Susan Ryan AO - Address to the Federation Chamber

By David Smith MP

07 October 2020

Mr DAVID SMITH (Bean) (17:41):

Susan Ryan was a giant of the ACT Labor movement as one of the founders of the Women's Electoral Lobby, a member of the original ACT Legislative Assembly and one of the first senators for the Australian Capital Territory. She served as a senior minister in Bob Hawke's Labor government, holding titles including Special Minister of State, Minister for Education and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on the Status of Women. She was the first Labor woman to be appointed to a frontbench position, the first Labor woman appointed to a ministry and the first Labor woman to enter a cabinet. Many have recounted her pioneering political career and her era-defining contributions to the rights of women and the aged.

As a kid growing up in Canberra like me, if you had any interest in politics at all at that time, you knew of Susan Ryan, of her extraordinary drive to make a difference to our community and for equality of opportunity across Australia. Until 1983, it had been legal to discriminate on the basis of gender, marital status or pregnancy. Women were locked out of education, jobs and opportunity. My mother had to resign from the public service on the date of her marriage. Women were refused access to home finance and faced the sack for being pregnant. Because of Susan Ryan, my daughter will rightly have access to opportunities that were denied to my mother.

The first Labor fundraiser I went to featured Susan as a guest speaker at the old Peking Restaurant in Philip. For any Canberrans in the room, that probably carbon dates me! But it was one of many to come and one of many to feature Susan Ryan as the guest speaker. She gave her time generously to support those who had followed in her footsteps. Although I was only very briefly a senator for the ACT, it was an immense privilege to know that I was following on that path—that I was following in the footsteps of the great first Labor senator for the ACT.

As a Labor senator from an Irish Catholic background, it was also an immense privilege to follow in Susan Ryan's footsteps to speak at the annual St Patrick's Day ecumenical service at the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture couple of years ago. As Jeff Kildea from the Aisling Society mentioned only a few days ago:

Susan represented the traditional trifecta of Irish, Catholic and Labor that figured prominently in the progressive side of Australian politics for much of the twentieth century. Growing up in the beachside suburb of Maroubra, she was educated at the local Brigidine convent school. According to a special edition of the Irish Echo of July 2019 celebrating 'The Top 100 Irish Australians', it was there that Susan was allowed to 'reconnect with her heritage that had been diluted since her great-grandparents emigrated to Australia'.

Susan often spoke of the influence on her of the Brigidines, a teaching order of sisters founded in Ireland in 1807 and named for St Brigid, one of Ireland's patron saints. St Brigid was celebrated for her generosity to the poor and particularly poor women. With the abolition in 1880 of state aid for denominational education, Catholic bishops in New South Wales relied heavily on the Irish teaching orders to staff their schools.

Well into the twentieth century these orders continued to instill in their students a sense of their Irishness. But that was not all they taught.

As Susan Ryan has explained often:

'Students in these schools were exposed to the principles and practice of social justice, typically through an Irish lens… Social justice values were a dominant element.'

Susan Ryan casts an enormous shadow, with her amazing, ground-breaking achievements in terms of equality for women across workplaces, across the whole of the Australian community, and across so many other areas of endeavour. One of her main achievements, which often goes under-reported, is that she was responsible as Minister for Education for getting year 12 completion rates up. In 1983, not so long ago, it used to be three in 10. By the end of the Hawke-Keating government, in 1996, we'd gotten up to nine in 10.

In later life Susan Ryan was still generous with her time. She fought for a better Public Service and better superannuation and against age discrimination. I can remember having a number of conversations with Susan in a different role, where she fought those issues around age discrimination.

Only two years ago, at the last national Labor conference, at what I think was the better part of the conference, the fringe conference, I had a long conversation with Susan about discrimination in work for aged Australians. It was something that I'd come across as a union official: how many people in their late 40s, 50s, 60s and beyond still had so much to offer and yet were actively discriminated against.

This is still an area where we need champions today, and I know that Senator Susan Ryan would be proud that today's Labor Party is still taking up these fights.

The Australian Labor movement has lost a great person. I join all my Labor colleagues in wishing her family the best and offering our collective condolences and our wishes that we can do our best to follow in Susan Ryan's footsteps.