Senate debates

Tuesday, 21 August 2018

Ministerial Statements

Lyons, Dame Enid Muriel, AD, GBE

5:51 pm

Photo of Mitch FifieldMitch Fifield (Victoria, Liberal Party, Minister for Communications) Share this | | Hansard source

On behalf of the Minister for Women, Ms O'Dwyer, I table a ministerial statement on the commemoration of Enid Lyons's election to parliament.

Photo of David BushbyDavid Bushby (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take note of the statement.

I rise to take note of the ministerial statement commemorating the 75th anniversary of the election of Dame Enid Lyons to the federal parliament, representing the electorate of Darwin—which is essentially now Braddon—in my home state of Tasmania. Dame Enid served as the member for Darwin from 1943 until 1951 and was the first woman elected to the House of Representatives and the first woman to serve in federal cabinet. I should be careful to note here that Dame Enid was not the only woman elected to parliament at the time, as at that same election Dame Dorothy Margaret Tangney DBE was elected to the Senate for Western Australia. The 1943 election was certainly a good election for women and for the two women who were elected—a high benchmark for all those seeking to enter politics, men and women alike.

Dame Enid was born Enid Muriel Burnell in Smithton on Tasmania's north-west coast. She lived in various towns in Northern Tasmania and trained as a schoolteacher in Hobart. In April 1915, 17-year-old Enid married Joseph Lyons, who was 18 years her senior and to whom she remained married till his death in 1939. As his wife, Dame Enid remained active in the political life of Joseph, encouraging his split from the Australian Labor Party and movement to the erstwhile United Australia Party, motivated by the unease she felt at witnessing the Labor Party's handling of the Depression and the subsequent financial strife, which hit Australians particularly hard at the time.

After Joseph Lyons's death in office as Prime Minister of Australia in 1939, the grief-stricken mother of 12 felt compelled to battle the idleness and the shadow of anguish with action and made the decision to make a run at the type of career she had so astutely participated in with her husband in the preceding two decades. Dame Enid did just that, from 21 August 1943 until 19 March 1951 as the federal member for Darwin.

In her maiden speech, delivered on 29 September 1943, Dame Enid laid down a number of philosophies that would guide her as both a politician and a person. She, not without irony, noted that, yes, she was a woman and that, no, it would not be a limitation. As a firm believer in individual hard work and agency, she contended that her experiences as a woman, a mother and a wife of a former Prime Minister, no less, would, in her words, 'imply an ever-widening outlook on every problem that faces the world'. She was not wrong. Fusing her domestic duties and home life with her political persona, Dame Enid echoed the words of King George V in her maiden speech to parliament, stating:

The foundation of a nation's greatness is in the homes of its people.

She saw the strength of this great nation starting in the homes and at the hearths of those who inhabited it. As a consequence, Dame Enid was an advocate for what she called 'conscious citizenship'.

A strong yet compassionate egalitarian, Dame Enid not only touted the importance of contributing to a society greater than oneself but also that the Australian society was one that provided women with the same opportunities as men, particularly following universal suffrage and the enabling of women to be voted to public office. On this, Dame Enid said

Any woman entering the public arena must be prepared to work as men work; she must justify herself not as a woman but as a citizen; she must attack the same problems, and be prepared to shoulder the same burdens.

She being the first woman elected to the House of Representatives, I believe she spoke with some authority on the matter and that her parliamentary record is one that embodies this spirit.

Whilst a passionate speaker on topics that traditionally related closely with women, such as housing, clothing, baby foods, maternity services, discrimination against married women in the workforce, widows pensions and the like, she did not confine herself to such topics, proving that she could and would attack the same problems as any other MP would do at the time. To this end, she spoke also to issues that specifically affected Tasmania, including air and shipping services, agricultural development and the aluminium industry, which remain important Tasmanian industries to this day. In 1949, Enid was sworn in as Vice-President of the Executive Council, thereby being the first woman member of a federal cabinet, serving in the Menzies government.

Unfortunately, ill health caused her to resign from the cabinet in 1951, and she did not contest the following election in that same year. She refused to become idle, however, and remained active in her home community in a number of women's organisations, choosing to keep in close contact with those whom she served as the member for Darwin.

It is undoubtable that Enid Lyons was a compassionate woman and a skilled politician and possessed the fortitude to rise to the challenge of being Australia's first female lower house member. She defined herself not by her background or her status as a mother or a wife—although these things were extremely important to her—but by her ability to be a self-reliant, free-thinking person and compelling speaker, passionate about Tasmania and dedicated to serving Tasmanians.

Despite her death in 1981, Dame Enid Lyons's mark was well and truly left on the Australian parliament, not only blazing the trail for women in the public sphere but also serving Tasmania with great skill, dedication and compassion.

5:57 pm

Photo of Jane HumeJane Hume (Victoria, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I, too, would like to take note of the ministerial statement. It is an extraordinary honour indeed to once again stand in this chamber and reflect on one of the most momentous events in the political history of our nation. It was indeed 75 years ago today that Dame Enid Lyons, the member for the Tasmanian electorate of Darwin, was elected to this parliament, along with Western Australian Dame Dorothy Tangney—though at that stage she was not Dame but Mrs Tangney—who was elected to the Senate.

It is Dame Enid Lyons I would like to reflect on. I think I can safely say that I am the southern-most female Liberal senator. It's a terrible shame, and I look to my colleagues in the rows ahead of me in this chamber to say that, yes, they have a responsibility to fix that so that perhaps before we get to the 76th anniversary of Dame Enid Lyons's entry to parliament we can have a female Tasmanian senator from our great party reflecting on this momentous occasion.

I would like to devote some attention specifically to Dame Enid and the triumphs and challenges that characterised her place in history. Of course, while she is best known as Australia's first female parliamentarian, she certainly wasn't new to the demands of political life. Dame Enid grew up in Tasmania to parents who were Methodist. Her father worked in timber mills—if memory serves correctly—and her mother, sadly, was a member of the Labor Party. She was a political activist and she brought—

Photo of Doug CameronDoug Cameron (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Human Services) Share this | | Hansard source

That's where the good genes come in.

Photo of Jane HumeJane Hume (Victoria, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It's alright; she eventually saw the light, Senator Cameron. She was brought up in a very politically active household where political discourse was encouraged around the table, and her mother also believed in the value of female education. You can imagine that this was quite an unusual feature at the turn of the last century. She went to a teachers' college in Tasmania to pursue her education. That was the only option. At a Labor Party her mother introduced her event to her future husband, Joe Lyons, who was at that stage—I can't remember what seat he was the member for; perhaps Senator Abetz might remind me—I think, the Treasurer of the Tasmanian parliament. She married Joe Lyons when she was only 17 and he was 35, so there was a significant difference between them, but it was a marriage of great affection and love that lasted until his death. I should remind the chamber that Joe Lyons was Treasurer of Tasmania—he was Premier of Tasmania, wasn't he?

Photo of David BushbyDavid Bushby (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Labor Premier.

Photo of Jane HumeJane Hume (Victoria, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Although he was a Labor Premier of Tasmania, he went on to become a UAP Prime Minister of Australia. He was our prewar Prime Minister. While Joe Lyons was Prime Minister, Dame Enid Lyons had a gruelling public speaking schedule in support of her husband. You can only imagine what that must have been like. During the period of time when Joe Lyons was either Treasurer, Premier or Prime Minister, Dame Enid gave birth to 12 children, which is quite extraordinary. There might have been a couple of miscarriages along the way; I think there were 15 pregnancies in all. One of her children died very young, of whooping cough, so she had 11 by the time Joseph Lyons died in office, which was a tragic, sudden and unexpected event. She did once reflect that her hardest role in life was that of the Prime Minister's wife. I wonder whether Lucy Turnbull would give the same answer today; I wouldn't be at all surprised.

It was terribly tragic when Dame Enid's husband died in 1939 and left her a widow at only 41 years of age. At that stage she truly retreated into grief, went back to Tasmania and watched a number of her older sons go off to the Second World War. You can only imagine combining grief with that stress. World War II saw Australia change quite profoundly. Over the war years the number of women in the workforce increased dramatically, by a third, and there was a newfound respect for the changing roles of women, their abilities and their contributions. Before the Second World War only a handful of women had been elected to Australian state parliaments, and at that stage the mere suggestion of female parliamentarians was considered something of an outrageous experiment whose outcome was very uncertain.

But in the midst of the social change of World War II a vacancy arose in the seat of Darwin. I like the fact that it was Dame Enid's daughter who talked her into running for that seat. She won that ballot by only 800 votes. On entering she was a very popular member. I think she was nominated as deputy leader the moment she entered parliament, which is quite an honour indeed. Being a woman who was extraordinarily modest, she declined that nomination. I wonder whether we would see people do that today. She had a political toughness and a folksy charm that characterised a very unique style and personal appeal. Her speeches were known for their humour but also their very sentimental nature. Indeed, Sir Robert Menzies said of her speeches—I love this phrase:

She could reduce me to tears about the state of a railtrack …

I might have done the same in this chamber, but probably tears of boredom as opposed to tears of sentiment.

Photo of Doug CameronDoug Cameron (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Human Services) Share this | | Hansard source

This is the same speech you gave last night.

Photo of Jane HumeJane Hume (Victoria, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Don't you love that quote? She was a trailblazer just for being here, but she also had some extraordinary achievements while in office. Hers was a reasonably short parliamentary career, only eight years. She left out of ill-health in the end. This is extraordinary: she had an undiagnosed broken pelvis, which was from one of her earliest pregnancies. You can imagine, after 12 children, to have an undiagnosed broken pelvis, to have run for parliament and to have sat in the House of Representatives all that time, was an extraordinary physical achievement, if nothing else, and the travel back and forth to Tasmania. We could only imagine what that would have been like.

While she was here, she made some very significant contributions to issues that were important not just to women but also to the nation and specifically with regard to women and children. She had a very unique perspective on women's issues. Things like maternal health care, the widows pension, elimination of employment discrimination and particularly the extension of child endowment to first children. She also fought to see legislation passed which secured citizenship rights for women after marriage to foreigners. It was unusual at that stage for women to maintain their cultural identity after marriage. Also, and I love this one in particular, she ensured that allowances to servicewomen who returned from the Second World War matched those of returned servicemen.

Her electoral successes were also enviable. The 800 votes that she won by in her first ballot she tripled in her primary vote at the next election and quadrupled it after that. If only those of us in this place, and in the other place, could experience such electoral success today I think we'd be very pleased with ourselves.

Prime Minister Robert Menzies promoted her to be vice-president of the Executive Council, which made her the first woman to hold a cabinet position—although it wasn't a portfolio that she held. It was widely regarded that she was certainly capable of being a cabinet minister and holding a portfolio, but her ill health caught up with her. Prior to the 1951 election, she was in quite a significant car accident, went to hospital and had a number of operations. That was what it was that eventually forced her retirement.

I think that her insights, her policy legacy, her wit and her wisdom have endured throughout time. It is, in fact, timeless. She once reflected, and I have used this quote before, that our nation:

… is still a land of promise. We cannot afford to neglect some recognition of our past, even though we gaze into the future.

She certainly was a woman who blazed a trail. In a political climate where voters remain distrustful and removed from their representatives, it's women like Dame Enid Lyons and their legacy that remind us of why we're here, the importance of what we do and the importance of representing not just one section of Australia but all Australians.

6:07 pm

Photo of Eric AbetzEric Abetz (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Today we celebrate a great Australian, a great Tasmanian and a great woman. Seventy-five years ago she won the first seat for a woman in the House of Representatives, a milestone in the history of the development of our democracy in Australia. I'm very pleased to say that she did so as a member of the party that I have the honour of representing, just as much as the party that I have the honour of representing can also boast the fact that we achieved the first Aboriginal in this parliament in Senator Neville Bonner and, of course, the first Indigenous minister in the honourable Ken Wyatt. The Liberal Party has a proud history in this regard.

Today we celebrate the 75th anniversary of the election of Enid Lyons to the seat of Darwin, and as has been recalled it was a very close call on the first occasion; the second occasion, a bigger margin; and the third time an even bigger margin, which is indicative of the way that she was able to interact with her fellow citizens. She was a much loved woman right around Australia, given that she had such a high profile—especially for those days—as the wife of Prime Minister Joe Lyons.

Indeed, he knew her electoral dynamism that much that on many occasions when they travelled he would physically encourage her to go onstage to talk to the people that he had also been addressing. He acknowledged how very successful she was in his political career. Theirs was a true partnership, a partnership of love to each other, dedication to each other and their family, and also service to the nation.

It was one of those things that, as the then Prime Minister Joe Lyons lay dying in a hospital bed, she was able to come up from Tasmania and see him before he passed—something that was very poignantly recorded for us in some of the wonderful writings of Anne Henderson, who has written on both Joe Lyons and Enid Lyons and has recorded their very important role in Australia's development, especially through the Great Depression. Mr Lyons was able to manage the Australian economy in ways that allowed us to recover from the Great Depression so much more quickly and better than, for example, the United States. I have no doubt that part of that economic management and the plan for that—that when times are tough you tighten your belt a bit—would have come from Enid Lyons herself, the strength that was so important to the success of Prime Minister Lyons's time in office and, of course, to the great benefit to the Australian people.

Enid Lyons was a person who served her God, who served her family and who served her nation, and somebody who was more than willing to put service above self. Indeed, many a time, she suffered from the long absences of her husband—because, when Mr Lyons first started, getting to parliament wasn't a simple aeroplane trip; you had to get a steamer across Bass Strait and then a train to Canberra. Just for the record, Mr Lyons was the first Prime Minister that entered into an election campaign travelling by commercial airline, and it was seen as something quite fantastic that a Prime Minister could appear in Melbourne and Sydney on the same day to give election speeches. Nowadays, I think they do about four or five capital cities in the one day, given the various time zones. In those days, it was trailblazing—but it was also very, very long absences from each other for a couple whose love for each other was there on display, for all to see.

It was a great privilege of mine to be able to actually meet Dame Enid Lyons when she came to a few Liberal Party state council meetings when I was a few years younger. She was a hit. Irrespective of who may have been the guest speaker or the parliamentary leader at the time, everybody wanted to make a beeline for Dame Enid Lyons and shake her hand. She really was a person of great stature, metaphorically speaking, because she was not physically of great stature but a wonderful individual, a person who lit up the room when she entered it and whom everybody fussed over. And that was very much deserved by her, given her wonderful contribution, her selfless contribution, first to her husband and her family, and then to her nation, rising to be not only the first woman elected to the House of Representatives but the first woman in a cabinet position.

It is appropriate that we as a nation do stop from time to time to consider these milestones in our electoral and democratic system, and Dame Enid Lyons's contribution has to be seen as one of those very, very significant milestones. I simply finish by saying that Dame Enid Lyons was a role model for everybody, irrespective of whether you were male or female. But, of course, she was a trailblazer for women in this country. She's someone we should all aspire to emulate, irrespective of our political branding. Tonight I'm delighted to be able to join in saluting the service of Dame Enid Lyons and celebrating the occasion of the 75th anniversary of her election to this parliament.

6:14 pm

Photo of Richard ColbeckRichard Colbeck (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I too would like to associate myself with remarks celebrating the 75th anniversary of the election of Dame Enid Lyons to the House of Representatives. There has been a lot spoken about the way that Dame Enid conducted herself, the separation that she suffered from her husband, Joe, and the difficulties that she faced as a woman at that particular point in time. I think the first speech that we heard here this evening indicates how far we've come from the time when Dame Enid made such a spectacular entry into the Australian parliament.

As Senator Abetz has just said, she had quite a commanding presence. I didn't meet her at Liberal Party functions, as Senator Abetz did. I wasn't a member of the organisation by the time we'd lost—

Photo of Doug CameronDoug Cameron (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Human Services) Share this | | Hansard source

Were you in the Labor Party?

Photo of Richard ColbeckRichard Colbeck (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

No, Senator Cameron. There was never any fear of that, I can promise you! But I did happen to be at the Devonport Town Hall when Dame Enid made a speech at what turned out to be her last public appearance, and the town hall on that night was so quiet. To quote an old, hackneyed line: you literally could have heard a pin drop. The entire audience hung on her every word.

While we talk about the 75th anniversary of her election, it's not as if she was an overnight success. The strength of the relationship between her and Joe was such that she was actually one of the best known prime ministerial wives, even in those days. She wrote articles for newspapers. She made radio broadcasts and open-air speeches. So she was clearly a practitioner, and Joe quite obviously was very comfortable to share the limelight and to work closely with her, as Senator Abetz has said.

She clearly had a strong presence in the community, and the important thing, I think, is that the community continues to recognise the value of the contribution that she made. The Rotary Club, of which I'm a member, as a bicentenary project constructed a tribute to both Joe and Dame Enid Lyons in Roundhouse Park in Devonport, where bronze portraits of Joe and Dame Enid were erected and continue to stand today. Both of them rest in the Mersey Vale cemetery just outside of Devonport, and their residence is one of the very few prime ministerial residences in Australia that remain open to the Australian public. In fact, it's very much as it was when Dame Enid passed away.

I've had occasion to visit there quite often. In fact, recently there was a lecture by Tim and Merridie Costello about the life and times of both Joe and Dame Enid. So it continues to be a centrepiece not just to celebrate Joe and Dame Enid, who played significant political roles in Australia and Tasmania, but as a reminder of the importance of the fact that both of them communicated to the rest of the country from that residence, which had one of the first telephone lines to a house in Tasmania when the phone was put on. So I think it's appropriate that tonight there's a dinner being held to celebrate the 75th anniversary, and I certainly believe that it's appropriate that this chamber recognises that significant event in the progress of our democracy and the fact that Dame Enid not only made such a significant contribution to the parliament but then continued to make a significant contribution to her community throughout the rest of her life. She was very active in the community and was held in very, very high regard by her community, and she continues to be held in that regard locally in my home town of Devonport, where she and Joe lived at their residence, Home Hill.

Question agreed to.