who was incredibly brave, but she was also someone who had great foresight, great vision and really understood politics and the future of politics in this country. She was someone who saw the value of having women's electoral power harnessed through the Women's Electoral Lobby and through the Labor Party, of the value of having a women's electoral strategy, of campaigning on issues about how political decisions affected women. And she also saw, of course, the value of electing women to the federal parliament.
Of course there were many others, and we've spoken about many of them, but her work at this time was absolutely crucial. It laid the groundwork for the substantial number of women that we see in the Labor caucus today. It didn't happen by accident. It didn't happen by people just hoping and wishing that we would keep doing the same thing and somehow get a different outcome. It actually took courage and agency and the decision-making and the willingness to stand up and be brave, and she led that at the time, and many others joined her. But more than just the increase in the representation of women in the Labor caucus and, therefore, in the parliament, what she lay the groundwork for were the consequences of that increased representation. That is, governments and policy decisions and laws that better took into account and accommodated the impact on women and the issues that affected women. I'm not just talking about the sex discrimination legislation; I'm talking about more than that—making sure that those impacts on women are actually taken into account, and the issues that matter are also taken into account.
So, as a woman in the parliament but also just as a woman in Australia, just as one of millions of women in Australia, I am so grateful to her for the work that she did during her time in the parliament and her time outside it. I'm also grateful for the words of advice and encouragement that she was generous enough to give me on the occasions that we met.
I pay tribute to Susan's work as Australia's first Age Discrimination Commissioner as well as her work as Disability Discrimination Commissioner. Right now, with unemployment so high, people are feeling age discrimination and disability discrimination very keenly. In her role as commissioner, Susan wrote and published a landmark report in 2016 called Willing to Work: National Inquiry into Employment Discrimination Against Older Australians and Australians with Disability. In her report, she said:
The right to work is a fundamental human right, but one that far too many older people and people with disability in Australia do not enjoy.
… … …
The Inquiry found that too many people are shut out of work because of underlying assumptions, stereotypes or myths associated with their age or their disability. These beliefs lead to discriminatory behaviours during recruitment, in the workplace and in decisions about training, promotion and retirement, voluntary and involuntary. The cost and impact of this is high, for individuals and for our economy.
People who are willing to work but are denied the opportunity are also denied the personal and social benefits—of dignity, independence, a sense of purpose and the social connectedness—that work brings.
I wanted to quote her words because this report was so incisive, so important and so incredibly salient right now in the circumstances in which we find ourselves. But let me leave the last words to my friend Everald Compton—known to many people in this place—who chaired the Advisory Panel on Positive Ageing which Susan was on. He's described her as a great patriot for women and the elderly, and he said, 'I will miss her greatly. So will Australia.'
I rise to speak about a leader that we have lost, a leader who really did change this country, and not everyone who comes to this place and then leaves can say that they changed this country, but Susan Ryan, indeed, did. I often say I was lucky to grow up in Bob Hawke's Australia, but the reality is I was also lucky to grow up in Susan Ryan's Australia, the Australia that she built that was a much fairer place than it was before she entered this place.
Equality and opportunity for Susan Ryan weren't just words. They were her mission on the day that she was elected to this place and every day that she served as a senator. Susan was born in the middle of World War II and studied an arts degree at Sydney University. Like my mum, she started her working life as a teacher, but she became Labor's first ACT senator at a time when, finally, the Whitlam government, in 1974, legislated to create proper representation for the ACT. It's amazing that, to this day, we still debate how we make sure that the territories are properly represented in the parliament. She was a feminist, she was pro-women, she was pro-choice and she was republican.
I've been lucky to be here to listen to the speeches from the member for Newcastle, the member for Brand, the member for Macquarie, the member for Kingston and the member for Griffith. She genuinely inspired, encouraged and propelled a whole generation of future Labor leaders. She made Australia fairer for women. When you make Australia fairer for women, you also make it fairer for men. There were no longer any subsidies, effectively, for the employment of men, because we finally got to a point where things were truly equal. Indeed, the legislation that she put through the parliament fulfilled Bob Hawke's promise of bringing Australia together. We heard that she did work with the Women's Electoral Lobby, harnessing the power, the belief in collective organising, that you can actually change things and you don't have to accept things as they are. She served at different times as Minister for Education and Youth Affairs, Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on the Status of Women, Special Minister of State, which is an important portfolio for all of us who serve in this place, and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Bicentennial, in 1988. She served the country after she left this place as Age Discrimination Commissioner, Disability Discrimination Commissioner and, indeed, with the Whitlam Institute.
What strikes me in reading through so much of her life history and where she found herself in the seventies, in this place, is that it was 1977 when she became the first woman on the Labor frontbench. The Labor Party had existed in this place for 77 years with no women on our frontbench. Indeed, we had women elected some 30 years earlier, with the great Western Australian, Dorothy Tangney, entering the Senate as the first woman in the Senate and first Labor woman in the Senate, but it would take another 30-plus years for any representation on the frontbench. We know that, without representation in that place, you don't truly have a voice at the table. I am someone who cares deeply about campaigning and making sure that Labor truly puts itself forward to all Australians, and I believe that Labor is the only party that can govern for all Australians. She was focused on the electoral challenge of the gender gap. Decade on decade, women had not supported the Labor Party to the same extent that men had. She formed a national women's policy committee with two aims: to ensure the improvement of Labor's policies for women, but also to make sure that we were communicating to women when they vote about why it is in their interests to vote Labor.
In her biography, Susan Ryan writes that she was alienated from conservative sectors of the community for being a feminist. Today doesn't quite reflect the alienation that she would have faced on a daily basis. Indeed, at times, there were robust conversations within her own party, but she continued to fight through. That's the really amazing thing: she was not discouraged and she was not slowed down; she saw that was further confirmation that she was on the right track. I want to pay tribute to The Canberra Times obituary that they published in their editorial. It noted that this city of Canberra was part of what enabled her to flourish. The Canberra Times says:
... like so many others, she discovered in Canberra a community in which she could flourish and grow.
That is a really lovely thing to say about our nation's capital. Sometimes The Canberra Times might overdefend Canberra, but on this occasion The Canberra Times is 100 per cent right.
I also note Eva Cox—and I think sometimes politics can lack optimism—in what she had to say. She notes that Susan Ryan was an 'optimist'. That is another thing—that, when you're trying to do big reform, you have to be optimistic about the benefits that it will bring rather than just get stuck in the negativity of the current situation in which you're in. Eva Cox says:
Pessimism can be catching. I think too many on the left have caught it today. But unless you believe change is possible, there is no possibility for a better society.
So I want to pay tribute to the optimism of Susan Ryan as well.
I want to look at Susan Ryan's first speech. She calls out, very simply, in plain language that we probably don't use as much in this place today, 'The sexist organisation of our society.' When she's talking about the representation of women, she says:
… the sexist organisation of our society has many more important ramifications than the fact that there are not many women members in Parliament.
That is not to say that those things are not important, but it is a reflection of a person who recognises that she was not in the parliament to better herself. She was in the parliament to better hundreds of thousands of women who needed a parliament to do its job for them, and that really struck me in reading her first speech.
I'll finally note that, on that issue of representation, there is still a long way to go. In the House of Representatives, just 31.1 per cent of the membership are women, and often that's quoted an as good thing: 'Look how far we have come! Look at what we've done! We've achieved!' Thirty-one per cent is not an achievement; 31 per cent is a sign that we have a very, very long way to go in this place. I think it's also a reflection that we probably still have a long way to go in bringing true gender equality across Australia. Vale, Susan Ryan.
Susan Ryan was a giant of the ACT Labor movement as one of the founders of the Women's Electoral Lobby, a member of the original ACT Legislative Assembly and one of the first senators for the Australian Capital Territory. She served as a senior minister in Bob Hawke's Labor government, holding titles including Special Minister of State, Minister for Education and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on the Status of Women. She was the first Labor woman to be appointed to a frontbench position, the first Labor woman appointed to a ministry and the first Labor woman to enter a cabinet. Many have recounted her pioneering political career and her era-defining contributions to the rights of women and the aged.
As a kid growing up in Canberra like me, if you had any interest in politics at all at that time, you knew of Susan Ryan, of her extraordinary drive to make a difference to our community and for equality of opportunity across Australia. Until 1983, it had been legal to discriminate on the basis of gender, marital status or pregnancy. Women were locked out of education, jobs and opportunity. My mother had to resign from the public service on the date of her marriage. Women were refused access to home finance and faced the sack for being pregnant. Because of Susan Ryan, my daughter will rightly have access to opportunities that were denied to my mother.
The first Labor fundraiser I went to featured Susan as a guest speaker at the old Peking Restaurant in Philip. For any Canberrans in the room, that probably carbon dates me! But it was one of many to come and one of many to feature Susan Ryan as the guest speaker. She gave her time generously to support those who had followed in her footsteps. Although I was only very briefly a senator for the ACT, it was an immense privilege to know that I was following on that path—that I was following in the footsteps of the great first Labor senator for the ACT.
As a Labor senator from an Irish Catholic background, it was also an immense privilege to follow in Susan Ryan's footsteps to speak at the annual St Patrick's Day ecumenical service at the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture couple of years ago. As Jeff Kildea from the Aisling Society mentioned only a few days ago:
Susan represented the traditional trifecta of Irish, Catholic and Labor that figured prominently in the progressive side of Australian politics for much of the twentieth century. Growing up in the beachside suburb of Maroubra, she was educated at the local Brigidine convent school. According to a special edition of the Irish Echo of July 2019 celebrating 'The Top 100 Irish Australians', it was there that Susan was allowed to 'reconnect with her heritage that had been diluted since her great-grandparents emigrated to Australia'.
Susan often spoke of the influence on her of the Brigidines, a teaching order of sisters founded in Ireland in 1807 and named for St Brigid, one of Ireland's patron saints. St Brigid was celebrated for her generosity to the poor and particularly poor women. With the abolition in 1880 of state aid for denominational education, Catholic bishops in New South Wales relied heavily on the Irish teaching orders to staff their schools.
Well into the twentieth century these orders continued to instil in their students a sense of their Irishness. But that was not all they taught.
As Susan Ryan has explained often:
'Students in these schools were exposed to the principles and practice of social justice, typically through an Irish lens. … Social justice values were a dominant element.'
Susan Ryan casts an enormous shadow ,with her amazing, groundbreaking achievements in terms of equality for women across workplaces, across the whole of the Australian community, and across so many other areas of endeavour. One of her main achievements, which often goes under-reported, is that she was responsible as Minister for Education for getting year 12 completion rates up. In 1983, not so long ago, it used to be three in 10. By the end of the Hawke-Keating government, in 1996, we'd gotten up to nine in 10.
In later life Susan Ryan was still generous with her time. She fought for a better Public Service and better superannuation and against age discrimination. I can remember having a number of conversations with Susan in a different role, where she fought those issues around age discrimination. Only two years ago, at the last national Labor conference, at what I think was the better part of the conference, the fringe conference, I had a long conversation with Susan about discrimination in work for aged Australians. It was something that I'd come across as a union official: how many people in their late 40s, 50s, 60s and beyond still had so much to offer and yet were actively discriminated against. This is still an area where we need champions today, and I know that Senator Susan Ryan would be proud that today's Labor Party is still taking up these fights.
The Australian Labor movement has lost a great person. I join all my Labor colleagues in wishing her family the best and offering our collective condolences and our wishes that we can do our best to follow in Susan Ryan's footsteps.