Senate debates

Thursday, 8 October 2020


Ryan, Hon. Susan Maree, AO

4:52 pm

Photo of Tony SheldonTony Sheldon (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

I rise today to honour the life of Susan Ryan, architect of the world-leading Sex Discrimination Act, first female Labor cabinet minister and icon for social justice in Australia. She was the woman who, as education minister, more than doubled the high school retention rate, including for girls. She was one of our best fighters. It says volumes about her values and capacity when you look at the fact she worked so hard for the rights of humanity—women and men, able and disabled, and most recently older Australians and Australians living with disability—as Age Discrimination Commissioner and Disability Discrimination Commissioner, and was a major ally to increasing the voice of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and young people. How sorry we are that we don't get to hear her views this week on the coalition's federal budget—the two biggest failings of which are the ignoring of the impact of this recession on women and on older workers.

Susan Ryan died suddenly last week. We should never forget what she has done for all Australians by making our society fairer, more inclusive and more willing to back in the aspirations of all women and men, and their families. She lived a life of firsts. Her Irish working-class parents, Florence and Arthur, worked as a sales assistant and as a public servant respectively. She was the first in her family to go to university. She was the first in her school to win a scholarship to university. It is a stark reminder to all of us of how unequal our society was at the time that she was forced to pay back that scholarship because she got married. We should all remember that it was not long ago that all women had to resign from the Public Service when they got married and could be fired from any job when they became pregnant. She was also, of course, the first female member of a Labor cabinet when she joined the Hawke cabinet in 1983 as education and youth affairs minister.

Even when she left the parliament, she kept fighting for the rights and power of working people. She was Deputy Chair of the Australian Republican Movement from 2000 to 2003, and of course there was her important work on strengthening superannuation. In her seven years as the President of the Australian Institute of Superannuation Trustees until 2007, she fought for the right of all Australians to have access to a dignified retirement and for super funds to continue to play a role in democratising financial systems in Australia.

We have come a long way since the 1950s and 1960s, when Susan Ryan was educated in the Brigidine Catholic college in Sydney's eastern suburbs, where her passion for social justice was encouraged and where she was a brilliant debater and a fearless advocate for her schoolmates. We must never forget how hard it was to get even basic employment protections for women and how stubborn inequalities persist in Australia still, like the gender pay gap and the harassment and discrimination experienced by women every day in our workplaces and institutions.

I want to say something about the dogged activism of Susan Ryan as well. She was a respected legislator and a pragmatic political operator, but her pragmatism and her wily role in cabinet were first and foremost in the service of her ideals. She did not court power for its own sake. She focused on outcomes, and she often clashed with her cabinet colleagues on points of principle. She worked hard across the factions and across the aisle to give all working people real power to shape their own destinies. She was also loved for her sense of humour. In Susan's memoirs, Catching the Waves: Life In and Out of Politics, she said:

I am by temperament quite gregarious, but the combination of my gender and my politics meant that the position I occupied most often was that of a shag on a rock.

However, now, due to her determination and drive, she is no longer isolated, and there are many people who adored her, share her views and are determined to continue her accomplishments.

I want to share an anecdote from a good friend of mine whom Susan was also a good mate of, Dermot Ryan; my colleague mentioned Dermot before. He is a very active person in the Irish Labor groups within Australia and has just recently written a tribute to Susan in which he said:

But what really stood out was our shared memories of her warmth and her sense of fun and mischief. At social events, she moved seamlessly from singing a hymn to singing The Internationale. She was a committed Australian republican and was also an Irish republican. Whenever we met, she would cheekily address me as "Comrade Ryan, my favourite Irish Unionist", (her knowing full well that 'Unionist' has a very different meaning in Australia to Ireland). My own late Mother having shared her name, I would retort "Hello there—my 2nd favourite Susan Ryan".

A fighter for a just society for women and men, Susan Ryan has earnt a place in the hearts of the Labor movement and all Australians. I offer my condolences and solidarity to her family and friends. Vale, Susan Ryan.


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