Senate debates

Thursday, 8 October 2020


Ryan, Hon. Susan Maree, AO

3:35 pm

Photo of Mathias CormannMathias Cormann (WA, Liberal Party, Vice-President of the Executive Council) Share this | Hansard source

by leave—I move:

That the Senate record its deep regret at the death, on 27 September 2020, of the Honourable Susan Maree Ryan AO, a former Senator for the Australian Capital Territory and Minister for Education, Minister assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women and Special Minister of State in the Hawke Government, places on record its appreciation for her service to the Parliament and the nation, and tenders its profound sympathy to her family in their bereavement.

Susan Ryan was a passionate advocate for gender equality and a pioneer in the fight for the interests of Australian women. She leaves behind an extensive legacy full of firsts: one of the Australian Capital Territory's first senators and the first ACT senator to represent the ALP; Labor's first female cabinet minister; the first woman to hold the women's affairs portfolio; and Australia's first Age Discrimination Commissioner. But her signature achievement was the passage of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984—legislation that made sexual harassment unlawful and was a largely successful attempt to ensure that women had the same access to jobs, services and accommodation as men. The act has had a lasting impact on Australian women. It encouraged more women to seek education and employment, making it possible for women to hold employment and have a family life. These important social changes raised Australian family incomes and gave women more opportunities and economic independence.

Born on 10 October 1942 in Sydney, Susan was one of four children to Arthur and Florence Ryan. Growing up in Maroubra, Susan was educated at the Brigidine school and was the first in her family and school to receive a scholarship to the University of Sydney, where she studied teaching. Upon graduating in 1963 Susan married Richard Butler, with whom she had two children. She worked briefly as a schoolteacher and then, after the arrival of her first child, Justine, she switched careers, running a small business from her home in Cremorne, the Living Parish Hymn Book Publishing Company.

In 1965 the family moved to Canberra, and Susan embarked on a Master of Arts degree in English literature at the Australian National University. Her studies were interrupted when Richard was posted to the Australian embassy in Vienna. Shortly after arriving Susan and Richard welcomed the birth of their second child, Benedict. In 1970 the family moved again, this time for a posting to New York. But less than a year later Susan returned to Australia with her two children and resumed her master's degree. She joined the Women's Electoral Lobby in 1972 and the Belconnen branch of the Australian Labor Party shortly thereafter. The Women's Electoral Lobby began to push for direct political representation in 1974. Susan agreed to stand for preselection in the new ACT seat of Fraser. While she was unsuccessful at that election, coming third in the ballot, Susan would get her chance again in 1975, when legislation to provide the ACT with two Senate positions was enacted. Running on the slogan 'A woman's place is in the Senate', Susan was elected as one of the first two senators to represent the ACT and the first woman and ALP senator to represent the territory.

Susan entered parliament during a dramatic and challenging time for the ALP. The party had just suffered a landslide election defeat after the dismissal of Gough Whitlam as Prime Minister by then Governor-General, Sir John Kerr. But Susan was not deterred. She came to this place to work hard and make a difference. She had ideas and ambitions. Two years later, when Bill Hayden became opposition leader he gave her the shadow portfolio responsibilities for communications, arts and the media as well as for women's affairs, a portfolio she would hold until her resignation in 1988.

Susan was focused on developing social policy, and when Bob Hawke led Labor back into government in 1983 she was appointed as the minister for education and as the minister for women's affairs. She was the first woman in the Labor Party to hold a cabinet position. During her time on the frontbench she would deliver important reforms, as I previously mentioned, including 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.

After five years in cabinet, Susan decided it was the right time to retire from her parliamentary career, and she took up a role as the managing editor of Penguin Books. Susan felt she had given the best she could to politics, and in 1990 she was awarded an Officer of the Order of Australia for service to the Australian parliament. In her 1999 memoir, Catching the Waves, Susan reflected on her achievements, saying she was driven by the view that women should be able to pursue opportunities unencumbered by stifling stereotypes and that women and men should be judged on their merits—concepts that, thankfully, are entirely straightforward and universally accepted today.

Susan served in many roles in her post-political career, including executive director for the Plastics Industry Association, executive director of the Australian Institute of Superannuation Trustees and pro-chancellor of the University of New South Wales. She also continued to fight to end discrimination and to fight for better rights for all Australians, serving as Australia's first Age Discrimination Commissioner and, later, the Disability Discrimination Commissioner. During her time as the Age Discrimination Commissioner, she worked tirelessly to advance the rights of older Australians. After the release of the 2015 Intergenerational report she argued that Australia should move to a retirement age of 70, given we are living longer than ever before. In fact, in 2015 Susan wrote:

Why are individuals leaving paid work at 60, or often earlier, rather than 70? Even if they are more likely to live to 100 instead of 150 … Age discrimination in employment is a huge barrier preventing older Australians from continuing in the workforce.

She said the report also implied:

… all those older than 65 are in need of substantial and growing public support—

and that it ignored the economic potential of older people. She argued that it was time to have a conversation about how to realise the economic and social potential of an ageing population.

In her first speech to the Senate in 1976 Susan noted there were only six women in the Senate. In 2019 the Senate reached gender equality in terms of representation. In part, this was achieved because of groundbreakers like former senator the Hon. Susan Ryan. Susan Ryan will be remembered as someone who dedicated her life to social justice and to making this nation a better and more equal place for all Australians. To Susan's partner, Rory, and her surviving children, Justine and Ben: on behalf of the Australian government and the Senate, I offer our deepest condolences.


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