Senate debates

Thursday, 20 June 2013


Melzer, Ms Jean Isabel, OAM

3:31 pm

Photo of Stephen ParryStephen Parry (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It is with deep regret that I inform the Senate of the death, on 18 June 2013, of Jean Isabel Melzer OAM, a senator for Victoria from 1974 to 1981. I call on the Manager of Government Business in the Senate.

Photo of Jacinta CollinsJacinta Collins (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Parliamentary Secretary for School Education and Workplace Relations) Share this | | Hansard source

by leave—I move:

That the Senate record its deep regret at the death, on 18 June this year, of former Senator Jean Isabel Melzer, and place on record its appreciation of her long and meritorious public service, and tender its profound sympathy to her family in their bereavement.

Jean Melzer was the first ALP woman elected to the Senate to represent Victoria. She was a senator for seven years from 1974 until 1981. In 1978 she was the first woman appointed as secretary of the caucus of the federal parliamentary Labor Party. Jean was a remarkable woman who lived through and was part of remarkable times.

Jean was born in the Melbourne suburb of Elsternwick on 7 February 1926. Academically gifted, Jean left school to help support her family in 1941 following the death of her father. Jean was principled and politically minded from a young age. Her concern for the disadvantaged and her commitment to the peace movement, feminism and the environment were constants throughout her life.

Jean joined the Communist Party as a teenager and remained a member until 1957. Her interest was applying the theory of communism to Australian society to address poverty and the absence of equality. In the 1960s she joined the Australian Labor Party, acknowledging that she was interested in changing the way we were governed. Her passionate opposition to the reintroduction of conscription and to the escalating Vietnam War added further fire to her commitment to social justice. From 1971 to 1974 Jean was secretary of the Victorian branch of the ALP and was responsible for organising the ALP's Victorian campaign for the 1972 election.

In the double dissolution election of 1974 Jean won a position in the Senate. As a senator, Jean was a direct speaker and a vigorous and constructive participant in committees. Always plain speaking, she promoted the issues of discrimination in the workforce, the inadequacies of child care, the inequality faced by Aboriginal Australians and the unequal distribution of superannuation benefits. She rightly saw the establishment of Medibank after the 1974 election as a major achievement for the Whitlam government.

Many of the issues that Jean sought to see addressed remain familiar to this parliament. Her contribution on these matters was groundbreaking. She was part of a social movement which changed Australian society. In part, the number of women in the chamber today is due to the work, 40 to 50 years ago, of Jean and others like her.

Jean was a single mother of six children. How she fitted everything into her life I can barely comprehend. She was a notable advocate of women in working life, especially in the political realm. Throughout her life Jean remained a fervent critic of nuclear proliferation and uranium mining. In 2004 she was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia and the Victorian Premier's Senior Achiever Award.

On behalf of the government I offer condolences to her family.

3:35 pm

Photo of Eric AbetzEric Abetz (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations) Share this | | Hansard source

The coalition joins in supporting the motion moved by the Manager of Government Business in the Senate. Jean Melzer described herself as having been born liberated, and that was way back in 1926. When her father died there was no money and Jean had to leave school and go to work. Her first job was as a clerk with the State Rivers and Water Supply Commission, which I understand made her one of the first four women clerks employed in the public service. She subsequently worked as a clerk in the office of the Building Workers' Industrial Union, as a secretary, as a market research and as a hotel cashier.

Jean Melzer joined the Communist Party as a teenager and kept her membership until 1957, so she saw the light before Senator Rhiannon did. She later became involved in organisations like the peace movement, the Council for Civil Liberties and Save our Sons, which it has to be said were all to some degree satellites of the Communist Party or its broader movement.

After Labor lost the 1966 federal election, Ms Melzer joined the Camberwell branch of the ALP and worked her way up the party hierarchy. Prior to entering the Senate, Jean Melzer was the secretary of the Victorian branch of the Labor Party. She described her preselection for the Senate as a sheer accident. I do not know how that happened, because usually you have to nominate but, nevertheless, good on her. As we have had recorded to us, she was the first female Labor senator from the state of Victoria and, of course, followed the Liberal Party, which had achieved that prior to the Labor Party achieving such a result. She described her situation as the Centre Unity faction wanting a woman to stand for the Senate. After the 1974 double dissolution, she was allotted an unwinnable position on the ticket but moved up to the fifth spot when one of those nominated before her stood down. In May 1974, Jean Melzer became a senator.

At the time, Senator Melzer dismissed the Senate as:

… an anachronism which should be abolished.

That was, of course, the official ALP policy at the time. But, since there was Buckley's of getting rid of it, she found a role in it. In June 1974, Senator Melzer said:

I don't see why we need a House of Review, but the Senate has played a more effective role, particularly with committees of inquiry, over the past two years.

She served as a senator for Victoria for six years. During this time, she contributed in the areas of health, social welfare, the environment, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs, women's issues and family law. In 1976, she told the Senate:

I have sat with my friend Neville Bonner

who was a Queensland Liberal senator and, in fact, the first Indigenous senator or member of this parliament—

in Aboriginal camps and I have cried with him over the conditions that Aborigines live in in his State of Queensland.

Senator Melzer was particularly active in committee work.

In 1979, she was demoted to the unwinnable third position on the ALP Senate ticket, behind Robert Ray, who was given her second spot. I think it is fair to say that Jean Melzer was an early victim of the gender wars, although her implacable opposition to uranium mining was also out of step with the changing mood in the Labor Party. She had also gone against her Centre Unity faction's position in two preselection contests.

At the time, Senator Melzer said:

A lot of people don't see this as a woman's job—they see it as an aberration to have woman in the Senate. If I'd been a man, people would have said 'poor bloke' he's lost his job. Because I am a woman, there's a tendency to believe I can find a man to support me.

What is known is that, despite considerable pressure, including an overwhelming vote at the Victorian ALP state conference, Robert Ray refused to give up his second spot on the ALP ticket. One wonders if Robert Ray was wearing a blue tie at the time!

The Financial Review reports that:

… the decision of the ALP conference was a direct rebuff for candidate for Wills and ACTU President Hawke, who had campaigned strongly against the push to have Senator Melzer given a winnable position on the Senate ticket.

At the time, Melzer defiantly exclaimed:

You may win the battle today, but we will win the war.

I think it is worthy of note that by the time of her valedictory speech in June 1981, Senator Melzer had mellowed and obviously come a long way in her political journey. While still resorting to describing colleagues as 'comrades', she finally did see some good on the coalition side of the chamber. She said:

I will remember the people I have met here with at a great deal of warmth and pleasure. I will remember my comrades on this side of the House who are, I must say, as close to me as my family in many respects because of the support, warmth and comradeship that has flowed. But I must say that I have discovered that some honourable senators opposite, who I always imagined had two heads or horns and a tail, underneath are warm, caring human beings. They are a little misguided and take the wrong path at times. Nonetheless, I treasure the friendships that I have made in this place.

After leaving the Senate, Senator Melzer remained active in ALP politics. However, after the 1984 ALP conference supported the development of Roxby Downs, she resigned from the ALP and became a Senate candidate of the Nuclear Disarmament Party at the December 1984 election. A major split engulfed the fledgling Nuclear Disarmament Party because of an influx of members of the Socialist Workers Party, or the 'Trots' or 'Trotskyites', into its ranks, leading to the NDP's most prominent leaders—Senator elect Jo Valentine, who of course was a relative of former senator Mary Jo Fisher, and unsuccessful Senate candidates Peter Garrett, who is now a Labor minister, and Jean Melzer—walking out of the party's inaugural national conference. The three of them walked out because of the overwhelming dominance by the Socialist Workers Party. Clearly, they have now been incorporated into the Australian Greens.

After a brief association with the Nuclear-Free Australia Party in the 1990s, Melzer kept up an interest in groups such as the Rationalist Society and the Union of Australian Women—which, it must be noted, were also subject to Communist influence. As well, she was active in the Council on the Ageing in Victoria and the University of the Third Age network in Victoria, of which she was president from 2001 to 2006. On 26 January 2004, Australia Day, Jean Melzer was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia for service to the community, to education, particularly through the University of the Third Age, and to environmental conservation in the Cape Paterson area, which had become her permanent residence after 1994.

The coalition extends to her extended family and especially her children our condolences on her passing. Her obituary in the Age contained a statement which seems apt:

A short battle that saw her will outlast her body. Feisty to the end.

May she rest in peace.

Photo of Stephen ParryStephen Parry (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I ask senators to stand in silence to signify their assent to the motion.

Honourable senators having stood in their places—

Photo of John HoggJohn Hogg (President) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank the Senate.