Senate debates

Thursday, 8 October 2020


Ryan, Hon. Susan Maree, AO

4:47 pm

Photo of Anne UrquhartAnne Urquhart (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

All of us women of the Senate stand here on the shoulders of a magnificent woman, Susan Maree Ryan. When she was elected to one of the two newly created ACT Senate seats in 1975, as everyone in this place has said, she campaigned on the slogan, 'A woman's place is in the Senate.' And it is. In fact, the only Labor senators from Tasmania are women. We're all women. How very pleased she must have been when the Senate finally achieved gender equality a little over a year ago. How much we owe her.

Many adjectives have been used to describe Susan, whose Senate career from 1975 to 1986 was only part of a long and multifaceted working life dedicated to equality and human rights. She's been described as a luminary, a fierce champion, a trailblazer, a feminist hero and a Labor giant. She was all these things and more, and she will be remembered as a fierce champion for women's rights and other discriminated Australians after her sudden death just 11 days ago.

Those before me have outlined her groundbreaking positions and work as a minister in the Hawke government, so I won't go over that. Labor leader Anthony Albanese said that she changed Australia for the better, and I do agree with that. This is something that we must all aspire to. In her lifetime, she saw and influenced incredible changes. We must not forget a world where women were pilloried for seeking elected office, where women could be sacked simply for falling pregnant, where equal pay was a faraway dream, where the idea of a woman taking up a blue-collar trade or becoming a CEO was unheard of, and, in fact, shunned. Rights for older Australians and those living with disability were barely imaginable. Many of these things that we today take for granted were issues which were championed by Susan, and she stood up to years of vilification because of this work. Paul Keating said her great achievement was to set in motion the lifting of year 12 retention rates from three in 10 in 1983 to nine in 10 by 1996. This revolutionised education in Australia most particularly for girls, he said—and he was correct.

The best thing all 39 of us, all today's women senators, can do is to pledge that we will pursue her legacy. We will confront the obstacles and rise above them. We owe Susan Ryan a debt that is best paid by redoubling our commitment to equality for all Australians—a commitment to not seeing older workers thrown on the trash heap because of a recession, to not seeing Australians with disability ignored and denied opportunities and resources, to ensure that discrimination does not hobble the lives of Australian women and to ensure that, regardless of your sexual orientation, gender, cultural background, ethnicity, age and ability, you get a fair go in this country we love.

I want to personally thank Susan Ryan not because I knew her well but because without her example—her voice, her steady hand and her carefully considered and articulate arguments—I simply might not be here and my daughter and hundreds of thousands of Tasmanian women, older Tasmanians and Tasmanians living with disability might not have the education and opportunities they have today. In saying that I note that the job is not done. With recession upon us and so many young Australians wondering where they will find a place in life, with so many older Australians worried about being left out of the workforce and others frightened that their retirement and old age may not be one where they will have the resources to allow them to live with dignity and receive the care they need, with so many Australians living with disability still denied the opportunity to fully participate in society, with Indigenous Australians still denied the voice and opportunity that is rightfully theirs, and with the cost of obtaining an education moving out of reach for many and the cost of child care leaving many women unable to carve out a career of their dreams, there is still so much more to struggle for and to win. We will do that with our path illuminated by the bright light held in Susan Ryan's steady, intelligent and guiding hands. My sincere condolences to her partner, Rory Sutton, her children and all who loved her.


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