1942 – 2020
Honoured colleagues with whom I served in government have started to pass away. Last weekend we lost Susan Ryan, former senator and cabinet minister.
She was the first female member of a Labor Cabinet. She was Minister for Education from 1983 – 1987, Special Minister of State from 1987 – 1988. But perhaps most notably, Minister assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women. She presided over substantial education reforms which saw the student high school completion rate double in her brief time. In later years though, she marked the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 as her greatest achievement. Behind that, the Affirmative Action (Equal Opportunities in Employment) Act 1986.
Sue was tough. An ACT Senator she had no substantial factional backing. Yet she had to get through caucus, let alone Parliament, principles commonplace today but anything but then. Many wanted her job and her parliamentary seat. As I look back, Sue appears transitional. She came into government with few female colleagues (6 in the House and 13 in the Senate). Though most were Labor she, with her skills and determination, made clear to male colleagues there weren’t nearly enough. ‘Equality of Opportunity’ was a meaningless slogan without legislation which prodded it.
She was full of humour. She was in conversations which would never occur these days but her brothers needed careful education and for her there was hope for all of us. In education, she shares kudos with her successor John Dawkins. On the status of women she stands alone. As she pushed matters through cabinet and caucus she was on her own, though she was heavily supported by the Prime Minister. By the time she left parliament there was a different conversation in this country on the status of women. She was a change maker.
Over the years she sustained her robust rights reputation. She was the first Age Discrimination Commissioner within the Human Rights Commission. From 2011 – 2016, the Disability Discrimination Commissioner as well. Before that she held the position of one of the first pro-chancellors of UNSW. She came round to the old Hawke agenda as President of the Australian Institute of Superannuation Trustees, 2000 – 2007.
Her death comes as a shock as she seemed indestructible. We should be grateful for her life. Deepest sympathy to her partner, family and legion of friends. For the women’s movement, one of their battleships is down but her time on the front will not be forgotten.