By Terri Butler MP

07 October 2020

It's an absolute pleasure to follow my very good friend the member for Kingston, who is of my vintage. We were students together in the 1990s. She and I knew each other then, and we were both very interested in higher education policy, so it's quite nice and fitting to follow her in the condolence debate in respect of the passing of the Hon. Susan Ryan AO, someone who made an indelible mark on my friend Amanda's life, on my life and on the lives of many people around Australia, particularly many women and older people around Australia. I want to offer my sincere condolences to Susan's friends, to her family and to all of her fellow Australians, who in fact are suffering the loss of this person, who was a great leader and a woman of great courage.


In 1977, which was coincidentally the year I was born, Susan Ryan became the first woman on our federal frontbench. When Labor returned to government in 1983, she became the first woman in a federal Labor cabinet, under Prime Minister Hawke. I want to just mention something that I think really demonstrates the courage that she showed. In 1978 she was one of only a handful of women in the Senate. It was a very different place back then, with very few women, and the politics of the time were very different as well. In that year, she moved a motion in the Senate to disallow a measure that stopped abortion clinics from being established in the Australian Capital Territory. This was an incredibly controversial thing to do. She stressed that she was doing it for democratic principles, not about the issue of abortion per se but supporting self-government for the territory. But nonetheless she copped a lot of abuse and threats in relation to moving that motion. For context, this was seven years before Queensland police raided an abortion clinic in what is now my electorate of Griffith, 24 years before abortion was decriminalised in the Australian Capital Territory and a full 40 years before abortion was decriminalised in my home state of Queensland. So that gives us an idea of what the politics must have been like at the time, and I suspect those of us who are in the parliament today, whether we agree with the motion or not, can only imagine the bravery that it would have taken to move that motion. She was someone who was incredibly brave, but she was also someone who had great foresight, great vision and really understood politics and the future of politics in this country. She was someone who saw the value of having women's electoral power harnessed through the Women's Electoral Lobby and through the Labor Party, of the value of having a women's electoral strategy, of campaigning on issues about how political decisions affected women. And she also saw, of course, the value of electing women to the federal parliament.

Of course there were many others, and we've spoken about many of them, but her work at this time was absolutely crucial. It laid the groundwork for the substantial number of women that we see in the Labor caucus today. It didn't happen by accident. It didn't happen by people just hoping and wishing that we would keep doing the same thing and somehow get a different outcome. It actually took courage and agency and the decision-making and the willingness to stand up and be brave, and she led that at the time, and many others joined her. But more than just the increase in the representation of women in the Labor caucus and, therefore, in the parliament, what she lay the groundwork for were the consequences of that increased representation. That is, governments and policy decisions and laws that better took into account and accommodated the impact on women and the issues that affected women. I'm not just talking about the sex discrimination legislation; I'm talking about more than that—making sure that those impacts on women are actually taken into account, and the issues that matter are also taken into account.

So, as a woman in the parliament but also just as a woman in Australia, just as one of millions of women in Australia, I am so grateful to her for the work that she did during her time in the parliament and her time outside it. I'm also grateful for the words of advice and encouragement that she was generous enough to give me on the occasions that we met.

I pay tribute to Susan's work as Australia's first Age Discrimination Commissioner as well as her work as Disability Discrimination Commissioner. Right now, with unemployment so high, people are feeling age discrimination and disability discrimination very keenly. In her role as commissioner, Susan wrote and published a landmark report in 2016 called Willing to Work: National Inquiry into Employment Discrimination Against Older Australians and Australians with Disability. In her report, she said:

The right to work is a fundamental human right, but one that far too many older people and people with disability in Australia do not enjoy.

…   …   …

The Inquiry found that too many people are shut out of work because of underlying assumptions, stereotypes or myths associated with their age or their disability. These beliefs lead to discriminatory behaviours during recruitment, in the workplace and in decisions about training, promotion and retirement, voluntary and involuntary. The cost and impact of this is high, for individuals and for our economy.

People who are willing to work but are denied the opportunity are also denied the personal and social benefits—of dignity, independence, a sense of purpose and the social connectedness—that work brings.

I wanted to quote her words because this report was so incisive, so important and so incredibly salient right now in the circumstances in which we find ourselves. But let me leave the last words to my friend Everald Compton—known to many people in this place—who chaired the Advisory Panel on Positive Ageing which Susan was on. He's described her as a great patriot for women and the elderly, and he said, 'I will miss her greatly. So will Australia.'