Senate debates

Wednesday, 3 December 2008


Dame Elizabeth Couchman Scholarship

7:47 pm

Photo of Scott RyanScott Ryan (Victoria, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise this evening to recognise the organisers and the winner of the Dame Elizabeth Couchman scholarship, an initiative of the Centennial Liberal Women’s Committee—part of the Liberal Women’s Council of the Victorian Division of the Liberal Party.

The purpose of the scholarship is twofold. The first is to provide assistance for women to develop leadership opportunities and to undertake research and study toward the benefit of the Liberal Party and women generally. The second is to celebrate and honour one of the Liberal Party’s founders, and one of the outstanding women in Australian public life. These two aims are intertwined, as the history of the Liberal Party is not complete without telling the story of women emerging into a full role in Australian public life.

Dame Elizabeth Couchman was a key figure in the formation of the Liberal Party in 1944. As Chair of the Australian Women’s National League, she led the negotiations with Robert Menzies to form the Liberal Party. She negotiated the deal that saw the Australian Women’s National League join the Liberal Party on terms that ensured that there would be equal male and female representation and delegates in all key party positions—a guarantee that exists to this day.

Dame Elizabeth’s long and distinguished life—she lived to the age of 106—was one of achievement. She was, in addition to her accomplishments as Chair of the AWNL, a member of the Board of the Australian Broadcasting Commission, a delegate of the League of Nations Assembly and a delegate leader to the Conference of the International Council of Women in Paris. This short list does not include her numerous other instances of distinguished community service in Australia.

It is hard to imagine the culture that Dame Elizabeth Couchman tackled. It was a culture where many women argued against women being in parliament and public life. Dame Elizabeth, however, argued forcefully and persuasively for the opposite view. Her life was dedicated to the welfare of her fellow Australians. However, it is no small tragedy that her field of accomplishment could not be extended to this chamber. Dame Elizabeth ran for Senate preselection three times during the 1930s. At her final attempt, in 1940, for Senate preselection for the United Australia Party, she lost by a single vote.

Dame Marie Breen, who was senator for Victoria from 1962 to 68, would later remark on Dame Elizabeth’s failure to enter parliament as ‘tragic, because she could have contributed so very much’. If she had won, she would have been the first woman senator from Victoria—an honour that would be taken by Dame Ivy Wedgwood in 1949, representing the Liberal Party that Couchman had helped create. Despite Dame Elizabeth’s failure to secure preselection for the United Australia Party—as I mentioned, she led negotiations with Robert Menzies on behalf of the Australian Women’s National League to join the new Liberal Party—eventually 12,000 members of the AWNL would join the Liberal Party. Also, as I mentioned, these negotiations led to the innovation of an equal share of positions within the Liberal Party for men and women—an innovation that was revolutionary at the time and that remains in place to this very day.

As one of the great testaments to these efforts throughout the Menzies era of the Liberal Party, there was a consistent Liberal majority in the female vote, with women holding key positions within the Liberal Party hierarchy. New election campaigns targeting women voters brought women’s interests and needs to the forefront of Australian politics for the first time. On one occasion, Dame Elizabeth managed to persuade 200 people at the Malvern Town Hall to join the Liberal Party. The Argus suggested, somewhat ironically given what I am talking about this evening, that the male leaders of the Liberal Party ‘might well study and emulate the methods adopted by Mrs Claude Couchman’.

Despite her lack of success in entering parliament herself, she would become a guide and mentor to many of the distinguished women who followed her and endeavoured to make the experience of politics so much different for women, especially those within Victorian Liberal politics. Some of these women include Dame Ivy Wedgwood, the first woman senator for Victoria; Dame Marie Breen; and Dame Margaret Guilfoyle, who was elected to the Senate in 1970 and was the first ever female cabinet minister with a portfolio.

Dame Elizabeth would also become an elder stateswoman of the party after a distinguished record of service in various official capacities, including being elected to the first state executive of the Victorian Division of the Liberal Party and being elected metropolitan vice-president for six years. Sir Robert Menzies would later say of Dame Elizabeth, ‘She would have been the best cabinet minister I could have wished for.’ This scholarship is a testament to her efforts, as are those Victorian women who have followed in her footsteps—those I have mentioned earlier as well as former Senator Kay Patterson and my current colleagues Senators Troeth and Kroger.

As well as acknowledging the record of Dame Elizabeth, I would like to congratulate the winner of the first scholarship, Deanne Ryall; the Chairman of the Liberal Women’s Council, Norma Wells; and the Chairman of the Scholarship Committee, Cate Dealehr, along with the other committee members, Bronwyn Badham, Sue Mair, Noel Christensen and former members of this place Karen Synon and Dame Margaret Guilfoyle.

Finally, I would like to recognise the efforts of Margaret Fitzherbert, who has brought the contribution of these and other Liberal women to life through her research and writing and from whose works I have drawn many of the details of Dame Elizabeth’s contribution. Their efforts in highlighting the contribution of one of the unsung heroes of Australian democracy and the Liberal Party deserve congratulation and recognition by all.