Senate debates

Thursday, 8 October 2020


Ryan, Hon. Susan Maree, AO

3:43 pm

Photo of Penny WongPenny Wong (SA, Australian Labor Party, Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | Hansard source

We honour today the life and contribution of former senator and minister the Hon. Susan Ryan. I speak on behalf of all Labor senators in offering our sympathy and solidarity to her family, especially her partner, Rory, and her two children, Justine and Benedict, and her grandson, Amir, and to her many friends.

It is often said 'you cannot be what you cannot see', and yet someone has to go first. Those are the truest of leaders, who have the vision of what is possible, the courage to take on the fight against those vested in the status quo, the intellectual power to craft the strategy and the charisma and humanity to bring people with them. For us, for Labor women, that was Susan Ryan. She could see it: she could see a woman at the cabinet table, and she could see what Australia needed, what Australia needed that woman to achieve, and she made it happen. She wasn't a timeserver; she was a reformer. She came through first, but she brought others with her. She showed us the way. My generation of Labor women looked up to Susan. She inspired us in word and deed. She took a personal interest in all of us. When I saw her here, she would greet me with an enthusiastic hug, and she would always offer me encouragement and assure me I was doing well, that she was proud of me and of so many others who had followed her. That pride was mutual. Labor women have lost our sister and we will miss her.

Susan was born in Sydney and her early life had education at its centre. After convent schooling, she completed a Bachelor of Arts at Sydney Teachers' College before relocating with her family to Canberra, where she embarked on a postgraduate degree in English literature. This was interrupted when she accompanied her then husband, Richard Butler, on two overseas postings. As she described it, marriage at that time meant going wherever your husband went. She made the most of these experiences to gain knowledge and exposure to new and different thinking. She reflected that, on her return to Australia from their first posting in Vienna in 1969, the preoccupations of Labor at that time were vastly different to that of comparable parties in Western Europe. Opposition to the war on Vietnam was the touchstone for those in her generation who were politically active and with whom she would later serve.

On their second posting, in New York, Susan was sparked in different ways by the ideas of Germaine Greer, Betty Friedan, Kate Millett and Gloria Steinem, and she found herself questioning the place of women in society relative to the place of men. She questioned why everything in personal and public life was arranged for the convenience of men, and why people pretended that even dull men were clever. At the same time, gifted, passionate women were passed over, neglected and restricted. She said, 'Those of us caught in the whirlwind saw that society was structured and manufactured by its rulers to achieve these endless disparities between the sexes. Our subordination was not destiny; it was a construct of men in which we had acquiesced for far too long.'

Well, Susan Ryan would acquiesce no more. Her arrival back in Canberra led to deep engagement in both Labor and feminist politics. At the same time as becoming active in her local Labor branch, Susan Ryan joined the Women's Electoral Lobby as a foundation member. Across the country, like-minded women came together and began to organise politically—women like Wendy McCarthy and Eva Cox. Their objectives are familiar, perhaps depressingly so: confronting sexism, ending discrimination in education and employment, taking control of reproductive health, improving access to child care and achieving equal pay for equal work.

In the Australian Labor Party, Susan Ryan hoped for a practical pathway to redressing the wrongs done to women using legislative power to effect change. She rejoiced in the victory of the Whitlam government, although she missed out on an appointment to the groundbreaking new role of women's adviser. Her political activism led to a role running the national secretariat for the Australian Council of State School Organisations, a role that would connect her with another early leader of our movement, Joan Kirner, for the first time, and they would go on to have an effective partnership and lasting friendship.

The Whitlam government lasted only three years but it changed our nation forever. Susan saw Labor as the key to a more humane, vibrant and equal society, believing that a feminist lobby was necessary but not sufficient. Instead of being on the outside lobbying, she wanted to be inside making the laws, and, before long, she was encouraged to run for preselection. Susan Ryan was elected to the ACT Legislative Assembly and, after a false start seeking preselection for the House of Representatives, she ultimately prevailed in preselection to the Senate. In her characteristically tongue-in-cheek telling of it, she said that she overcame several reasonably glamorous male candidates. She was elected by the ACT as its first senator in 1975, one of just six women in the parliament, all senators.

In the wake of the Whitlam government's defeat, she made the most of the opportunity to help rebuild Labor. She cut her teeth in the Senate in her first couple of years by taking every speaking opportunity, a whip's delight. This saw her contribute on debates ranging from Aboriginal affairs, social welfare, health and education to broadcasting, employment, defence and national security.

When Bill Hayden became opposition leader after the 1977 election loss, she became the first woman to serve in Labor's shadow ministry. Her portfolios over the next six years included communications, the arts and media, and, later, Aboriginal affairs. Perhaps most significantly, though, in 1979 she also gained responsibility for women's affairs. Her predecessor in the role had been a man—imagine a man serving in the women's affairs portfolio in any modern political party! I wonder when you have to go back to? She would hold this portfolio in opposition and in government for nearly a decade until her resignation in 1988.

Labor entered the 1980 campaign with a program for women called 'Towards equality'. We made gains at this election—not enough to take government but gains that delivered new female parliamentarians to the ranks. However, these were offset by the defeat of others mostly as a result of internal preselections that saw men take the place of women. This became one of the many impetuses for the introduction of affirmative action provisions within Labor: first for internal positions and, eventually, for parliament.

Affirmative action is part of why I'm in this place today. I was proud to take Susan's legacy on affirmative action forward with my dear friend, Sharryn Jackson, the then member for Hasluck, at the 2002 special rules conference, where we changed the rules to ensure more talented women got into the parliament. Labor now has more women than men in the Senate. That is the reason why the majority of senators in this place are women for the first time in Australian history. There are many opposite who argue that affirmative action is unnecessary and undermines the principle of merit based selections. I recall that catchcry from some in the Liberal Party: 'quota girl'. I'll leave it to others to judge the extent to which merit is the key metric for the selection of all of those opposite. Affirmative action recognises that structural change is required to achieve equality. It recognises that power doesn't just fall into the hands of those who haven't had it for much of the course of human history.

After the 1980 election, the Fraser government no longer had control of the Senate, and Susan Ryan used this opportunity to pursue two significant private senator's bills. The first of these was legislation that sought to implement antidiscrimination and affirmative action measures for women. This approach garnered support, fanned substantial media debate and committed Labor to action. Whilst that bill did not progress into law, Susan had started the fire and she would not stop until all of us were guided by its light.

The second bill related to her portfolio of Aboriginal affairs and sought to provide land tenure to First Nations people living on reserves in Queensland. At the time, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander citizens in Queensland were more thoroughly dispossessed than in any other part of Australia. With the backing of the Labor caucus and cross-party support, Susan Ryan confronted the blatant racism of the Bjelke-Petersen regime head on. This time the bill passed the Senate—only the 30th private senator's bill to do so since Federation—but did not get a vote in the House of Representatives. While progress on land rights was not as quick as Susan Ryan had hoped, there's no doubt she helped to spur momentum.

When the Hawke government took office in 1983, Susan Ryan became the first female cabinet minister in Labor history. She was appointed Minister for Education and Youth Affairs and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on the Status of Women. She set about implementing the feminist agenda she had envisioned. At the top of this was to bring her private senator's bill on sex discrimination into law. That the Sex Discrimination Act passed the parliament in the first year of the Hawke government speaks volumes about Susan Ryan's advocacy and the impact of her capacity to transform ideas into action.

It has become common in some quarters to dismiss many of the policy achievements of the Hawke government as some kind of bipartisan project that was shared across the parliament. That is plainly inaccurate. The Sex Discrimination Act encountered significant opposition both inside and outside the parliament because of the magnitude of its reform. It's hard to remember that at this time it was not unlawful to discriminate in this country on the basis of sex in employment, education, accommodation and the provision of goods and services. A woman's credit rating and earning capacity weren't enough to get a loan from a bank. She could only secure credit if her husband or her father took responsibility. Landlords refused to rent homes to single mothers. Community clubs throughout the country were able to bar women. Women were sacked because of their age, marital status or pregnancy. All of these injustices and inequalities were in the sights of Susan Ryan. She called the Sex Discrimination Act 'probably the most useful thing I've done in my life'. I think that was a serious understatement. It is hard to imagine life in this country without it or, indeed, an argument against it. Every woman and every girl has benefited from Susan Ryan's leadership. Nevertheless, the opposition was fierce. Indeed, 38 conservative members and senators voted against it, including the then leader of the National Party and one Liberal MP who went on to become a Howard government minister.

The Sex Discrimination Act was followed by the Affirmative Action (Equal Employment Opportunity for Women) Act, which became law in 1986. At that time, the Australian labour market was the most sex-segregated in the OECD. The act ensured women in the workforce had the opportunity to be recruited, trained and promoted on an equal basis with men. Susan Ryan heralded it as not just one of the biggest single steps forward in Australia's history for equality of women in the workplace but as a model of consensus decision-making consistent with the Hawke government's overall approach.

Parallel to these and other achievements for Australian women, Susan Ryan was also making significant inroads in education policy. When she started a minister, just three in 10 Australians completed high school. By the time Labor left office, eight in 10 students finish school—because of the change that she, and the Labor government of which she was a part, started. In her four years as minister, Susan created over 36,000 places in higher education, 4½ times the number created in the last four years of the Fraser government. She also strongly argued against the reintroduction of tertiary fees—at significant personal and political cost. Susan believed in education as a tool for social justice. She recognised its importance in lifting people out of poverty. On her retirement, Bob Hawke reflected that she had been a minister who drove rapid change and fundamental reform, and she remains Australia's second-longest-serving minister of education. In her final year, she also served as Special Minister of State and in other roles while retaining her position as minister assisting the PM on the status of women until her departure in 1998.

In the 30 years after she left parliament, Susan Ryan would continue to make a substantial public contribution and held various roles in the private sector. She was recognised in 1990 with the award of Officer of the Order of Australia for her contribution to this parliament. She held various roles in the superannuation sector. She continued to work for human rights and, in July 2011, she was appointed as our first Age Discrimination Commissioner. In 2014 she was appointed as Disability Discrimination Commissioner. She brought a particular focus to the economic security of women. She also served as Pro Vice-Chancellor at the University of New South Wales, and her interest in seeing Australia become a republic led to her taking on the role of deputy chair of the Australian Republic Movement from 2000 to 2003.

Susan Ryan broke new ground in Australian politics. Unsurprisingly, she endured misrepresentation and abuse. She had to cut through the predictable and tiresome preoccupation of public commentators, and even of her colleagues, with how she looked and her marital status. We need only reflect on how other female political leaders have been treated—and I'm thinking especially of Prime Minister Gillard—to recognise that Australian politics and public discourse still has much further to travel.

Thirty six years after the passage of the groundbreaking Sex Discrimination Act, we continue to see gross underrepresentation of women across our society. I return to the structural nature of inequality and discrimination. Many who have power in society like to believe it is because they earned it, that it is because they are the most talented and the most worthy. But do you know what? More often than not, they started out with power; and that means others started without it. Unless we take action, unless we make deliberate policy decisions, those structures will stay in place, recreating themselves generation after generation. Not only is that unjust to those who started without power and remain disadvantaged from birth to death it is a great loss to us all. It is a great loss to society because people have talents and abilities that never see the light of day.

In acknowledging all of Susan's many achievements, she would also expect me to point out some of what remains to be done, because across this country we find more women in lower paying jobs and more in precarious employment, resulting in women finding it harder to be economically independent. Susan Ryan's wisdom helped give us some tools to see how much more there is still to be done. The organisation we now know as the Workplace Gender Equality Agency tells us that the full-time remuneration gender pay gap is at 20.8 per cent, meaning men working full time earn $25,600-plus on average a year more than women working full time. The full-time salary gender pay gap is 15.5 per cent.

You see, as Susan observed, society was built by men for men and that is why Labor women understand there is a limit to 'leaning in'. We need to break down the structural barriers that block women's full participation and equality in Australia. We already have women retiring with 47 per cent less superannuation than men. Around three-quarters of the Australians who have been forced to withdraw from their super this year are women. That is not empowerment; that is impoverishment. Women over 55 are the fastest-growing group of people at risk of homelessness in Australia. Women over 60 represent the largest cohort on JobSeeker. Without access to affordable child care, many parents will be forced to give up or turn down work, and we know that is a sacrifice most often taken by women. Study after study has shown that affordable child care would increase women's workforce participation.

This budget, which should have been a blueprint for our economic future beyond the pandemic, does nothing to increase women's participation, nothing to tackle insecure work or improve access to child care, nothing to address the gender pay gap or shrinking super balances and has no plan to help women and their children escaping family violence. A cabinet with Susan Ryan at the table would never have made those decisions. She would never have acquiesced, and she taught those Labor women who have followed her not to acquiesce either. She was the first, but her legacy in this nation will last not just in the laws she wrote but among the Labor women who follow her, because we will continue the project of building a truly equal Australia.

Our entire movement mourns the loss of one of our greatest. As we mourn her passing, and in closing, I once again extend my personal sympathies and the sympathies of all my colleagues to Susan Ryan's family—to Rory, Justine, Benedict and Amir—and her many friends. I spoke with Justine earlier today. She spoke of how completely her mother dedicated her life's work to the Labor movement.

Susan Ryan was more than an effective legislator—although she was certainly that—she really wanted to make Australia better. Justine told me how she recently found her mother's first campaign T-shirt, which declared 'A woman's place is in the House and in the Senate.' Well, in this chamber today and looking at those behind me, it is clear that is yet another campaign that Susan Ryan won.


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