Condolences: Susan Ryan

October 07, 2020

Susan Ryan and I left Parliament House—the Old Parliament House—and politics within days of each other in January 1988. I left for New York. She left for the world of publishing. I'd had the good fortune to watch her closely over her previous three years of being a minister, when I was a young journalist in the press gallery. I arrived at the start of 1985, and as a junior reporter in the 2UE network's bureau, I was tasked with covering the Senate! That meant, every question time, I was sitting above the Senate in the old parliament—which felt a lot closer than the distance we feel now between us and the press gallery—and I watched the second Hawke ministry in action. On the other side was Senator Fred Chaney leading the opposition team. On the government side was Senator John Button. And Susan Ryan very clearly held her own amongst that team, including Gareth Evans—and I should be able to rattle off a whole lot of names in the Senate at that time. They were an amazing mob to watch. But, of course, Susan Ryan stood out because she was the lone female there on the front bench.

At the time, I don't think I realised the significance of her being there. She'd already been there for three years, and, prior to that, prior to being the first female federal Minister for Education and the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on the Status of Women, she'd been the first woman senator for the ACT. She'd been the first woman on Labor's federal front bench, appointed by Bill Hayden in opposition. And she, as I say, had spent a term there, so she was part of the team. The Sex Discrimination Act had been passed the year before I arrived in Canberra, and so the challenges it faced along the way were lost on me. It was in law, and, as a young woman, that seemed absolutely right to me. I want to take you back to that time—and there are enough grey hairs in this chamber right now to remember some of those days. This was a time when the surname of Templeman was considered a symbol of gender inequality. My fellow gallery journos joked about changing it to Templewoman, but they settled on Templeperson, and I'm still known by that to this day by older, most of them ex-, gallery journos. That's the era we were in, and that's the era in which she fought her biggest battles. When I look back on this, I can now see what an enormous challenge it must have been for Susan Ryan in bringing forward such landmark legislation. It does seem unbelievable now that it was not unlawful to sack women who married or became pregnant or simply because they were women. Sadly, not even today is it unbelievable that someone might want to do it, but it's incomprehensible that the law would provide no impediment to it. Susan Ryan's fight for women to have maternity leave or to be able get a home loan in their own name and for girls to have an equal opportunity to have a higher education—all things she oversaw improvements in—would have been hard-fought battles. There are still many of those areas where we need to keep progressing.

Having witnessed the treatment of a female Prime Minister many years later in this country, it's no surprise that Susan faced exceptionally stiff opposition to her Sex Discrimination Act—but she withstood that opposition and she got that made into law. She stood out in a very male-dominated chamber. On the floor, her intelligence, her competence and very often her wit would shine through.

Her respect for me as a young journalist was evident in the way she responded to questions in media conferences. Her press secretary, Greg Holland, would talk me through issues about which I had little background, and we didn't have the benefit of Google in those days. I covered mainly the issues around education, and we cannot forget how she doubled the number of girls who would complete high school in those years—a phenomenal achievement. Unlike some ministers at the time—and I won't name names—I always knew a media conference with Senator Ryan would be to the point, would give me a grab and would turn complex education policy into something useable. I was grateful for that. She and Democrat Janine Haines, who was first deputy leader and then leader of the Democrats, were the two women in that chamber who demonstrated to me, simply by going about their jobs, that women did belong in the Senate.

While I can't claim to have known Susan Ryan well at that time in the 1980s, I was really grateful to cross paths with her decades later when I became a Labor candidate. As I've heard it said already this afternoon, she was very generous with her time and in talking through issues. She was still, at that time, fighting for fairness, and I think she did that until her very last day. She was Age Discrimination Commissioner and then, obviously, Disability Commissioner at the Human Rights Commission. In more sociable environments, such as the Irish Friends of Labor, we got to see her warmth and her love of a song. She was always warm and always welcoming to me as a younger Labor woman coming forward. What she achieved changed the expectations that women could have, especially in the workforce, and for that we should all be very grateful. I'm certainly honoured to have known her a little bit during her life, and I'm very pleased to pay tribute to her today. Vale, Susan Maree Ryan.