ANTHONY ALBANESE – OPINION PIECE – SUSAN RYAN OPENED DOORS THAT WILL NEVER CLOSE – FRIDAY, 23 OCTOBER 2020
ANTHONY ALBANESE MP
LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY
MEMBER FOR GRAYNDLER
SUSAN RYAN OPENED DOORS THAT WILL NEVER CLOSE
My last conversation with Susan Ryan was on September 4. It began with the usual pleasantries but typically, she didn’t want to talk about herself. She wanted to talk about others. Susan was concerned about the crisis in aged care that has already led to more than 680 deaths. She pressed the immediate need to increase staff in aged care homes, improve transparency and accountability, and implement long-term reform.
Susan knew a thing or two about long-lasting reform. As the first woman to sit in a federal Labor cabinet, in the Hawke government of 1983, she effected change that still resonates today. It’s not just because of what she did that we honour her with a state funeral in Sydney today, even though she did so much. It’s because what she did lasted; the doors that she opened will never be closed again. What she fought against looks to younger generations like the stuff of dystopian fiction – but it was real and Susan toppled it.
She was a Labor giant, feminist hero and great Australian. Someone who, at the time, had a novel idea – that gender-based discrimination shouldn’t be allowed in our workplaces – and fought with a balanced combination of hunger and good grace to make it happen. It’s an idea that is uncontroversial now but it was remarkable, even revolutionary, at the time. And it was an idea that demanded the full force of Susan’s courage and persistence. Her triumph is that her reforms have become part of who we are as a nation.
Susan was strong and decisive in her advocacy. Her passion shone through. And she made sure her passion had purpose. It certainly did when she was appointed minister for education and youth affairs in 1983.
When Labor was elected that year, just three out of 10 Australians finished high school. When the Hawke-Keating government came to an end 13 years later, that figure was eight out of 10. Crucially, Susan doubled the number of girls who finished high school. She understood keenly that education is the greatest source of the opportunity that makes equality possible.
But the towering pinnacle of her achievement was the Sex Discrimination Act of 1984. Before then, it had been perfectly legal to discriminate on the basis of sex, marital status or pregnancy. Women were locked out of education, jobs and opportunity. They were refused access to home finance. They faced the sack for being pregnant.
It was an immense wrong, but Susan set about righting it in the face of much opposition. While it is sobering to recall that no fewer than 26 MPs voted against it, they were no match for her. She was also instrumental in the Affirmative Action (Equal Opportunities in Employment) Act.
She kept her faith in democratic politics. She kept her faith in the power of government to change people’s lives for the better. And she wasted no time in doing that when she was made cabinet minister – no dithering, no announcements, just action. She laid the groundwork for historic legislation – and an historic movement – that would put Australian women on a path towards the equality they deserve.
Susan would later reflect on the Sex Discrimination Act as “probably the most useful thing I’ve done in my life”. Only Susan could have inserted the word “probably” into that sentence, about such a profound change in the way that our society operates.
After politics, Susan’s driving energies didn’t change. As well as a stint as age discrimination commissioner, she was also disability discrimination commissioner. And she was a champion of superannuation, as well as the republic. But her light shone with a special brightness for young women, staying true to her first election slogan when she reminded them that a woman’s place was in the Senate, as well as in the House of Representatives – in the places where decisions are made. In her 1999 memoir Catching the Waves, she wrote: “Women and men should be judged on their merits, not on how far they reinforce some socially useful or commercially contrived norm.”
As part of a great Labor government, Susan was pivotal in bringing our nation closer to that reality. Australia is a better country because of her. Susan Ryan achieved so many historic firsts. But in a life dedicated to women’s rights and equality, she achieved something even bigger – that while she was the first, she would never be the last.
Anthony Albanese is the leader of the Australian Labor Party.
This opinion piece was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald on Friday, 23 October 2020.