Senate debates

Tuesday, 21 August 2018

Ministerial Statements

Lyons, Dame Enid Muriel, AD, GBE

5:51 pm

Photo of David BushbyDavid Bushby (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take note of the statement.

I rise to take note of the ministerial statement commemorating the 75th anniversary of the election of Dame Enid Lyons to the federal parliament, representing the electorate of Darwin—which is essentially now Braddon—in my home state of Tasmania. Dame Enid served as the member for Darwin from 1943 until 1951 and was the first woman elected to the House of Representatives and the first woman to serve in federal cabinet. I should be careful to note here that Dame Enid was not the only woman elected to parliament at the time, as at that same election Dame Dorothy Margaret Tangney DBE was elected to the Senate for Western Australia. The 1943 election was certainly a good election for women and for the two women who were elected—a high benchmark for all those seeking to enter politics, men and women alike.

Dame Enid was born Enid Muriel Burnell in Smithton on Tasmania's north-west coast. She lived in various towns in Northern Tasmania and trained as a schoolteacher in Hobart. In April 1915, 17-year-old Enid married Joseph Lyons, who was 18 years her senior and to whom she remained married till his death in 1939. As his wife, Dame Enid remained active in the political life of Joseph, encouraging his split from the Australian Labor Party and movement to the erstwhile United Australia Party, motivated by the unease she felt at witnessing the Labor Party's handling of the Depression and the subsequent financial strife, which hit Australians particularly hard at the time.

After Joseph Lyons's death in office as Prime Minister of Australia in 1939, the grief-stricken mother of 12 felt compelled to battle the idleness and the shadow of anguish with action and made the decision to make a run at the type of career she had so astutely participated in with her husband in the preceding two decades. Dame Enid did just that, from 21 August 1943 until 19 March 1951 as the federal member for Darwin.

In her maiden speech, delivered on 29 September 1943, Dame Enid laid down a number of philosophies that would guide her as both a politician and a person. She, not without irony, noted that, yes, she was a woman and that, no, it would not be a limitation. As a firm believer in individual hard work and agency, she contended that her experiences as a woman, a mother and a wife of a former Prime Minister, no less, would, in her words, 'imply an ever-widening outlook on every problem that faces the world'. She was not wrong. Fusing her domestic duties and home life with her political persona, Dame Enid echoed the words of King George V in her maiden speech to parliament, stating:

The foundation of a nation's greatness is in the homes of its people.

She saw the strength of this great nation starting in the homes and at the hearths of those who inhabited it. As a consequence, Dame Enid was an advocate for what she called 'conscious citizenship'.

A strong yet compassionate egalitarian, Dame Enid not only touted the importance of contributing to a society greater than oneself but also that the Australian society was one that provided women with the same opportunities as men, particularly following universal suffrage and the enabling of women to be voted to public office. On this, Dame Enid said

Any woman entering the public arena must be prepared to work as men work; she must justify herself not as a woman but as a citizen; she must attack the same problems, and be prepared to shoulder the same burdens.

She being the first woman elected to the House of Representatives, I believe she spoke with some authority on the matter and that her parliamentary record is one that embodies this spirit.

Whilst a passionate speaker on topics that traditionally related closely with women, such as housing, clothing, baby foods, maternity services, discrimination against married women in the workforce, widows pensions and the like, she did not confine herself to such topics, proving that she could and would attack the same problems as any other MP would do at the time. To this end, she spoke also to issues that specifically affected Tasmania, including air and shipping services, agricultural development and the aluminium industry, which remain important Tasmanian industries to this day. In 1949, Enid was sworn in as Vice-President of the Executive Council, thereby being the first woman member of a federal cabinet, serving in the Menzies government.

Unfortunately, ill health caused her to resign from the cabinet in 1951, and she did not contest the following election in that same year. She refused to become idle, however, and remained active in her home community in a number of women's organisations, choosing to keep in close contact with those whom she served as the member for Darwin.

It is undoubtable that Enid Lyons was a compassionate woman and a skilled politician and possessed the fortitude to rise to the challenge of being Australia's first female lower house member. She defined herself not by her background or her status as a mother or a wife—although these things were extremely important to her—but by her ability to be a self-reliant, free-thinking person and compelling speaker, passionate about Tasmania and dedicated to serving Tasmanians.

Despite her death in 1981, Dame Enid Lyons's mark was well and truly left on the Australian parliament, not only blazing the trail for women in the public sphere but also serving Tasmania with great skill, dedication and compassion.


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