Thursday, 8 October 2020
Ryan, Hon. Susan Maree, AO
'An advocate for equality', 'feminist', 'trailblazer', 'the first'—these are all attributes mentioned in association with the late Susan Ryan AO. Former Senator Ryan was elected as the first Labor senator for the ACT in 1975. Her slogan at the time was, 'A woman's place is in the House, in the Senate and everywhere decisions are made.'
Her path to the Senate is reasonably well known. Susan trained as a teacher and worked in the profession until the birth of her first child. Along with her family, Susan moved to Canberra in 1965 and enrolled as a postgraduate at ANU. Despite living overseas and studying, she never lost her passion for education and was appointed as the national executive officer for the Australian Council of State School Organisations in 1973. Her involvement in the women's movement, particularly the formation of the Women's Electoral Lobby, convinced her that her fight for equality had to take on a more pointed political approach. So she joined the Australian Labor Party and became active on behalf of her local community. A short stint on the non-governing ACT House of Assembly preceded her election to this chamber in 1975. Some years after her time in the Senate, she said of her election:
After being elected in 1975, I joined four women who had already been in the Senate for a short period, Liberal Senators Guilfoyle and Martin, and Labor Senators Coleman and Melzer. Senator Walters from Tasmania was also elected in 1975. So there were six … Across Kings Hall in the House of Representatives there were no women … There was no woman leader or minister in any state parliament … Margaret Guilfoyle became the first, and sole, female cabinet minister in the Fraser Government.
Her election was greeted with much media interest, mainly emphasising her gender, her age, her hair colour, her marital status—she was divorced—her physical size and her motherhood. There was very little, if any, commentary on her political agenda or policy interests and experience.
Susan joined the shadow ministry not long after she joined the parliament. She was a passionate and highly articulate debater and used her time in the Senate to great effect. Her central objective of economic independence for all guided her many achievements as Labor's first female cabinet minister in the Hawke government. Susan's view was that economic independence meant the capacity to provide for your own needs and the needs of those for whom you are directly responsible.
She began her work in two key areas: tackling discrimination against women, lifting the high school retention rate and increasing funding and places at universities and TAFEs. Just as we take the increased participation and leadership of women in politics and other spheres for granted now, we also assume nearly all high school students will complete year 12. In the years leading up to Susan Ryan being sworn in as Minister for Education and Youth Affairs in 1983, the high school retention rate in my home state of Tasmania was 27 per cent. Nearly three-quarters of Tasmanian high school students in the early 1980s did not complete Year 12. Susan took a proposal to the National Economic Summit in 1983 that this appallingly low rate needed to be lifted to at least two-thirds by 1990. This was overwhelmingly achieved in most states and territories. What flowed from this was an increased demand for places in universities and TAFEs—a cause she also advanced with passion.
Of course, Susan Ryan is remembered for her pioneering sex discrimination bill and the affirmative action bill. Her work highlighting the impact of government and policy decisions on women began much earlier than that. In 1981, from opposition, Susan made a detailed analysis of the effect of the budget on women and published it. From this the Women's Budget Statement was born. The first official publication of the statement was produced by the Office of the Status of Women in 1984. Her statement announcing this was met with much derision from some of the then opposition. In fact, the first time the Liberal Party embarked on a similar process was when Dr John Hewson was Leader of the Opposition.
After she left her successful political career, Susan Ryan went on to have an equally successful role in publishing, superannuation and industry. Her great friend Wendy McCarthy says of Susan and her work: 'Every 10 years or so she would change careers, and we would all follow her and support her. You couldn't help but get caught up with her enthusiasm for reform and change, her generosity and her great sense of fun.'
In addition to her paid roles, Susan Ryan threw her enthusiasm and commitment into the Australian Republic Movement. In more recent times, Australians got to know Susan as our first Age Discrimination Commissioner. She brought all the attributes Wendy McCarthy identified and combined them with her deep knowledge and understanding of government and its processes to advocate for real change for older Australians. For a short time she was also Disability Discrimination Commissioner.
Although her role as Age Discrimination Commissioner ended in 2016, Susan's advocacy for older Australians didn't. She was a frequent panellist on television and would happily use whatever platform was offered to highlight her concerns about the treatment of older Australians. In 1990 Susan was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia.
As with any political career, hers wasn't all smooth sailing, but it was one of incredible achievement. Her friends, colleagues and many associates remember Susan as frighteningly intelligent, politically savvy, funny, optimistic and committed. Susan Ryan really was the life of the Labor Party during her time in parliament. Generations of Australians, particularly women, have and will follow where she led thanks to her commitment to equality and education reforms, and that is her legacy. From the time of her community involvement until her untimely death, Susan was a true feminist.
Some time ago, someone asked her about post-feminism. In typical Susan style she replied:
I struggle with post-modernism in architecture, literature and literary criticism and I think that post-feminism is uncalled for.
Along with all the members of the federal parliamentary Labor Party, I extend my condolences to Susan's partner, Rory, her two children and her extended family and friends. Can I also place on record my thanks to them for sharing Susan with the Labor Party, the wider Labor movement and our nation.