Oct 6, 2020

CONDOLENCES – Ryan, Hon. Susan Maree, AO – Tuesday, 6 October 2020

Mr ALBANESE (GrayndlerLeader of the Opposition) (14:23): I thank the Prime Minister for his generous words and for agreeing as well to a state funeral for Susan Ryan. Susan Ryan may have left us, but she does not leave a void. Thanks to the power and the sheer scale of her legacy, her presence is all around us. As the first female minister for the status of women, she became a feminist hero. Of course, when she ran for the Senate, she did indeed run under ‘a woman’s place is in the Senate’. And there’s something appropriate about the condolence motion today being moved on the very day on which, for the first time, a majority of the Senate is female—a history that she was one of the champions of.


She lives in our hearts as a Labor giant and, even more than that, as a great Australian who had respect across the board. It’s not just because of what she did, even though she did so much; it’s because what she did lasted. The towering pinnacle of her achievement was the Sex Discrimination Act 1984, which Susan would later reflect on 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. Until that act, it was legal—entirely, 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 the task of righting it. It is sobering to remember that she was up against considerable opposition. No fewer than 26 members of this chamber voted against that legislation, but they were no match for her.


Susan triumphed. Her reforms have become part of who we are as a nation, and what she fought against looks to younger generations like the stuff of dystopian fiction. But it was real, and Susan toppled it. That’s because she was driven and she arrived in the job prepared and ready to go. It didn’t matter what she was up against. If things were hard, she just kept going. Even in opposition, that hard stretch of opposition in the wake of the dismissal, she got on with it. She used that time to develop her policy agenda. She kept her faith in democratic politics. She kept her faith in the power of government to change people’s lives for the better. She laid the groundwork for legislation that would deliver the fatal blow to that farcical, antiquated system. As one of the founders of the Women’s Electoral Lobby—not for her sitting outside, complaining after decisions were made—she was absolutely determined to be part of a party of government that actually made the decision.


She of course became part of the extraordinary first Hawke ministry. She hit the ground running as Labor’s first ever female cabinet minister—no dithering, no empty announcements, just action. As well as the Sex Discrimination Act, she was instrumental in the Affirmative Action (Equal Employment Opportunity for Women) Act. She understood keenly the most fundamental truth: that education is the greatest source of the opportunity that makes equality possible, the equality we see as the core of who we are as a nation. As education minister, Susan was responsible for increasing participation in tertiary education and for the explosion in the numbers of Australian children completing school. She was very proud of the fact that she presided over a doubling of the number of girls who finished high school, but she began a process. When the Hawke government was elected, three out of 10 Australians finished high school; in 1996, that figure was eight out of 10. That is an absolute revolution, which she began and deserves credit for.


After politics, Susan’s striving energies didn’t change. Along the way, she was Age Discrimination Commissioner and Disability Discrimination Commissioner. She was a champion of superannuation and the republic. Throughout it all, she mentored young people in our movement, including me, the member for Sydney and many others. But her light shone with a special brightness for young women, staying true to her first election slogan as she reminded them that a women’s place was not just in the Senate but in the House of Representatives, in the places where decisions are made.


I spoke to Susan in the car on the way back from Canberra, just a short time ago it seems. She didn’t tell me that she was ill. She had got into contact with me because she wanted to talk about the aged-care crisis and superannuation—two of her great passions in life. We had a great discussion, as we always did. She was positive, as she always was. She knew how to enjoy life. She was certainly fun to be around. She wanted to improve the lives of her fellow Australians and, guided by fundamental truths, she did. 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 Ryan was pivotal in bringing our nation closer to that reality. Australia is a better country because of her. Susan Ryan achieved historic firsts: the first female senator for the ACT, the first female Labor cabinet minister and the first female minister for women. But in a life dedicated to women’s rights and equality Susan achieved something bigger: while she was the first, she would never be the last.


To her partner, Rory, and her children, Justine and Benedict, we offer our heartfelt condolences. To Susan, we give you our thanks.



The SPEAKER: As a mark of respect to the memory of the Hon. Susan Maree Ryan, I ask all present to rise in their places.

Honourable members having stood in their places—

The SPEAKER: I thank the House. The debate is adjourned and the resumption of the debate will be made an order of the day for the next sitting.