Senate debates

Thursday, 8 October 2020


Ryan, Hon. Susan Maree, AO

5:01 pm

Photo of Katy GallagherKaty Gallagher (ACT, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Finance) Share this | Hansard source

I rise as the almost final speaker on this condolence motion for the Hon. Susan Ryan AO and to associate myself with all of the previous contributions that have been so lovely and comforting in the sudden and tragic passing of Susan within the last fortnight. Susan was not the first woman in this place but she was a woman of many firsts. She was the first Labor senator for the ACT, the first Labor woman appointed to a frontbench position, the first Labor woman appointed to a ministry and, of course, the first Labor woman to enter cabinet. She achieved all of these firsts in what was firmly a man's world, joining the federal parliament at a time when there were only six women, and all were in the Senate. I can only imagine what that was like for her. For me, as a woman in politics, Susan didn't just pave the way. She actually built the pathway that so many women have now taken, not only to this place in Australia's national parliament but to so many places—community organisations, unions, businesses. She proved to us that there was a seat at the table for all of us.

It's really hard to describe or measure just how much trailblazers or pioneers of the women's movement like Susan Ryan have changed our country for the better. Her achievements, of which there were so many, were vast. Her influence in the parliament for 12 years, her life post politics where she kept doing what she'd always done—applying herself to every cause she championed with more than 100 per cent of her energy, bringing people with her, forming coalitions and, really importantly, being strategic about the pathway to victory and the pathway to lasting change. She campaigned for equality for women, for older Australians, for education for all. She was a staunch feminist in the Senate at a time when a lot of people, including some of her own caucus members, probably didn't know what that meant. She formed her political aspirations from second-wave feminism and she knew that women's inequality required a political solution that would be best enacted by women themselves.

Before her parliamentary career, she sought to impact political decision-making by helping to form the Women's Electoral Lobby and later became an effective part of the 1972 electoral campaign. In her own words, this lobbying was necessary but not sufficient. It left women on the outside of political power, waiting, persuading, threatening but not acting directly to achieve change. How much more efficient, how much more effective it would be if women were in there making the decisions themselves, instead of knocking on the doors trying to attract support.

Debate on the ill-fated Lamb-McKenzie abortion reform bill in 1973 exemplified the problem. The debate was conducted in an all-male chamber while the women that this law was to affect were outside rallying, organising, shouting through loudhailers, preparing themselves for disappointment. Susan decided that, next time, she would be in there making the laws. In 1975 she was elected on the famed slogan 'A woman's place is in the House and in the Senate'. But that was just a subset of a much larger mission for Susan, which was that a woman's place was at the table where all the decisions were being made. She became minister for education and youth affairs when Bob Hawke was elected to office in 1983, and was tasked with the first portfolio on the status of women. At the time—and many speakers have reflected on this—women were unlikely to be approved for home loans; faced limited maternity leave provisions, if any; and were able to have their employment legally terminated on account of marital status or falling pregnant. Susan Ryan sought to change this, with her central objective for parliament being to achieve economic independence for all, including women.

Perhaps there is no greater example of the nation-builder that she was than in her pivotal role in two landmark acts—the Sex Discrimination Act and the Affirmative Action (Equal Employment Opportunity for Women) Act. Later in life, she described her advocacy on the Sex Discrimination Act as 'probably the most useful thing she had done in her life'. Today, whilst not perfect by any means, we do generally live in a society that accepts that discrimination on the basis of gender is unlawful. But that wasn't the case during Susan's time in this place. She, along with her Labor colleagues, some of whom she'd had to convince, set about to change that. Again, I can only imagine the pushback that came to her from some—both personally and professionally—from waging the campaign that that would have brought on. The nation was changing. Change is always difficult, and she was there helping that change come about.

But it would be wrong to simply describe Susan as a trailblazing pioneer feminist. She was of course that, but she was so much more. She was an activist, an organiser, an educator, a senator, a mentor, a proud republican, a partner, a mother, a grandmother and a dear friend to so many. She was a community campaigner, a fighter for equality across the board, an advocate for older Australians and a friend of First Nations. She joined organisations, and if they didn't exist she started them. She was the proud founder of the Belconnen sub-branch of the ACT Labor Party and, as I said, she was a founding member of WEL. She created communities of like-minded people and set about delivering the change that was needed. She drafted laws and campaigned for them; importantly, she brought people with her, and those laws passed. The impact of her work in this place is enduring.

To me as a single mum wanting to get involved in politics, Susan Ryan showed me that not only could it be done but it must be done, that there was an expectation on us to get involved and that it was only by getting involved that change happened. She, along with Joan Kirner, told me that women like me can't vacate the field; we have to step up. They convinced me, a single mother, that it was an asset, not a disadvantage, to bring my background to politics and that I would be a better politician because of it.

You always knew when Susan was in the room, because she had a presence. It was something that was hard to pin down, but it was welcoming, supportive, kind, strong, principled, determined and focused—and she was always present. She managed to project all of that at the one time. It's hard to believe that we won't get to be in the same room with her anymore, but we are given strength and comfort in our knowledge that her reforms, her influence, her legacy and the things she changed remain all around us guiding us and reminding us of the unfinished work before us.

To Susan's partner, her family, her children, her grandchildren and so many of her friends who have spoken over the past 11 days or so and are deeply grieving at the moment and remain devastated by her passing, I extend my sincere condolences.


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