Senate debates

Tuesday, 21 August 2018


Tangney, Dame Dorothy Margaret, DBE

8:28 pm

Photo of Louise PrattLouise Pratt (WA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Environment and Water (Senate)) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise tonight to remark on a very important occasion. On this day 75 years ago Dorothy Tangney made history by being the first woman elected to this place, the Australian Senate. During her 25 years in parliament, a remarkable and lengthy career, she had a significant influence on the lives of a great many Australians and left a legacy that is still felt today. For example, her strong belief in the federal government's responsibility to social security remained throughout her career, and, indeed, it was one of those forming cornerstones of why we have a strong social security agenda here in Australia today. We need to remember how new many of those ideas were and how women like Enid Lyons and Dorothy Tangney brought those issues to the parliament because they were in touch with the lives of women and children in particular in our nation.

Dame Tangney's election to the Senate, alongside Enid Lyons, who was elected to the House of Representatives, has paved the way for women to have their voices heard here in our nation's parliament. I keep that in mind while we note that there is still some way to go in this respect. Thirty-eight per cent of senators are women, despite the fact that we are 51 per cent of the population.

We should be in a place that represents the people of Australia. These kinds of statistics demonstrate that more progress is needed, because a person's gender and their other attributes, such as their racial and cultural backgrounds, are key influences on their political agenda. You can see that very clearly in Dorothy Tangney. She was born on 13 March 1907 in North Perth, not far from where I live, in Western Australia. Her early life was very much a precursor to her future political career. After leaving school she became a teacher at Claremont Central School, obtaining her diploma of education back in 1932. She was, of course, a member of the teachers union, and she became the vice-president of the state parents and citizens association. She was a founding member and later president of the Newman Society at UWA and in 1929 was the founding president of the Fremantle Young People's Ideal Club. In 1939 she became the branch president of the Claremont branch of the Australian Labor Party.

You can see from these early experiences a base that would define her future political career. She was elected in 1943 despite being placed fourth on the party ticket, and in the Senate she used her inaugural speech to outline the beliefs that she held at her very core. She said she saw social security as a sacred duty of this parliament. She used her 25 years in this place to advocate for the rights of women, children, working Australians, people with disability and mental illness, those returning from the horrors of war, and First Nations people. They are values of those of us in the Labor Party and communities that we continue to connect to today.

She was heavily concerned about those affected by war, especially women—war widows, unmarried women, women with unemployed husbands and women abandoned by their husbands, sometimes married to overseas servicemen. She denounced the working conditions and poor pay of nurses, and she spoke of the hardships of women living in Australia's remote communities. Her career in this place was dedicated to all these communities and causes. Between 1943 and 1946 Senator Tangney was a member of the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Social Security. In 1946 she chaired a government committee dealing with equal rights for women—incredible leading work of its time, at the very forefront of beginning to have these issues heard in our nation and in our nation's parliament.

During 1953 and 1954 she was co-opted as one of three by the ALP's federal executive to select policy points for the ALP platform from a conference report on Aboriginal welfare. She also raised the need for a national system for health, and these issues came to the fore for her after she visited a tuberculosis hospital. She said she saw 'the horror of people waiting for the end in institutions'. Dorothy Tangney believed that a nationalised health system would benefit Australians, benefit the vast middle classes and poorer classes who were ignored by health systems such as they were at the time. She also saw the need to address health concerns before they became chronic concerns. Preventive and primary health are the beginnings of those concerns which we tend to think are relatively new but were actually issues that she was raising some 75 years ago.

She was also a strong supporter of homeownership, what we now refer to as the 'great Australian dream'. She talked about a home with a garden, saying that it would enable families to live in decency. She believed it was the Commonwealth government's responsibility to provide funds for Aboriginal welfare, expressing her disappointment at not finding any reference to Aboriginal funding in Australia's 1943 national budget—none at all.

While social security and the rights of working Australians were a constant focus of Dorothy Tangney's political career, she was also very significantly concerned with education funding and policy. I know we're quite used to having national debates about federal funding for state education programs, but Dorothy Tangney was among the first to raise these issues in our nation's parliament. She sought to have state education departments 'free from their present financial worries and enabled to carry out a policy which will give to every Australian citizen the benefits which only education can confer'. She was also a strong supporter of the establishment of the Australian National University in 1946 as an institute for research. She was a member of the ANU council and an honorary life associate of the University of Western Australia and a member of the university's Standing Committee of Convocation.

She had a strong anti-war stance, referencing the despair felt by war widows and by mothers who had lost their sons to the Second World War. In 1966 she gave a moving speech opposing Australian participation in the Vietnam War, saying she did 'not want to see the youth of this generation and the next going through a period similar to the terrible period that we of our generation have seen'.

In 1967 Dorothy Tangney lost the election, despite a hard-fought battle. She said during her farewell speech to the Senate that, unlike 'most of the other senators who are retiring, I am not doing so voluntarily'.

So, today, on the 75th anniversary of Dorothy Tangney's election to this place, I pay my respects to her for the path she has forged for all those who have come after, especially the women in this place, and for all her life's work and legacy for the people of our nation.

Senate adjourned at 20:37