Senate debates

Thursday, 8 October 2020


Ryan, Hon. Susan Maree, AO

4:28 pm

Photo of Deborah O'NeillDeborah O'Neill (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

Thank you for the opportunity to rise today and speak on the sudden and tragic passing of former senator Susan Ryan AO, former Hawke cabinet minister—indeed, Labor's first female cabinet minister. She was a pioneer in every sense. She broke that glass ceiling in the territory, in this party and in so many areas of civic life following her retirement from politics. And she was a loving and proud mum and grandma as well. To her family I want to say I'm so sorry for your great loss and I thank you for your great generosity in sharing her with the nation, whose history she changed. I want to associate myself also with the remarks of those who've contributed to this condolence motion this afternoon, and I think Senator Wong's framing of the life of Susan Ryan as a critical driver of significant historical change is a very accurate summary of the powerful, powerful impact that Susan Ryan had on our nation.

Born in Sydney in 1942, Susan grew up in the great Labor suburb of Maroubra, achieving a BA at Sydney Teachers College before working as a school teacher, a small-business owner and a second secretary at the Australian embassy in Vienna. After moving to Canberra, she graduated with a Master of Arts degree from ANU and became a foundational member of the Belconnen branch of the ALP and the Women's Electoral Lobby—one of countless political actions she would take for the empowerment of Australian women. She was subsequently elected to the ACT House of Assembly in 1975 before becoming one of the first two senators for the ACT, elected on that much repeated mantra that has featured in the speeches this afternoon, the unabashedly feminist statement: 'A woman's place is in the House and the Senate and everywhere decisions are made.'

She made history as a 33-year-old single mother, and eight years later would change history as a pivotal member of the Hawke government. In her role as a cabinet minister she was able to make the changes for women that were so desperately needed at that time. When Hawke was elected in 1983 she was made Minister for Education and Youth Affairs and the first ever minister for the status of women. She wasted no time, and soon set about tearing down the barriers that Australian women had faced for generations. Her landmark work was, of course, the Sex Discrimination Act 1984, which sought to eliminate so far as is possible discrimination against persons on the grounds of sex, marital status and pregnancy or potential pregnancy in the areas of work; accommodation; education; the provision of goods, facilities and services; the disposal of land; the activities of clubs; and the administration of Commonwealth laws and programs. This wide-ranging act ensured that the rights of women were protected by legislation. It was a giant step forward for women all across the country. This act, along with the Affirmative Action (Equal Employment Opportunity for Women) Act, embodied the greatest beliefs of the Labor movement, that through fair and equitable employment in a fair and equitable society humanity can flourish and people can build a life worth living.

Her tenure as education minister was no less successful, with Paul Keating remarking that her great achievement was to lift year 10 retention rates in schools, which was an abysmal three in 10 when she took office in 1983, to end at nine in 10 in 1996. This included the doubling of the number of female graduates from high school. This surely helped pave the way for the economic successes that flowed in the decades after the Hawke and Keating era as a whole generation of young Australian women transitioned through that schooling into the jobs of the future. Even after she left parliament she continued to break ground, as others have said, serving as the first Age Discrimination Commissioner, as Disability Discrimination Commissioner and as President of the Australian Institute of Superannuation Trustees, while continuing to campaign for an Australian republic and an Australian bill of rights.

Her life was also marked with a long affiliation with her Irish heritage. Like myself, she was an Australian of Irish flavour, Catholic and Labor. She remarked that her lifelong desire for social justice was kindled due to the strong values based teaching she received at a Brigidine school in Sydney. The Brigidines are a teaching order of nuns founded in Ireland in the 19th century who contributed significantly to Catholic education in Australia. Several decades later Susan was awarded the lifetime achievement of the Brigid Award by the Irish Labor friendship women's group in 2016—indeed, she was the inaugural awardee of that award named after St Brigid, whose values and philosophy inspired the Brigidine nuns who taught Susan. Her love of the Irish people was profound. I'm advised my good friend Dermot Ryan, who I know is a good friend also of Senator Tony Sheldon, is preparing an obituary for The Irish Times. Susan's family tree connects her back to County Wexford. This is an important thing for Irish people: it's not enough just to be from Ireland; you have to be from a particular county.

Even in later life, Susan joined the annual Irish Winter School in Sydney to learn the Irish language—in order, she said, to be able to fit in when she visited the country. She championed the project to erect a monument in Sydney to the Irish Great Famine, which commemorated the thousands of Irish women who escaped the famine by emigrating to Australia, and she spoke at the fifth annual commemoration ceremony in 2004. Susan was also a member and a speaker at the Aisling Society, an Irish-Australian cultural group. She was a frequent supporter and patron of O'Punsky's Theatre Company in Sydney, and in 2019 she was named one of the top 100 Irish Australians of all time by the Irish Echoup there with Paul Keating, Ben Chifley and John Curtin.

It's not surprising that the last conversation I had with Susan Ryan, earlier this year, was at an Irish event around St Patrick's Day. It was to mark the 20th year of the presence of the Irish consulate in Sydney and was convened by the Consul General there, Owen Feeney. It was to celebrate 20 historical Australian-Irish figures. As she always did, Susan took the time to talk to everyone in the room. She took me aside and, as she had done on many occasions, encouraged me, supported me and understood me as only a woman in the great Labor Party can.

Susan's legacy will be felt by generations of Australians to come, and her example will shine to all Australian women. Her work will live on as the best example of Australians' belief in a fair go for all, no matter the circumstances of your birth. She was a credit to this chamber, to the great Australian Labor Party and to the nation. I echo the words of the Brigidine Sisters, who gave their thanks across the Brigidine international network last week for Susan's rich life and for her public service to Australia. I, like them, offer my sincere sympathy to her family and friends. Vale Susan Ryan: you are already missed.


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