Parliament – Susan Ryan Condolence

Thursday, 08 October 2020

Ms RISHWORTH (Kingston) (17:18): My first memory of Susan Ryan is of when I was invited to a Young Labor function when I was about 19 years of age. It was hosted by John Dawkins, who had been a colleague of Susan Ryan. A number of us Young Labor people got together and got to know Susan Ryan. I have to say, there’s a rumour that young people can party harder than older people. That certainly wasn’t the case that night! We were very much left behind. It was a wonderful night, but certainly what first struck me about Susan Ryan was her vitality, her passion, her commitment to the Labor cause and her enjoyment of a good time. But I don’t think I understood the impact that she had had that night, really. I was pretty young, and the history of the Labor movement was not something I was studying at university.

For my 21st birthday I got her autobiography as a gift. I read that autobiography, and it was only then that I appreciated the enormous contribution that Susan Ryan had made while in parliament as a Labor minister and as a senator for the ACT. As a 21-year-old, it did strike me as quite strange that someone who was at university, who had their whole life ahead of them—something my parents never, ever spoke to me about was getting married or finding a partner. All they wanted me to do was to get a good education and get a good job. For me, it never struck me that, if I was to get married or if I was to have a child, that my path would somehow be changed. That had never crossed my mind until I read that book and realised that there were generations of women that had had those barriers put in front of them, and it was people like Senator Susan Ryan leading the charge to take those barriers away. It was a seminal book for me, paired it with the wonderful, vital woman that I’d met at that party.

In looking at that legacy, it is a huge legacy. ‘A woman’s place is in the Senate’ in 1975—winning in that election. It would have been a very difficult time to have won and made that momentous individual achievement but, at the same time, lose a Labor government. It needs to be recognised that, during that time, despite losing a Labor government, she was only one of the two first senators to represent the ACT, and the first woman and the first Labor representative for the ACT in the Senate. She was the 11th woman to be elected to the Senate. Prior to her election to the Senate, she served in the non-governing ACT Advisory Council, briefly representing the ACT seat of Fraser. She had a significant career, spanning 12 years, and, following her election in our country’s 28th election, she was re-elected to the Senate a further five times. This was a significant milestone. But not only was it her length in the Senate that is so important; it’s the contribution she made here—and her contribution was significant. Whether it came to youth representation, or whether it came to education, she made incredibly important achievements in these portfolios, including the increased retention of year 12s. But she also, of course, as many speakers have said before, introduced the private member’s motion in 1981 that was the foundation for the Sex Discrimination Act in 1984. So, even within, she was advocating. She was pushing the boundaries and trying to get change.

In 2003, Susan Ryan addressed the Australian Women Speak conference in Canberra. She said: ‘We can celebrate progress, sometimes glacially slow, sometimes faltering, towards the implied if not said objective of those that framed the Australian Constitution. This objective, as I infer it, is the participation by women fully, on an equal basis with men, in our political institutions.’ She proved to me, as well as to many others, that this could happen. She often said that what spurred her on to effect the change of the Sex Discrimination Act was when she experienced herself her prospects as an educator ripped away following her decision to marry. From that, she then continued to advocate for change. I think that change has certainly led the way for people like myself to be in parliament. But also, when I was at uni, all those many, many years ago, it never crossed my mind that my decision to get married, or who my father was or who my husband was, would have any implications for my prospects. It never crossed my mind that that would be the case. Only a few decades ago, it had been, and Susan Ryan changed that—and I am absolutely forever grateful.

After that infamous Young Labor gathering, I didn’t see Susan for many years. Upon being elected to this place, I did have the absolute honour of talking to her about age discrimination, particularly older workers, who she was very passionate about changing the prospects for—older women and men that found themselves unable to get into the workplace. Her passion just continued to be there for those older workers, particularly older women, who she saw as incredibly vulnerable as time went on, especially where they may have been in a partnership and may have been making sacrifices, not working as much, certainly not accumulating superannuation, certainly not in a higher-paying job, and then, if divorce was to happen, being left out on their own and having no real ability to regain those losses. She was incredibly passionate about that. She worked against disability discrimination as well and did an amazing job in that role as well.

So her contribution to public service, both within government and within the discrimination commission structure and in her general private advocacy, is much to be admired. Many of us can only hope that we have as much of a life and make as much of a contribution as Susan Ryan did. I think we all hope and aspire—I certainly do—to be able to leave a mark by making things better for those that come after us. So I would like to thank her for that and recognise the huge amount of amazing contributions she made.

As an aside, I might say that, in an interview, she did mention that the reintroduction of higher education fees was something that made her leave politics. As I said at the beginning, the gathering was hosted by the person that came after her in education, the Hon. John Dawkins, so they had clearly made up, because they did enjoy that night together and they seemed to be very good friends. Despite her anger at that, I saw no animosity that night, and they had clearly made up. Vale, Susan Ryan. We all hope that we can achieve as much as she did to pave the way for others, to eliminate discrimination and to allow those that are most vulnerable to reach their opportunity. Vale, Susan Ryan.

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