Senate debates

Thursday, 8 October 2020


Ryan, Hon. Susan Maree, AO

3:34 pm

Photo of Scott RyanScott Ryan (President) Share this | | Hansard source

Senators, it is with deep regret that I inform the Senate of the death, on 27 September 2020, of the Hon. Susan Maree Ryan AO, a senator for the Australian Capital Territory from 1975 to 1988 and a minister. I call the Leader of the Government in the Senate.

3:35 pm

Photo of Mathias CormannMathias Cormann (WA, Liberal Party, Vice-President of the Executive Council) Share this | | Hansard source

by leave—I move:

That the Senate record its deep regret at the death, on 27 September 2020, of the Honourable Susan Maree Ryan AO, a former Senator for the Australian Capital Territory and Minister for Education, Minister assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women and Special Minister of State in the Hawke Government, places on record its appreciation for her service to the Parliament and the nation, and tenders its profound sympathy to her family in their bereavement.

Susan Ryan was a passionate advocate for gender equality and a pioneer in the fight for the interests of Australian women. She leaves behind an extensive legacy full of firsts: one of the Australian Capital Territory's first senators and the first ACT senator to represent the ALP; Labor's first female cabinet minister; the first woman to hold the women's affairs portfolio; and Australia's first Age Discrimination Commissioner. But her signature achievement was the passage of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984—legislation that made sexual harassment unlawful and was a largely successful attempt to ensure that women had the same access to jobs, services and accommodation as men. The act has had a lasting impact on Australian women. It encouraged more women to seek education and employment, making it possible for women to hold employment and have a family life. These important social changes raised Australian family incomes and gave women more opportunities and economic independence.

Born on 10 October 1942 in Sydney, Susan was one of four children to Arthur and Florence Ryan. Growing up in Maroubra, Susan was educated at the Brigidine school and was the first in her family and school to receive a scholarship to the University of Sydney, where she studied teaching. Upon graduating in 1963 Susan married Richard Butler, with whom she had two children. She worked briefly as a schoolteacher and then, after the arrival of her first child, Justine, she switched careers, running a small business from her home in Cremorne, the Living Parish Hymn Book Publishing Company.

In 1965 the family moved to Canberra, and Susan embarked on a Master of Arts degree in English literature at the Australian National University. Her studies were interrupted when Richard was posted to the Australian embassy in Vienna. Shortly after arriving Susan and Richard welcomed the birth of their second child, Benedict. In 1970 the family moved again, this time for a posting to New York. But less than a year later Susan returned to Australia with her two children and resumed her master's degree. She joined the Women's Electoral Lobby in 1972 and the Belconnen branch of the Australian Labor Party shortly thereafter. The Women's Electoral Lobby began to push for direct political representation in 1974. Susan agreed to stand for preselection in the new ACT seat of Fraser. While she was unsuccessful at that election, coming third in the ballot, Susan would get her chance again in 1975, when legislation to provide the ACT with two Senate positions was enacted. Running on the slogan 'A woman's place is in the Senate', Susan was elected as one of the first two senators to represent the ACT and the first woman and ALP senator to represent the territory.

Susan entered parliament during a dramatic and challenging time for the ALP. The party had just suffered a landslide election defeat after the dismissal of Gough Whitlam as Prime Minister by then Governor-General, Sir John Kerr. But Susan was not deterred. She came to this place to work hard and make a difference. She had ideas and ambitions. Two years later, when Bill Hayden became opposition leader he gave her the shadow portfolio responsibilities for communications, arts and the media as well as for women's affairs, a portfolio she would hold until her resignation in 1988.

Susan was focused on developing social policy, and when Bob Hawke led Labor back into government in 1983 she was appointed as the minister for education and as the minister for women's affairs. She was the first woman in the Labor Party to hold a cabinet position. During her time on the frontbench she would deliver important reforms, as I previously mentioned, including the Sex Discrimination Act, the Affirmative Action (Equal Employment Opportunity for Women) Act, the Public Service Reform Act and the Equal Employment Opportunity (Commonwealth Authorities) Act.

After five years in cabinet, Susan decided it was the right time to retire from her parliamentary career, and she took up a role as the managing editor of Penguin Books. Susan felt she had given the best she could to politics, and in 1990 she was awarded an Officer of the Order of Australia for service to the Australian parliament. In her 1999 memoir, Catching the Waves, Susan reflected on her achievements, saying she was driven by the view that women should be able to pursue opportunities unencumbered by stifling stereotypes and that women and men should be judged on their merits—concepts that, thankfully, are entirely straightforward and universally accepted today.

Susan served in many roles in her post-political career, including executive director for the Plastics Industry Association, executive director of the Australian Institute of Superannuation Trustees and pro-chancellor of the University of New South Wales. She also continued to fight to end discrimination and to fight for better rights for all Australians, serving as Australia's first Age Discrimination Commissioner and, later, the Disability Discrimination Commissioner. During her time as the Age Discrimination Commissioner, she worked tirelessly to advance the rights of older Australians. After the release of the 2015 Intergenerational report she argued that Australia should move to a retirement age of 70, given we are living longer than ever before. In fact, in 2015 Susan wrote:

Why are individuals leaving paid work at 60, or often earlier, rather than 70? Even if they are more likely to live to 100 instead of 150 … Age discrimination in employment is a huge barrier preventing older Australians from continuing in the workforce.

She said the report also implied:

… all those older than 65 are in need of substantial and growing public support—

and that it ignored the economic potential of older people. She argued that it was time to have a conversation about how to realise the economic and social potential of an ageing population.

In her first speech to the Senate in 1976 Susan noted there were only six women in the Senate. In 2019 the Senate reached gender equality in terms of representation. In part, this was achieved because of groundbreakers like former senator the Hon. Susan Ryan. Susan Ryan will be remembered as someone who dedicated her life to social justice and to making this nation a better and more equal place for all Australians. To Susan's partner, Rory, and her surviving children, Justine and Ben: on behalf of the Australian government and the Senate, I offer our deepest condolences.

3:43 pm

Photo of Penny WongPenny Wong (SA, Australian Labor Party, Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

We honour today the life and contribution of former senator and minister the Hon. Susan Ryan. I speak on behalf of all Labor senators in offering our sympathy and solidarity to her family, especially her partner, Rory, and her two children, Justine and Benedict, and her grandson, Amir, and to her many friends.

It is often said 'you cannot be what you cannot see', and yet someone has to go first. Those are the truest of leaders, who have the vision of what is possible, the courage to take on the fight against those vested in the status quo, the intellectual power to craft the strategy and the charisma and humanity to bring people with them. For us, for Labor women, that was Susan Ryan. She could see it: she could see a woman at the cabinet table, and she could see what Australia needed, what Australia needed that woman to achieve, and she made it happen. She wasn't a timeserver; she was a reformer. She came through first, but she brought others with her. She showed us the way. My generation of Labor women looked up to Susan. She inspired us in word and deed. She took a personal interest in all of us. When I saw her here, she would greet me with an enthusiastic hug, and she would always offer me encouragement and assure me I was doing well, that she was proud of me and of so many others who had followed her. That pride was mutual. Labor women have lost our sister and we will miss her.

Susan was born in Sydney and her early life had education at its centre. After convent schooling, she completed a Bachelor of Arts at Sydney Teachers' College before relocating with her family to Canberra, where she embarked on a postgraduate degree in English literature. This was interrupted when she accompanied her then husband, Richard Butler, on two overseas postings. As she described it, marriage at that time meant going wherever your husband went. She made the most of these experiences to gain knowledge and exposure to new and different thinking. She reflected that, on her return to Australia from their first posting in Vienna in 1969, the preoccupations of Labor at that time were vastly different to that of comparable parties in Western Europe. Opposition to the war on Vietnam was the touchstone for those in her generation who were politically active and with whom she would later serve.

On their second posting, in New York, Susan was sparked in different ways by the ideas of Germaine Greer, Betty Friedan, Kate Millett and Gloria Steinem, and she found herself questioning the place of women in society relative to the place of men. She questioned why everything in personal and public life was arranged for the convenience of men, and why people pretended that even dull men were clever. At the same time, gifted, passionate women were passed over, neglected and restricted. She said, 'Those of us caught in the whirlwind saw that society was structured and manufactured by its rulers to achieve these endless disparities between the sexes. Our subordination was not destiny; it was a construct of men in which we had acquiesced for far too long.'

Well, Susan Ryan would acquiesce no more. Her arrival back in Canberra led to deep engagement in both Labor and feminist politics. At the same time as becoming active in her local Labor branch, Susan Ryan joined the Women's Electoral Lobby as a foundation member. Across the country, like-minded women came together and began to organise politically—women like Wendy McCarthy and Eva Cox. Their objectives are familiar, perhaps depressingly so: confronting sexism, ending discrimination in education and employment, taking control of reproductive health, improving access to child care and achieving equal pay for equal work.

In the Australian Labor Party, Susan Ryan hoped for a practical pathway to redressing the wrongs done to women using legislative power to effect change. She rejoiced in the victory of the Whitlam government, although she missed out on an appointment to the groundbreaking new role of women's adviser. Her political activism led to a role running the national secretariat for the Australian Council of State School Organisations, a role that would connect her with another early leader of our movement, Joan Kirner, for the first time, and they would go on to have an effective partnership and lasting friendship.

The Whitlam government lasted only three years but it changed our nation forever. Susan saw Labor as the key to a more humane, vibrant and equal society, believing that a feminist lobby was necessary but not sufficient. Instead of being on the outside lobbying, she wanted to be inside making the laws, and, before long, she was encouraged to run for preselection. Susan Ryan was elected to the ACT Legislative Assembly and, after a false start seeking preselection for the House of Representatives, she ultimately prevailed in preselection to the Senate. In her characteristically tongue-in-cheek telling of it, she said that she overcame several reasonably glamorous male candidates. She was elected by the ACT as its first senator in 1975, one of just six women in the parliament, all senators.

In the wake of the Whitlam government's defeat, she made the most of the opportunity to help rebuild Labor. She cut her teeth in the Senate in her first couple of years by taking every speaking opportunity, a whip's delight. This saw her contribute on debates ranging from Aboriginal affairs, social welfare, health and education to broadcasting, employment, defence and national security.

When Bill Hayden became opposition leader after the 1977 election loss, she became the first woman to serve in Labor's shadow ministry. Her portfolios over the next six years included communications, the arts and media, and, later, Aboriginal affairs. Perhaps most significantly, though, in 1979 she also gained responsibility for women's affairs. Her predecessor in the role had been a man—imagine a man serving in the women's affairs portfolio in any modern political party! I wonder when you have to go back to? She would hold this portfolio in opposition and in government for nearly a decade until her resignation in 1988.

Labor entered the 1980 campaign with a program for women called 'Towards equality'. We made gains at this election—not enough to take government but gains that delivered new female parliamentarians to the ranks. However, these were offset by the defeat of others mostly as a result of internal preselections that saw men take the place of women. This became one of the many impetuses for the introduction of affirmative action provisions within Labor: first for internal positions and, eventually, for parliament.

Affirmative action is part of why I'm in this place today. I was proud to take Susan's legacy on affirmative action forward with my dear friend, Sharryn Jackson, the then member for Hasluck, at the 2002 special rules conference, where we changed the rules to ensure more talented women got into the parliament. Labor now has more women than men in the Senate. That is the reason why the majority of senators in this place are women for the first time in Australian history. There are many opposite who argue that affirmative action is unnecessary and undermines the principle of merit based selections. I recall that catchcry from some in the Liberal Party: 'quota girl'. I'll leave it to others to judge the extent to which merit is the key metric for the selection of all of those opposite. Affirmative action recognises that structural change is required to achieve equality. It recognises that power doesn't just fall into the hands of those who haven't had it for much of the course of human history.

After the 1980 election, the Fraser government no longer had control of the Senate, and Susan Ryan used this opportunity to pursue two significant private senator's bills. The first of these was legislation that sought to implement antidiscrimination and affirmative action measures for women. This approach garnered support, fanned substantial media debate and committed Labor to action. Whilst that bill did not progress into law, Susan had started the fire and she would not stop until all of us were guided by its light.

The second bill related to her portfolio of Aboriginal affairs and sought to provide land tenure to First Nations people living on reserves in Queensland. At the time, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander citizens in Queensland were more thoroughly dispossessed than in any other part of Australia. With the backing of the Labor caucus and cross-party support, Susan Ryan confronted the blatant racism of the Bjelke-Petersen regime head on. This time the bill passed the Senate—only the 30th private senator's bill to do so since Federation—but did not get a vote in the House of Representatives. While progress on land rights was not as quick as Susan Ryan had hoped, there's no doubt she helped to spur momentum.

When the Hawke government took office in 1983, Susan Ryan became the first female cabinet minister in Labor history. She was appointed Minister for Education and Youth Affairs and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on the Status of Women. She set about implementing the feminist agenda she had envisioned. At the top of this was to bring her private senator's bill on sex discrimination into law. That the Sex Discrimination Act passed the parliament in the first year of the Hawke government speaks volumes about Susan Ryan's advocacy and the impact of her capacity to transform ideas into action.

It has become common in some quarters to dismiss many of the policy achievements of the Hawke government as some kind of bipartisan project that was shared across the parliament. That is plainly inaccurate. The Sex Discrimination Act encountered significant opposition both inside and outside the parliament because of the magnitude of its reform. It's hard to remember that at this time it was not unlawful to discriminate in this country on the basis of sex in employment, education, accommodation and the provision of goods and services. A woman's credit rating and earning capacity weren't enough to get a loan from a bank. She could only secure credit if her husband or her father took responsibility. Landlords refused to rent homes to single mothers. Community clubs throughout the country were able to bar women. Women were sacked because of their age, marital status or pregnancy. All of these injustices and inequalities were in the sights of Susan Ryan. She called the Sex Discrimination Act 'probably the most useful thing I've done in my life'. I think that was a serious understatement. It is hard to imagine life in this country without it or, indeed, an argument against it. Every woman and every girl has benefited from Susan Ryan's leadership. Nevertheless, the opposition was fierce. Indeed, 38 conservative members and senators voted against it, including the then leader of the National Party and one Liberal MP who went on to become a Howard government minister.

The Sex Discrimination Act was followed by the Affirmative Action (Equal Employment Opportunity for Women) Act, which became law in 1986. At that time, the Australian labour market was the most sex-segregated in the OECD. The act ensured women in the workforce had the opportunity to be recruited, trained and promoted on an equal basis with men. Susan Ryan heralded it as not just one of the biggest single steps forward in Australia's history for equality of women in the workplace but as a model of consensus decision-making consistent with the Hawke government's overall approach.

Parallel to these and other achievements for Australian women, Susan Ryan was also making significant inroads in education policy. When she started a minister, just three in 10 Australians completed high school. By the time Labor left office, eight in 10 students finish school—because of the change that she, and the Labor government of which she was a part, started. In her four years as minister, Susan created over 36,000 places in higher education, 4½ times the number created in the last four years of the Fraser government. She also strongly argued against the reintroduction of tertiary fees—at significant personal and political cost. Susan believed in education as a tool for social justice. She recognised its importance in lifting people out of poverty. On her retirement, Bob Hawke reflected that she had been a minister who drove rapid change and fundamental reform, and she remains Australia's second-longest-serving minister of education. In her final year, she also served as Special Minister of State and in other roles while retaining her position as minister assisting the PM on the status of women until her departure in 1998.

In the 30 years after she left parliament, Susan Ryan would continue to make a substantial public contribution and held various roles in the private sector. She was recognised in 1990 with the award of Officer of the Order of Australia for her contribution to this parliament. She held various roles in the superannuation sector. She continued to work for human rights and, in July 2011, she was appointed as our first Age Discrimination Commissioner. In 2014 she was appointed as Disability Discrimination Commissioner. She brought a particular focus to the economic security of women. She also served as Pro Vice-Chancellor at the University of New South Wales, and her interest in seeing Australia become a republic led to her taking on the role of deputy chair of the Australian Republic Movement from 2000 to 2003.

Susan Ryan broke new ground in Australian politics. Unsurprisingly, she endured misrepresentation and abuse. She had to cut through the predictable and tiresome preoccupation of public commentators, and even of her colleagues, with how she looked and her marital status. We need only reflect on how other female political leaders have been treated—and I'm thinking especially of Prime Minister Gillard—to recognise that Australian politics and public discourse still has much further to travel.

Thirty six years after the passage of the groundbreaking Sex Discrimination Act, we continue to see gross underrepresentation of women across our society. I return to the structural nature of inequality and discrimination. Many who have power in society like to believe it is because they earned it, that it is because they are the most talented and the most worthy. But do you know what? More often than not, they started out with power; and that means others started without it. Unless we take action, unless we make deliberate policy decisions, those structures will stay in place, recreating themselves generation after generation. Not only is that unjust to those who started without power and remain disadvantaged from birth to death it is a great loss to us all. It is a great loss to society because people have talents and abilities that never see the light of day.

In acknowledging all of Susan's many achievements, she would also expect me to point out some of what remains to be done, because across this country we find more women in lower paying jobs and more in precarious employment, resulting in women finding it harder to be economically independent. Susan Ryan's wisdom helped give us some tools to see how much more there is still to be done. The organisation we now know as the Workplace Gender Equality Agency tells us that the full-time remuneration gender pay gap is at 20.8 per cent, meaning men working full time earn $25,600-plus on average a year more than women working full time. The full-time salary gender pay gap is 15.5 per cent.

You see, as Susan observed, society was built by men for men and that is why Labor women understand there is a limit to 'leaning in'. We need to break down the structural barriers that block women's full participation and equality in Australia. We already have women retiring with 47 per cent less superannuation than men. Around three-quarters of the Australians who have been forced to withdraw from their super this year are women. That is not empowerment; that is impoverishment. Women over 55 are the fastest-growing group of people at risk of homelessness in Australia. Women over 60 represent the largest cohort on JobSeeker. Without access to affordable child care, many parents will be forced to give up or turn down work, and we know that is a sacrifice most often taken by women. Study after study has shown that affordable child care would increase women's workforce participation.

This budget, which should have been a blueprint for our economic future beyond the pandemic, does nothing to increase women's participation, nothing to tackle insecure work or improve access to child care, nothing to address the gender pay gap or shrinking super balances and has no plan to help women and their children escaping family violence. A cabinet with Susan Ryan at the table would never have made those decisions. She would never have acquiesced, and she taught those Labor women who have followed her not to acquiesce either. She was the first, but her legacy in this nation will last not just in the laws she wrote but among the Labor women who follow her, because we will continue the project of building a truly equal Australia.

Our entire movement mourns the loss of one of our greatest. As we mourn her passing, and in closing, I once again extend my personal sympathies and the sympathies of all my colleagues to Susan Ryan's family—to Rory, Justine, Benedict and Amir—and her many friends. I spoke with Justine earlier today. She spoke of how completely her mother dedicated her life's work to the Labor movement.

Susan Ryan was more than an effective legislator—although she was certainly that—she really wanted to make Australia better. Justine told me how she recently found her mother's first campaign T-shirt, which declared 'A woman's place is in the House and in the Senate.' Well, in this chamber today and looking at those behind me, it is clear that is yet another campaign that Susan Ryan won.

4:02 pm

Photo of Larissa WatersLarissa Waters (Queensland, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise today to express condolences on behalf of the Australian Greens to the family, friends and colleagues of the Hon. Susan Ryan AO. I'd like to associate our party with the remarks that have been made already about this remarkable woman. As has been said, former Senator Susan Ryan was a trailblazer for women's representation in parliament and for gender equality in all workplaces. I imagine she would have been pleased to see that, just this week, the Senate has finally reached the point of being majority women with the arrival of Greens Senator Lidia Thorpe, a proud First Nations woman, on Tuesday to this place.

Susan Ryan once said of her motivation for entering politics:

I felt from the youngest possible age that it was unfair, intolerable really, that females were regarded as second-class citizens. That was going to be the big thing that I wanted to change.

And so she did. She helped establish the Women's Electoral Lobby. She was elected to parliament as a single mother and became the first woman in the ALP cabinet. She was the first minister for the status of women and she set her sights on dismantling gender inequality. She introduced the first women's budget impact statement in 1984, which persisted until 2014 when former Prime Minister and one-time minister for women Tony Abbott axed it. Her work to introduce the Sex Discrimination Act was a crucial reform that has continued to shape Australian society. In abuse that will be familiar to many women in this place, conservative sectors called Susan Ryan 'radical' and targeted her as 'Australia's feminist dictator'. Yet these are the things she was trying to change: making it unlawful to sack a woman because she got married or pregnant, making it unlawful to sack someone because they were a woman, making it unlawful to sexually harass your staff, providing paid parental leave, allowing women to get home loans and increasing women's participation in university. Today, it would be completely unacceptable for those basic inequalities to persist. The change in that attitude is a testament to the work that Susan did.

Anne Summers's tribute to Susan noted the brutal reality of politics, noting that Susan's remarkable policy wins were often more hard-won than is appreciated today and seldom achieved without what were often excruciating compromises. Again, this is something with which many in this place are familiar. Too often women are expected to compromise. While much remains to be done to achieve gender equality, Susan's pioneering efforts built the platform for progress to continue to be made. I and the Australian Greens pay tribute to her fortitude, resilience and determination and thank her for opening the door for a better Australia for women and girls. A woman's place is in the House, the Senate and the cabinet.

4:06 pm

Photo of Anne RustonAnne Ruston (SA, Liberal Party, Minister for Families and Social Services) Share this | | Hansard source

I, too, rise to speak. I rise representing the Minister for Women, the Hon. Marise Payne, who's unable to be here today. I would also like to have my remarks associated with others in this place and with the remarks that were made by the Prime Minister in his condolence motion for the Hon. Susan Ryan AO.

In the 45 years since Susan Ryan was elected, much has changed for the representation of women in this place. When Susan Ryan entered this house in 1975, she became just one of six women in the upper house. As has been said by those before me, her election slogan at that time was, 'A woman's place is in the Senate.' Today, that is absolutely true. It was very much an early pronouncement of the passionate advocate for women that Susan Ryan would become. Whilst I didn't know Susan Ryan, I have no doubt that she would be very pleased with the representation that we see in this place today, with more women than men now representing the Australian people in the Senate. At the time Susan was elected, there were no women in the House of Representatives. Not only that; there were no women leaders or ministers in any state parliament in Australia. From what I hear, there was constant confusion about who Susan was. Most young women in Parliament House were secretaries and assistants, and people would often ask Susan which senator she worked for. I can't imagine the kind of response that they might have got to that question! Susan focused on the job at hand and learning the ropes, ignoring the commentary, and has become known as one of the great trailblazers for women in this Senate.

She was also clearly someone who was determined never to become a single-issue politician. During those early years, she spoke on an incredible range of topics during her speeches, questions and Senate committee work. She talked about the environment, Indigenous issues, telecommunications, tax reform and urban planning, amongst many other things. She had an extraordinarily broad range of interests and, clearly, a focus on the community. She was rightfully proud and excited when she was sworn in as a minister in 1983—the first woman in a federal Labor cabinet. Many of us have seen the group photos of Susan with all her male colleagues at the time. I think it absolutely a true reflection of what this place was like back in those days.

She combined her 12 years here in the role of senator for the ACT with her role as a mother. She managed to balance these two roles, as many people now do these days, without even a thought. So her trailblazing as a mother and a senator delivering on behalf of the Australian people is certainly a great accomplishment that she should always be recognised for.

As Minister for Education and Youth Affairs, she had many, many significant achievements, not the least of which was the significant increase in year 12 retention rates. She was also the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women for almost half a decade—a position proudly held today by the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister for Women, the Hon. Marise Payne, whose remarks today are being delivered by me as well.

Susan was the architect of the Sex Discrimination Act, which made sexual harassment illegal for the first time and outlawed discrimination on the basis of sex, marital status and pregnancy. Characteristically, after leaving this parliament Susan kept on looking for ways that she could make Australia a better place for everyone. She became our first-ever Age Discrimination Commissioner and also served as the Disability Discrimination Commissioner. From 2000 to 2007 she was the President of the Australian Institute of Superannuation Trustees, and she was the Chancellor of the University of New South Wales for over a decade. These roles in postpolitics life allowed Susan to follow her passion for helping people transcend limitations and overcome constraints, with a focus on all people equally.

Susan was a powerhouse, a lively and energetic part of Australia's national story and absolutely a true groundbreaker. Susan's sudden death was a shock to many. While I did not know Susan personally, I know that in the parliament the memory of Susan as a woman leader will be honoured well into the future. I know the Minister for Women would have liked to be here today to make remarks and associate herself with the condolence motion being given today, because I know that Susan played a very, very important role in Minister Payne's life, as she did for so many other women in this parliament. Without a doubt, every one of us here today is a beneficiary of the legacy that she leaves us. To her partner, her children, her friends and her close ones we offer our heartfelt condolences. To Susan: we give you our thanks.

4:11 pm

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

As Leader of The Nationals in the Senate, I rise today to acknowledge the passing of former senator and minister the Hon. Susan Ryan and associate the National Party with the comments of senators and leaders here today.

Whilst we can argue the toss on structural change or cultural change when it comes to women's changing and evolving role in society and in parliament as one of the key institutions of our liberal democracy, I think all of us in this chamber can be very proud—albeit our different approaches—of increasing women's involvement in parliamentary life and public debate and how that will actually have flow-on benefits to the broader community. But for Senator Susan Ryan to be the first meant that the burden was heavier and you needed to get it just right so that there would be successive women after you. I think it's amazing, what she was able to achieve. The slogan that I think Senator Wong mentioned, 'A woman's place is in the House and the Senate,' was a T-shirt I also was given on getting preselected, so I think that slogan resonates with a lot of us who get here.

I think being the first woman to hold a ministerial office is something to note, and also that she championed education. To that point, it is the National Party constituency that really benefited from that increase in higher education places and that increase in year 12 attainment. Previous to the Hawke government's reforms, the percentage of Australian young people that headed off to university was incredibly small and predominantly came from elite families in capital cities. So opening that up really increased the enfranchisement and inclusion of people who don't go to grammar schools, which is also a good thing—and I say that as a proud grammarian. It was a great reform.

Her lasting legacy, though, is the landmark Sex Discrimination Act and the affirmative action act. Senator Waters stood up and proudly proclaimed how many female senators the Greens have, and I know the Labor Party have some structural mechanisms to ensure that they get a certain number of female senators and House of Representatives members in this place. The National Party is proud that 80 per cent of our senators are female. We did not have structural readjustment but had a grassroots full enfranchisement of our membership voting for every single one of the strong, articulate, intelligent women our divisions have sent here. I think that speaks more broadly to what we can all do, on both sides of the chamber, to increase the diversity of our parliament. We come here with different value systems, obviously, and therefore represent the broader Australian public, but we can all do better in our own way.

When Susan Ryan came to the Senate in 1975, there were just six women senators. I think Senator Ruston made great comments about how this chamber really reflects the work of Susan Ryan and all who've come after her, on both sides of the chamber, to increase the inclusion of women. Also, being a single mum and a minister is pretty tough, and I think it is an incredible feat to be the first woman to do so before partners might have chosen to look after kids or there was even childcare available. That speaks to her strength and her determination to represent her community and her government. Sympathies to her family and friends. Vale, Susan Ryan.

4:16 pm

Photo of Zed SeseljaZed Seselja (ACT, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Finance, Charities and Electoral Matters) Share this | | Hansard source

As a senator for the ACT, I want to pay special tribute to the Hon. Susan Ryan and send condolences to her family and to her loved ones. As has been pointed out, Susan Ryan, like a few of us in this chamber, had a background in what was a precursor to the ACT Legislative Assembly, as Senator Gallagher and I did, before going on to represent the ACT in the Senate. Susan Ryan had the great honour to represent the ACT as a senator from 1975 as one of the first two senators representing the Australian Capital Territory. It's great that we can now follow in the footsteps of others.

We talk about the legacy of Susan Ryan in terms of being a trailblazer for women. We've seen that, obviously, in the ACT Legislative Assembly, which has had a number of female chief ministers from both sides of politics, with Labor's Rosemary Follett, Liberal Kate Carnell and now-Senator Katy Gallagher, and a number of women in senior positions. I make a similar point to one that was made in terms of female representation, as we celebrate the fact that females are in a majority in the Senate. In the ACT Legislative Assembly we see the same thing. We see that both the Labor Party and the Liberal Party have a majority of women as we speak, but we've gotten there using different paths. The ACT Liberals have chosen to get there not through the use of quotas, but we do believe that we have outstanding representatives one way or another. It's been a great privilege to see that evolution, and in Canberra I think we see it most particularly.

Susan Ryan had the opportunity to serve in the Hawke ministry, first as the Minister assisting the Prime Minister on the Status of Women and then as the Minister for Education and Youth Affairs. Some of her achievements in both of those portfolios have been touched on, but I think Susan Ryan was most proud of one of her achievements in education, and that was changes to the year 12 retention rate. I commend that work. She had a very distinguished career after politics, after leaving this place, when she held very important positions, a number of which have been mentioned, including positions at universities, in superannuation and as the Age Discrimination Commissioner.

Susan Ryan was a senator when I was growing up here in Canberra, along with the great Margaret Reid, former President of the Senate, so we were well represented. As a young boy growing up in the 1980s, I didn't know Susan Ryan in her role as one of the senators representing the ACT, but I did have the opportunity to meet her in her later role as Age Discrimination Commissioner. I found her to be a thoroughly decent, highly engaging, highly intelligent and very impressive human being. But I also found that, given her reputation, I was quite struck by the great humility which she displayed in the way that she dealt with those around her.

Of course, there are a couple of those great contributions that have been mentioned that are worth reiterating: the Sex Discrimination Act and making sexual harassment illegal for the first time—a great step forward—and the Affirmative Action (Equal Employment Opportunity for Women) Act. Susan Ryan once reflected that politics is like diving into the surf. She said: 'You don't linger at the edge; you jump in and fight your way through the breakers. Finally you get to the still, deep water beyond. You see if you can catch a wave and ride it to the shore. Few things in life are as exhilarating. When the wave has finished, it's not the end of the story.' I pay tribute to Susan Ryan's life and to her public legacy, and I send my condolences to her loved ones, her friends and her family. May she rest in peace.

4:20 pm

Photo of Carol BrownCarol Brown (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Infrastructure and Regional Tourism) Share this | | Hansard source

'An advocate for equality', 'feminist', 'trailblazer', 'the first'—these are all attributes mentioned in association with the late Susan Ryan AO. Former Senator Ryan was elected as the first Labor senator for the ACT in 1975. Her slogan at the time was, 'A woman's place is in the House, in the Senate and everywhere decisions are made.'

Her path to the Senate is reasonably well known. Susan trained as a teacher and worked in the profession until the birth of her first child. Along with her family, Susan moved to Canberra in 1965 and enrolled as a postgraduate at ANU. Despite living overseas and studying, she never lost her passion for education and was appointed as the national executive officer for the Australian Council of State School Organisations in 1973. Her involvement in the women's movement, particularly the formation of the Women's Electoral Lobby, convinced her that her fight for equality had to take on a more pointed political approach. So she joined the Australian Labor Party and became active on behalf of her local community. A short stint on the non-governing ACT House of Assembly preceded her election to this chamber in 1975. Some years after her time in the Senate, she said of her election:

After being elected in 1975, I joined four women who had already been in the Senate for a short period, Liberal Senators Guilfoyle and Martin, and Labor Senators Coleman and Melzer. Senator Walters from Tasmania was also elected in 1975. So there were six … Across Kings Hall in the House of Representatives there were no women … There was no woman leader or minister in any state parliament … Margaret Guilfoyle became the first, and sole, female cabinet minister in the Fraser Government.

Her election was greeted with much media interest, mainly emphasising her gender, her age, her hair colour, her marital status—she was divorced—her physical size and her motherhood. There was very little, if any, commentary on her political agenda or policy interests and experience.

Susan joined the shadow ministry not long after she joined the parliament. She was a passionate and highly articulate debater and used her time in the Senate to great effect. Her central objective of economic independence for all guided her many achievements as Labor's first female cabinet minister in the Hawke government. Susan's view was that economic independence meant the capacity to provide for your own needs and the needs of those for whom you are directly responsible.

She began her work in two key areas: tackling discrimination against women, lifting the high school retention rate and increasing funding and places at universities and TAFEs. Just as we take the increased participation and leadership of women in politics and other spheres for granted now, we also assume nearly all high school students will complete year 12. In the years leading up to Susan Ryan being sworn in as Minister for Education and Youth Affairs in 1983, the high school retention rate in my home state of Tasmania was 27 per cent. Nearly three-quarters of Tasmanian high school students in the early 1980s did not complete Year 12. Susan took a proposal to the National Economic Summit in 1983 that this appallingly low rate needed to be lifted to at least two-thirds by 1990. This was overwhelmingly achieved in most states and territories. What flowed from this was an increased demand for places in universities and TAFEs—a cause she also advanced with passion.

Of course, Susan Ryan is remembered for her pioneering sex discrimination bill and the affirmative action bill. Her work highlighting the impact of government and policy decisions on women began much earlier than that. In 1981, from opposition, Susan made a detailed analysis of the effect of the budget on women and published it. From this the Women's Budget Statement was born. The first official publication of the statement was produced by the Office of the Status of Women in 1984. Her statement announcing this was met with much derision from some of the then opposition. In fact, the first time the Liberal Party embarked on a similar process was when Dr John Hewson was Leader of the Opposition.

After she left her successful political career, Susan Ryan went on to have an equally successful role in publishing, superannuation and industry. Her great friend Wendy McCarthy says of Susan and her work: 'Every 10 years or so she would change careers, and we would all follow her and support her. You couldn't help but get caught up with her enthusiasm for reform and change, her generosity and her great sense of fun.'

In addition to her paid roles, Susan Ryan threw her enthusiasm and commitment into the Australian Republic Movement. In more recent times, Australians got to know Susan as our first Age Discrimination Commissioner. She brought all the attributes Wendy McCarthy identified and combined them with her deep knowledge and understanding of government and its processes to advocate for real change for older Australians. For a short time she was also Disability Discrimination Commissioner.

Although her role as Age Discrimination Commissioner ended in 2016, Susan's advocacy for older Australians didn't. She was a frequent panellist on television and would happily use whatever platform was offered to highlight her concerns about the treatment of older Australians. In 1990 Susan was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia.

As with any political career, hers wasn't all smooth sailing, but it was one of incredible achievement. Her friends, colleagues and many associates remember Susan as frighteningly intelligent, politically savvy, funny, optimistic and committed. Susan Ryan really was the life of the Labor Party during her time in parliament. Generations of Australians, particularly women, have and will follow where she led thanks to her commitment to equality and education reforms, and that is her legacy. From the time of her community involvement until her untimely death, Susan was a true feminist.

Some time ago, someone asked her about post-feminism. In typical Susan style she replied:

I struggle with post-modernism in architecture, literature and literary criticism and I think that post-feminism is uncalled for.

Along with all the members of the federal parliamentary Labor Party, I extend my condolences to Susan's partner, Rory, her two children and her extended family and friends. Can I also place on record my thanks to them for sharing Susan with the Labor Party, the wider Labor movement and our nation.

4:28 pm

Photo of Deborah O'NeillDeborah O'Neill (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you for the opportunity to rise today and speak on the sudden and tragic passing of former senator Susan Ryan AO, former Hawke cabinet minister—indeed, Labor's first female cabinet minister. She was a pioneer in every sense. She broke that glass ceiling in the territory, in this party and in so many areas of civic life following her retirement from politics. And she was a loving and proud mum and grandma as well. To her family I want to say I'm so sorry for your great loss and I thank you for your great generosity in sharing her with the nation, whose history she changed. I want to associate myself also with the remarks of those who've contributed to this condolence motion this afternoon, and I think Senator Wong's framing of the life of Susan Ryan as a critical driver of significant historical change is a very accurate summary of the powerful, powerful impact that Susan Ryan had on our nation.

Born in Sydney in 1942, Susan grew up in the great Labor suburb of Maroubra, achieving a BA at Sydney Teachers College before working as a school teacher, a small-business owner and a second secretary at the Australian embassy in Vienna. After moving to Canberra, she graduated with a Master of Arts degree from ANU and became a foundational member of the Belconnen branch of the ALP and the Women's Electoral Lobby—one of countless political actions she would take for the empowerment of Australian women. She was subsequently elected to the ACT House of Assembly in 1975 before becoming one of the first two senators for the ACT, elected on that much repeated mantra that has featured in the speeches this afternoon, the unabashedly feminist statement: 'A woman's place is in the House and the Senate and everywhere decisions are made.'

She made history as a 33-year-old single mother, and eight years later would change history as a pivotal member of the Hawke government. In her role as a cabinet minister she was able to make the changes for women that were so desperately needed at that time. When Hawke was elected in 1983 she was made Minister for Education and Youth Affairs and the first ever minister for the status of women. She wasted no time, and soon set about tearing down the barriers that Australian women had faced for generations. Her landmark work was, of course, the Sex Discrimination Act 1984, which sought to eliminate so far as is possible discrimination against persons on the grounds of sex, marital status and pregnancy or potential pregnancy in the areas of work; accommodation; education; the provision of goods, facilities and services; the disposal of land; the activities of clubs; and the administration of Commonwealth laws and programs. This wide-ranging act ensured that the rights of women were protected by legislation. It was a giant step forward for women all across the country. This act, along with the Affirmative Action (Equal Employment Opportunity for Women) Act, embodied the greatest beliefs of the Labor movement, that through fair and equitable employment in a fair and equitable society humanity can flourish and people can build a life worth living.

Her tenure as education minister was no less successful, with Paul Keating remarking that her great achievement was to lift year 10 retention rates in schools, which was an abysmal three in 10 when she took office in 1983, to end at nine in 10 in 1996. This included the doubling of the number of female graduates from high school. This surely helped pave the way for the economic successes that flowed in the decades after the Hawke and Keating era as a whole generation of young Australian women transitioned through that schooling into the jobs of the future. Even after she left parliament she continued to break ground, as others have said, serving as the first Age Discrimination Commissioner, as Disability Discrimination Commissioner and as President of the Australian Institute of Superannuation Trustees, while continuing to campaign for an Australian republic and an Australian bill of rights.

Her life was also marked with a long affiliation with her Irish heritage. Like myself, she was an Australian of Irish flavour, Catholic and Labor. She remarked that her lifelong desire for social justice was kindled due to the strong values based teaching she received at a Brigidine school in Sydney. The Brigidines are a teaching order of nuns founded in Ireland in the 19th century who contributed significantly to Catholic education in Australia. Several decades later Susan was awarded the lifetime achievement of the Brigid Award by the Irish Labor friendship women's group in 2016—indeed, she was the inaugural awardee of that award named after St Brigid, whose values and philosophy inspired the Brigidine nuns who taught Susan. Her love of the Irish people was profound. I'm advised my good friend Dermot Ryan, who I know is a good friend also of Senator Tony Sheldon, is preparing an obituary for The Irish Times. Susan's family tree connects her back to County Wexford. This is an important thing for Irish people: it's not enough just to be from Ireland; you have to be from a particular county.

Even in later life, Susan joined the annual Irish Winter School in Sydney to learn the Irish language—in order, she said, to be able to fit in when she visited the country. She championed the project to erect a monument in Sydney to the Irish Great Famine, which commemorated the thousands of Irish women who escaped the famine by emigrating to Australia, and she spoke at the fifth annual commemoration ceremony in 2004. Susan was also a member and a speaker at the Aisling Society, an Irish-Australian cultural group. She was a frequent supporter and patron of O'Punsky's Theatre Company in Sydney, and in 2019 she was named one of the top 100 Irish Australians of all time by the Irish Echoup there with Paul Keating, Ben Chifley and John Curtin.

It's not surprising that the last conversation I had with Susan Ryan, earlier this year, was at an Irish event around St Patrick's Day. It was to mark the 20th year of the presence of the Irish consulate in Sydney and was convened by the Consul General there, Owen Feeney. It was to celebrate 20 historical Australian-Irish figures. As she always did, Susan took the time to talk to everyone in the room. She took me aside and, as she had done on many occasions, encouraged me, supported me and understood me as only a woman in the great Labor Party can.

Susan's legacy will be felt by generations of Australians to come, and her example will shine to all Australian women. Her work will live on as the best example of Australians' belief in a fair go for all, no matter the circumstances of your birth. She was a credit to this chamber, to the great Australian Labor Party and to the nation. I echo the words of the Brigidine Sisters, who gave their thanks across the Brigidine international network last week for Susan's rich life and for her public service to Australia. I, like them, offer my sincere sympathy to her family and friends. Vale Susan Ryan: you are already missed.

4:36 pm

Photo of Louise PrattLouise Pratt (WA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Manufacturing) Share this | | Hansard source

Today I rise, along with many others, to make some personal remarks and to pay tribute to the wonderful Susan Ryan. The strength of her legacy is immeasurable and it is indelible in my own life as I reflect on being a young woman completing her high school education in the 1980s, with that lift in retention rates across the country for girls—and, indeed, young working-class men—in particular. Along with that came a much greater diversity of subjects which we could study and a greatly improved quality of education that indeed has had a long-term legacy. My mother had great respect for Susan Ryan. My mother, Sandra, was also an early member of the Women's Electoral Lobby. As a woman, she struggled with being unable to get a home loan in her own name and being paid less than men, at a lower hourly rate within the same profession.

For me as a woman in the Labor Party—as someone who joined in the early 1990s, at the end of Susan's parliamentary career—she was indeed an inspiration for me to join the great Australian Labor Party. But my own knowledge of Susan comes through my work in this place, in particular from her work at the Australian Human Rights Commission as the Age Discrimination Commissioner. Her enormous capacity to understand intersecting human rights debates has been of great benefit to the nation right from her participation in these debates in the 1960s and 1970s through to her work as Age Discrimination Commissioner.

She made some remarks while she was the Age Discrimination Commissioner at an event called the Australian Homosexual Histories Conference back in 2014. She said there, in good humour:

I am in some senses an unlikely candidate as an advocate for homosexual law reform. As a young heterosexual woman coming of age in post war Australia, educated in a strict and conservative catholic environment, I really didn't know much about homosexuality until well into adulthood. In fact we were not taught much about sexuality in general (our own or anyone else's). In this sense I was very much the product of my generation.

She went on to talk about how she became involved in debates in gay law reform here in the ACT in very early votes in the 1970s to decriminalise homosexuality—and, indeed, also in abortion law reform debates here. So she was active not just in sex discrimination but in disability discrimination and in sexuality and gender identity discrimination throughout her career.

As the Age Discrimination Commissioner, she was at the Human Rights Commission at a very important point in time for the LGBTI community, when this parliament, under the Labor government, considered the reforms to the Sex Discrimination Act, to amend the Sex Discrimination Act so that it not only covered sex discrimination but covered sexuality, gender identity and intersex discrimination. I'm very grateful that Susan was the Age Discrimination Commissioner at the time because she was really able to help see the enabling of the exemptions to the Sex Discrimination Act being lifted out of aged care so that you can no longer discriminate against someone because of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status in aged-care services and facilities here in Australia. This is a principle that needs to extend across all Commonwealth and community services so that there aren't exemptions to any primary service that should be someone's right to access.

I am profoundly grateful for the inspiration of Susan Ryan's life. As I have listened to people today talk about her colour and vibrancy as a person, I'm also reminded how deep she had to dig to continue that work. It's great inspiration to me in a tough week and on a tough day in politics in this chamber to know that you can really see what a difference one person can make to our national fabric.

4:42 pm

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I will be brief, because people have said so many wonderful things about Susan Ryan. I'd, firstly, like to offer my condolences to Susan's family, friends and colleagues.

I'll be so bold as to say that every woman in Australia has benefited from the work that Susan Ryan did. I think there are a number of young women today that still don't really get or believe that some women were forced to resign when they got married and that some women had to get their sons to go guarantor for loans. Nowadays younger women appreciate that strides have been made, but they don't get that people like Susan put so much effort into achieving those changes.

I wanted to go to some of the work I did with Susan Ryan when she was the Age Discrimination Commissioner. I believe that she carried on the excellent work that she did in this place and in many other places as the Age Discrimination Commissioner. She was the inaugural commissioner, and she really got how older people were—and still are—being discriminated against in many areas, including in aged care. I was part of that discussion, having been the aged-care spokesperson on those issues and having worked with some very close friends in Western Australia on that particular issue as well. So I'd like to particularly comment on that, but also on employment in general. This is why the work that Susan was doing is so important right now—the discrimination that is still going on for older workers and particularly for older women workers. They are the fastest-growing cohort of those who are unemployed. They are ageing into poverty as older women not being able to find work on very low income support payments. They are ageing into poverty as they wait to be able to move onto the aged pension, using up all their savings. It's absolutely imperative that these issues are dealt with, and Susan knew that. She was working on that. She held forums, and I attended some of those, on how to work with business and with employers to ensure that older workers are taken on. She was always raising those issues about older women.

Then, as has also been pointed out, she became the Disability Discrimination Commissioner. Again, I had a related portfolio at the time. Susan took the same gusto to disability discrimination issues as well. Not only did we have a number of discussions—and Susan was very active throughout the country—but I asked her questions across the estimates table when she was commissioner. She was always very glad to talk about the issues across the estimates table.

Susan Ryan made an enormous contribution to this country—particularly to the women of this country. She'll be remembered for all the work that she did. There are some things from your childhood and your young adulthood that you take with you your whole life, and throughout my life I have taken with me the work that she did. It was an honour to be able, just to a small degree, to work with her on these really important issues. Vale Susan Ryan; you won't be forgotten.

4:47 pm

Photo of Anne UrquhartAnne Urquhart (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

All of us women of the Senate stand here on the shoulders of a magnificent woman, Susan Maree Ryan. When she was elected to one of the two newly created ACT Senate seats in 1975, as everyone in this place has said, she campaigned on the slogan, 'A woman's place is in the Senate.' And it is. In fact, the only Labor senators from Tasmania are women. We're all women. How very pleased she must have been when the Senate finally achieved gender equality a little over a year ago. How much we owe her.

Many adjectives have been used to describe Susan, whose Senate career from 1975 to 1986 was only part of a long and multifaceted working life dedicated to equality and human rights. She's been described as a luminary, a fierce champion, a trailblazer, a feminist hero and a Labor giant. She was all these things and more, and she will be remembered as a fierce champion for women's rights and other discriminated Australians after her sudden death just 11 days ago.

Those before me have outlined her groundbreaking positions and work as a minister in the Hawke government, so I won't go over that. Labor leader Anthony Albanese said that she changed Australia for the better, and I do agree with that. This is something that we must all aspire to. In her lifetime, she saw and influenced incredible changes. We must not forget a world where women were pilloried for seeking elected office, where women could be sacked simply for falling pregnant, where equal pay was a faraway dream, where the idea of a woman taking up a blue-collar trade or becoming a CEO was unheard of, and, in fact, shunned. Rights for older Australians and those living with disability were barely imaginable. Many of these things that we today take for granted were issues which were championed by Susan, and she stood up to years of vilification because of this work. Paul Keating said her great achievement was to set in motion the lifting of year 12 retention rates from three in 10 in 1983 to nine in 10 by 1996. This revolutionised education in Australia most particularly for girls, he said—and he was correct.

The best thing all 39 of us, all today's women senators, can do is to pledge that we will pursue her legacy. We will confront the obstacles and rise above them. We owe Susan Ryan a debt that is best paid by redoubling our commitment to equality for all Australians—a commitment to not seeing older workers thrown on the trash heap because of a recession, to not seeing Australians with disability ignored and denied opportunities and resources, to ensure that discrimination does not hobble the lives of Australian women and to ensure that, regardless of your sexual orientation, gender, cultural background, ethnicity, age and ability, you get a fair go in this country we love.

I want to personally thank Susan Ryan not because I knew her well but because without her example—her voice, her steady hand and her carefully considered and articulate arguments—I simply might not be here and my daughter and hundreds of thousands of Tasmanian women, older Tasmanians and Tasmanians living with disability might not have the education and opportunities they have today. In saying that I note that the job is not done. With recession upon us and so many young Australians wondering where they will find a place in life, with so many older Australians worried about being left out of the workforce and others frightened that their retirement and old age may not be one where they will have the resources to allow them to live with dignity and receive the care they need, with so many Australians living with disability still denied the opportunity to fully participate in society, with Indigenous Australians still denied the voice and opportunity that is rightfully theirs, and with the cost of obtaining an education moving out of reach for many and the cost of child care leaving many women unable to carve out a career of their dreams, there is still so much more to struggle for and to win. We will do that with our path illuminated by the bright light held in Susan Ryan's steady, intelligent and guiding hands. My sincere condolences to her partner, Rory Sutton, her children and all who loved her.

4:52 pm

Photo of Tony SheldonTony Sheldon (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise today to honour the life of Susan Ryan, architect of the world-leading Sex Discrimination Act, first female Labor cabinet minister and icon for social justice in Australia. She was the woman who, as education minister, more than doubled the high school retention rate, including for girls. She was one of our best fighters. It says volumes about her values and capacity when you look at the fact she worked so hard for the rights of humanity—women and men, able and disabled, and most recently older Australians and Australians living with disability—as Age Discrimination Commissioner and Disability Discrimination Commissioner, and was a major ally to increasing the voice of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and young people. How sorry we are that we don't get to hear her views this week on the coalition's federal budget—the two biggest failings of which are the ignoring of the impact of this recession on women and on older workers.

Susan Ryan died suddenly last week. We should never forget what she has done for all Australians by making our society fairer, more inclusive and more willing to back in the aspirations of all women and men, and their families. She lived a life of firsts. Her Irish working-class parents, Florence and Arthur, worked as a sales assistant and as a public servant respectively. She was the first in her family to go to university. She was the first in her school to win a scholarship to university. It is a stark reminder to all of us of how unequal our society was at the time that she was forced to pay back that scholarship because she got married. We should all remember that it was not long ago that all women had to resign from the Public Service when they got married and could be fired from any job when they became pregnant. She was also, of course, the first female member of a Labor cabinet when she joined the Hawke cabinet in 1983 as education and youth affairs minister.

Even when she left the parliament, she kept fighting for the rights and power of working people. She was Deputy Chair of the Australian Republican Movement from 2000 to 2003, and of course there was her important work on strengthening superannuation. In her seven years as the President of the Australian Institute of Superannuation Trustees until 2007, she fought for the right of all Australians to have access to a dignified retirement and for super funds to continue to play a role in democratising financial systems in Australia.

We have come a long way since the 1950s and 1960s, when Susan Ryan was educated in the Brigidine Catholic college in Sydney's eastern suburbs, where her passion for social justice was encouraged and where she was a brilliant debater and a fearless advocate for her schoolmates. We must never forget how hard it was to get even basic employment protections for women and how stubborn inequalities persist in Australia still, like the gender pay gap and the harassment and discrimination experienced by women every day in our workplaces and institutions.

I want to say something about the dogged activism of Susan Ryan as well. She was a respected legislator and a pragmatic political operator, but her pragmatism and her wily role in cabinet were first and foremost in the service of her ideals. She did not court power for its own sake. She focused on outcomes, and she often clashed with her cabinet colleagues on points of principle. She worked hard across the factions and across the aisle to give all working people real power to shape their own destinies. She was also loved for her sense of humour. In Susan's memoirs, Catching the Waves: Life In and Out of Politics, she said:

I am by temperament quite gregarious, but the combination of my gender and my politics meant that the position I occupied most often was that of a shag on a rock.

However, now, due to her determination and drive, she is no longer isolated, and there are many people who adored her, share her views and are determined to continue her accomplishments.

I want to share an anecdote from a good friend of mine whom Susan was also a good mate of, Dermot Ryan; my colleague mentioned Dermot before. He is a very active person in the Irish Labor groups within Australia and has just recently written a tribute to Susan in which he said:

But what really stood out was our shared memories of her warmth and her sense of fun and mischief. At social events, she moved seamlessly from singing a hymn to singing The Internationale. She was a committed Australian republican and was also an Irish republican. Whenever we met, she would cheekily address me as "Comrade Ryan, my favourite Irish Unionist", (her knowing full well that 'Unionist' has a very different meaning in Australia to Ireland). My own late Mother having shared her name, I would retort "Hello there—my 2nd favourite Susan Ryan".

A fighter for a just society for women and men, Susan Ryan has earnt a place in the hearts of the Labor movement and all Australians. I offer my condolences and solidarity to her family and friends. Vale, Susan Ryan.

4:58 pm

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

I too rise to associate my comments in relation to the passing of Susan Ryan with all senators in here, although I have to say that, unlike Senators Sheldon and O'Neill, I'm neither Catholic nor Irish. But nevertheless I have a place in the Labor Party.

Susan Ryan was first and foremost a feminist. She was a trailblazer, an activist and a republican. She was the first in so many fields but none, in my view, as important as being elected as the first female senator for the ACT and going on to be the first woman in the Hawke cabinet. Indeed, when I joined the party in the early eighties, Susan Ryan was there, and she was someone that I looked up to in this place all the way from Western Australia. I looked at her in awe. But nevertheless she showed us, as women in the Labor Party, that there was a place for us, because we could see what we could be.

She was truly amazing. The bills that she introduced—the Sex Discrimination Bill, in particular—have stood women in good stead and have enabled women to really advance in our society. But it is sad, as a number of people have reflected, that we've still got a long way to go. As a feminist in the Labor Party, Susan certainly made pathways for the rest of us. She would have applauded the fights that we had to get our affirmative action policies in place, and today she would have been honoured when our leader, Mr Albanese, dedicated Labor's budget statement to Susan Ryan. She was the first to have a particular budget statement for women and today, when we launched our statement, it was in honour of Susan Ryan.

I met Susan in her role as the Age Discrimination Commissioner when I was the National Assistant Secretary of United Workers Union and had responsibility for aged care. She was just as strident there as she was as a member of the Hawke cabinet. Yes, she was warm, and that certainly came across, but she was fierce in her advocacy. I would like to end my contribution by paying my most sincere condolences to Rory, her partner, and to her children Justine and Ben. Most of all, I say thank you to Susan Ryan for being that feminist, for paving the way for other Labor women.

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.

5:09 pm

Photo of Sarah HendersonSarah Henderson (Victoria, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I would like to rise and add my voice to this condolence motion for the Hon. Susan Ryan AO, and I'd like to associate myself with the many wonderful remarks in this condolence motion. As a senator, as the first woman to hold a cabinet role in a federal Labor government, as Minister for Education and Youth Affairs and as Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women in the Hawke government and, later, as Special Minister of State, Susan Ryan was indeed a trailblazer. I remember the mark that she made when I was a young girl and a young journalist during the time she successfully steered through the passage of the Sex Discrimination Act.

Of course, much has changed in the Australian Senate since Susan Ryan was elected in 1975. My swearing-in as a senator in October last year marked the first time that the number of female senators reached 50 per cent. When Susan Ryan was elected, there were only a handful of women senators. In the wake of the tumultuous dismissal of the Whitlam government, she was elected as one of the ACT's two senators. Observing her from afar, as I did, I always got the impression that she was much more of a warrior for women and education than for party politics. I think this was to her great credit and also, of course, very much to her legacy. Her election pitch, as we've heard so often in this debate, was, 'A woman's place is in the House and the Senate and everywhere that decisions are made.'

I want to particularly acknowledge Susan Ryan's work in the area of sex discrimination. In November 1981, Susan introduced a private senator's bill to outlaw sexual discrimination. The bill did not pass, but it did pave the way for the Sex Discrimination Bill, which was passed eventually in 1983. The Sex Discrimination Bill embodied half of Susan Ryan's 1981 private bill, seeking to prevent discrimination on the basis of sex, marital status or pregnancy. It also contained provisions outlawing sexual harassment in the workplace and in educational institutions and provided for redress against individual acts of discrimination. It is, of course, quite difficult to imagine an era where sex discrimination was not actively prohibited. It was a time, of course, when there was very substantial systemic discrimination levied against women in all sectors of Australian society, whether it be a situation where women were refused a bank loan because they were women, or whether they lost a job because they became pregnant, or whether they were refused entry to or service in a hotel. Even joining the Nippers movement as a young surf lifesaver was not an option for girls. Surf lifesaving clubs did not even allow women to join as members until 1980, which is now something that young girls and women could not possibly comprehend.

Susan Ryan was a successful champion of causes, and her achievements were very considerable. Apart from combating sex discrimination, she oversaw increased funding for women's refuges and for child care, as well as an increase in the retention rate of year 12 from 35 per cent to 53 per cent during the first four years of the Hawke government.

After leaving parliament, Susan Ryan took on a number of private sector roles before she served as pro-chancellor for the University of New South Wales. She went on to be deputy chair of the Australian Republic Movement. In July 2011 she was appointed Australia's first Age Discrimination Commissioner, and in 2014 she was appointed Disability Discrimination Commissioner.

I wish to convey my sincere condolences to her family and friends. I wish to acknowledge the wonderful contribution that Susan Ryan made to this place and to the betterment of our country, particularly for Australian women. Vale Susan Ryan.

Question agreed to, honourable senators standing in their places.