21 March 2024


Thank you to the member for Indi for those beautiful words, which capture a different part of Linda White than many of us saw. It was only when you worked with her closely that you really got insights, and I'm very privileged to say I was able to have my own insights through my role as Special Envoy for the Arts.

It is very fitting that, given her passion for the arts, the song Bread and Roses was played at Senator Linda White's memorial service last week because it perfectly captures what motivated Linda and what she contributed to public life. The song has been much talked about, but not everyone knows its origins. It came from a speech by American suffragette Helen M Todd. In 1910 Todd said that women's right to vote 'will go toward helping forward the time when life's bread, which is home, shelter and security, and the roses of life, music, education, nature and books, shall be the heritage of every child that is born in the country, in the government of which she has a voice'. That's where the phrase derives. And Linda did so much to win both bread and roses for working people in Australia, and she did a great deal to empower and enfranchise women.

Her efforts to institute affirmative action rules within the Labor Party have improved the representation of women in our democracy, and we see that every day in this parliament. It's because of those measures that the current parliament has more female voices within it than any other parliament has in Australian history and that the current government has a majority of women. Linda provided a powerful example of female leadership. She was a trusted mentor to countless young women across the union movement and within the Labor Party, and their careers have flourished, thanks to her. That legacy will long outlast all of us.

Linda was motivated by a deep and intuitive sense of justice. As a lawyer, she confronted police corruption and institutional child sexual abuse. She devoted the major part of her career to the service of working people, indeed, to some of the lowest-paid workers in the country. At the Australian Services Union she used her powerful intellect and formidable talent for negotiation to secure better rights and conditions for workers. She served as its assistant national secretary for 25 years. It was in this role that I first saw Linda in action, at a national Labor Party conference nearly 15 years ago. Knowing little about Victorian Left politics, for me it was a big learning curve, and she was impressive to hear and watch then and at subsequent consequences. I had a glimpse of her efforts to fight for equal pay for 200,000 community and social services workers, mostly women, which resulted in pay rises of up to 43 per cent.

It's worth remembering the many issues she fought on, such as the entitlements of Ansett workers after the airline's devastating collapse in 2001, which saw former Ansett workers win back almost all of the $160 million that was owed to them. There was her fight on the Howard government's WorkChoices legislation and the injustice that it sought to entrench in Australia's industrial relations. There was her fight for the financial independence of women, her fight for paid parental leave and family and domestic violence leave, and her fight for superannuation to be paid on government paid parental leave. And we all know how pleased she would have been to hear our recent announcement on this.

For all Linda did to improve the pay and welfare of working people, she also believed that everyone deserved to feed their souls, whether it was the joy of gardens or it was the spiritual nourishment provided by the arts. Through her words and her deeds, she argued that the democratisation of access to culture and creativity must be an objective of the Labor mission. I would like to pay particular tribute to Linda's involvement in these areas. In her first speech, she acknowledged the central role of the arts in Australian society. She reflected:

The arts let us delve into other worlds and see ourselves and our society reflected back, for better or worse. They allow us to imagine new possibilities and better ways of doing things. People like to talk about the economic value of the arts, but their true value goes far beyond dollars and cents. Artists and creative professionals are talented, clever and possess the power to impact lives through their skill. I stand in awe of the things they do.

Something that I will always remember about Linda is the joy she personally took from arts and culture. She was always one of the first to say yes to a visit to the National Gallery of Australia to see the latest exhibition. Her love of literature and the fellowship she found in her longstanding book club were important fixtures in her life. There was no-one more appropriate to be on the board of the National Library of Australia, where she contributed her considerable energy, intellect and advocacy. She ensured that MPs and senators had an opportunity to do an early morning visit to the National Library to understand the expanse of that collection and the reason why saving Trove was so important. It was a privilege to get to know Linda a little bit more through these things when she joined us here in Canberra, and the arts were our common bond.

We served in this place together for too short a time, but something I will remember fondly will be those common causes on which we advocated together. Together we sought to raise awareness of the valuable work that the national collecting institutions do each day and the need to support them sustainably into the future. She helped achieve that. Just a week before her death, Linda joined me in advocating for proper funding for our national arts training institutions—the institutions who ensure Australia is training up its actors, filmmakers, Indigenous dancers, costume makers, musicians, circus performers and creatives for the future. Sadly, this would prove to be our last piece of shared advocacy. Had she been with us longer, I have no doubt there would have been many more.

If there was ever an opportunity to advocate for the arts in this place, Linda would take it. If there was a early morning visit to an exhibition or a performance to attend, Linda would be there.

I will miss her company, advice and allyship on the causes we both cared so much about. I extend my deepest sympathies to Linda's brother, Michael, her extended family, her friends, her colleagues and the many who cared for her. I also would like to acknowledge her staff, who've lost not only a colleague but a friend as well. Linda was able to make the very most of her remaining time in this place because of their commitment and hard work. They did Linda proud in arranging such a dignified farewell for her. In particular, I'd like to acknowledge Ben Armstrong, who was a steadfast support to Linda throughout her time here as a senator and a constant during the final stages of her illness.

Linda White was with us for too short a time but during that time, damn, she made a difference—a real tangible and positive difference to the lives of countless Australians. She was a formidable warrior of the trade union movement. She was a committed and effective champion of the arts. She was a tireless servant of the Australian people. She was a fine senator, a respected and trusted parliamentary colleague and loved by many. May she rest in peace.