2023 Susan Ryan Oration

Minister for Finance, Minister for Women, Minister for the Public Service

Thank you to Professor Fiona Jenkins and Professor Fiona Ryan for those opening remarks, to Susan’s daughter Justine and to Rory Sutton for his introduction.

I’d like to begin by paying my respects to the ancient Ngunnawal peoples, and honouring their custodianship and care for country.

I extend that respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who may be joining us today.

I am proud to be part of a Government that is working hand in hand with First Nations people to implementing the Uluru Statement from the Heart in full, including a constitutionally enshrined Voice to our National Parliament through a referendum later this year.

It’s a great honour to be asked by the ANU to give this address and reflect on Susan Ryan’s incredible legacy and thank you also to the ANU for acknowledging Susan Ryan’s contribution to public policy and public life through this annual Oration.

Too often we have failed to acknowledge the contribution of significant women in this country and the oration is a great step in righting some of these historical omissions from our national story.

I also love coming back to the ANU – my university where I spent the impressionable years from 18-21 – not just immersed in my studies but also learning about life and about the world around me.

I know how fortunate I was to have that time here.

It’s something I reflect on often.

My address today not only pays respect to the life and work of Susan Ryan – as it should – but I also want to focus on how the work begun under Susan Ryan’s leadership in the Hawke Government continues to guide and influence the work that is before the Albanese Government today as we continue to walk the path to a more equal Australia

The life and work of Susan Ryan

Susan Ryan’s list of achievements in politics and life are long.

There is no doubt she led a rich life while doing big, important, nation-changing work.

She enjoyed a full life outside politics raising a family, time spent with close friends, maintaining rich and lifelong friendships and remaining active post-politics, campaigning on social justice issues – including the better treatment of older Australians and the Republic.

Throughout her life she found joy in travel, the ocean – and a love of all things Irish, as detailed so vividly in her memoir Catching the Waves.

And after she died – the stories and recollections from far and wide were about her tremendous life force, love of life and positivity.

Susan’s wasn’t a saccharine positivity – the sort that you see in memes on Instagram.

It was an optimism that was deep in her bones, which animated her spirit.

Susan’s ethos was: it’s good to be alive. And as long as you’re alive, you can do some good.

Educated by the Brigidine Nuns in working-class, post-war Maroubra, Susan had a great sense of social justice from a young age.

Much of her philosophy around social justice was of the common sense variety.

She didn’t go in for intellectual abstractions.

She just asked very straightforward questions – and received some pretty unsatisfactory answers in return.

  • Why should women be forced into a narrow life based on a gender stereotype?
  • Why couldn’t they be judged on merit?
  • Why weren’t they allowed to be as free as men?
  • Whose interests did that lack of freedom serve?
  • And why were injustices – in everything from pay, to legal standing, to discrimination to violence – allowed to happen to women unchallenged?

So Susan and others like her challenged them and changed things.

Throughout her long decades of public service, the landscape kept shifting.

And if you read Susan’s memoir – or if you are one of her many lifelong friends – you’ll know how varied the terrain was.

It included the slog of her return to Australia from New York as a young single mother, the heady days of activism in Canberra and the friendships with people such as Germaine Greer, Wendy McCarthy,

Elizabeth Reid, Anne Summers and the Whitlam’s that helped inspire her political career.

Then of course there was her brilliant political career.

Susan arrived in the Senate in 1975 as a 33 year-old single mother and by 1983, was a senator in a Labor government.

At the time – in 1983:

  • the gender pay gap was around 33%
  • labour force participation was around 45% for women
  • men were more likely than women to enter higher education after year 12
  • we hadn’t yet had a women speaker in the House of Representatives or President of the Senate
  • we had never had a female High Court judge
  • we’d never had a female Head of government

There is a photo of Susan with the newly elected Hawke team.

In a pink jacket standing in the back row – she was the only woman in a sea of suits.

Soon after she was sworn in, she had to rush off to her daughter

Justine’s graduation, a relatable story to working mums of any generation.

Susan made history as the first woman from the ALP to serve in cabinet, and sponsored pioneering bills which laid the foundation for sex discrimination laws. She brought feminist ideals into the mainstream.

Post-politics she continued her ferocious capacity for work – right up until she was taken from us to soon in 2020 at the age of 77.

Life and politics

To me, as a single mum wanting to get involved in politics, Susan Ryan showed me that not only could it be done but it must be done, that there was an expectation on us to get involved and that it was only by getting involved that change happened.

She, along with women like Joan Kirner, showed me and told me that women like me can’t vacate the field; we have to step up.

They convinced me that being a single mother was an asset, not a disadvantage, that candidates with my background was a strength in politics and that I would be a better politician because of it.

So it was more than just Susan’s work that resonated with me deeply.

Her life as well, showed me what could be achieved – as a young worker in the disability sector in 1988 when the disability discrimination act came into effect – I saw firsthand how legislation can change lives for the better.

A student at the time, this was my first real life tangible example of the power of politics as a tool for progressive social change.

I was hooked.

Susan and I have shared many similarities in our political careers.

We were both young women in our 30s – and both single parents – when we ran for office for the first time, both in the ACT Legislative Assembly.

We were both tapped on the shoulders and asked to run by the women in our party – to challenge gender inequality in ALP ranks.

And of course we both dealt with the surprise and maybe some shock when we won.

We both became senators representing the ACT and we both fought for abortion law reform in the early days of our political career.

For this we both attracted the ire of those opposed to it.

We both had a love/hate relationship with our hometown newspaper -The Canberra Times (mostly love though).

And when Labor was (and now is) in power, we both made the advancement of Australian women our primary focus in our ministerial responsibilities.

Role models are crucial in politics.

It can be a fast and brutal game.

In order to keep your head, hold your nerve and maintain an open heart – it’s important to have people ahead of you who you admire.

Who show you it can be done. And show you how it can be done.

As I told the Senate in 2020, in a condolence motion for Susan – as a woman in politics, Susan didn’t just pave the way, she actually built the political pathway that so many women have now followed.

Not only to this place in Australia’s national parliament but to so many places – community organisations, unions, businesses.

I keep thinking of how proud she would be to know that her party now has a majority of women in the caucus and 10 women in the cabinet.

Susan, and many others, including those in the brilliant Women’s Electoral Lobby, taught women of my generation about the power in women organising.

She showed us that there was a seat at the table for all of us.

But only now sitting where she once sat – at the Cabinet table, in Parliament, in the Senate – do I fully appreciate how ahead of her time Susan was and how difficult it must have been.

Particularly when it came to progressing the advancement of women.

From activism to politics

It was in the mid-1970s when Susan crossed over into federal politics, after she was elected as one of the first two senators for the ACT, on the slogan, ‘A woman’s place is in the Senate’.

For Susan, this win was where activism morphed into the world of realpolitik and policy.

And some might argue – idealism became realism.

When Susan came to politics from activist feminism, she came to politics very deliberately – seeing it as the most effective mechanism for change.

She saw that you had to get inside the tent and master democratic politics and processes, policies, parties, lobbying, factions, elections and campaigns, in order to make change that would impact the most amount of people.

After being blooded by a divorce, activism, the pressures of single parenthood and Labor’s internal systems – Susan realised one of the most crucial of things a politician must face.

You can’t please everyone.

And you can’t lose sleep about that.

You just need to get on with the job, with the tools that you’ve got and the people that you have around you.

Susan also understood that in politics you need to learn the process and make the process work in your favour.

Then – to use one of her most cherished metaphors – you could catch a wave into shore.

With this philosophy, Susan did something that most politicians and activists can only dream of.

On becoming a Minister, she became powerful within the system and then she changed the system from within.

She got her teeth stuck into process – and in doing so – she changed the process and changed it for the better of all Australian women.

Process is not glamorous. I should know – I spend hours and hours sitting in various meetings.

But process allows not only for stability and certainty but – in the right hands – for the orderly ushering in of progress.

And through process – big things can occur.

Women’s Budget Statement pioneer

Almost forty years ago Susan pioneered the Women’s Budget Statement.

It reads as fresh and radical now, as it did then.

There is perhaps a Trojan horse element to it that makes this policy feel slightly subversive, even after all these years.

That is, an ostensibly dry economic paper – a Budget document no less – carries in it a radical promise to women.

That promise is economic equality.

Susan knew – and Bob Hawke knew, that with economic parity, the playing field is levelled and true equality between men and women can be reached.

The Women’s Budget Statement was also proof that critical elements of the feminist project can be seeded in the mainstream and start to make real differences in people’s lives across the nation.

And while none of this should be radical – after decades of the conservative government’s overt hostility towards equality for Australian women – sadly, it is.

Some of the issues Susan was grappling with, and thinking deeply about as a Shadow Minister and then a Minister, still loom large in public policy debates today.

The saying – ‘some things change and some things stay the same’ – kept jumping into my head as I re-read Susan’s memoir in preparation for today’s address.

Grappling with these issues, such as the gender pay gap, violence against women and cheaper childcare, defy neat three-yearly election cycles.

Instead, untangling them and providing solutions is the work of decades.

I wish it wasn’t the case.

But studying the achievements of the political leaders that came before – like Susan, provides a long view of history.

The past can assist and inform the future.

In the successive Labor governments, there is a baton being handed along the line, across time and space.

Lineage can be traced.

Good work of the past should be built on, instead of leaders thinking that it’s ground zero every time they come into office.

Susan herself said in an interview with the Guardian in 2017, ‘Keep going. It may take decades to achieve your goal – but keep going and you’ll get there.’

As both the Finance Minister and Minister for Women, the Women’s Budget statement is emblematic of the importance that the Albanese Labor Government is putting on the role the budget can play to advance the interests of women across Australia.

Gender responsive budgeting was a practice pioneered by Susan, when the Hawke government handed down its 1984/85 Budget.

In this budget, the Hawke Government used gender-disaggregated data to work out exactly how its spending was going to affect women.

And it reported those findings to the public in that very first Women’s Budget Statement.

Gender-responsive budgeting has since been recognised internationally as essential both for gender justice and for fiscal justice.

It’s important work – and in my view – and the view of the Labor party, gender analysis should be part of every Budget process.

But in this – as in so many things, Susan was ahead of her time.

She knew measures such as gender responsive budgeting could be discarded with a change of government and a flick of the legislative wand.

She knew we could go back to more retrograde ways of handling the

Budget – including introducing measures that put the cause of women back years, Susan Ryan was a builder, not a destroyer – but she was realistic about the destructive cycles in politics and the need to be forever vigilant, always working, always building and rebuilding.

And she was realistic about the wreckers across the chamber taking power and dismantling great Labor reforms.

She warned us all not to be complacent when she said, ‘The gains were so hard to make, and if you didn’t watch out, they’re going to disappear.’

Gender responsive budgeting

In 2022, Labor, led by my good friend and close colleague Jim Chalmers handed down our first Federal Budget in almost ten years.

It was a big moment in politics, but also for the people who voted for a government that wanted to genuinely build a better future for all Australians.

And we made sure that this first Labor budget, handed down within 5 months of our election had women at the centre of our commitments – with our decision making assisted by gender analysis from the public service for the first time in years.

Gender lens

It’s not just the Budget, where there’s a gender lens over decisions.

In every Caucus meeting, every ERC, every cabinet deliberation, every decision this government makes, the impact on gender is being assessed and understood before decisions are taken.

Last year when Prime Minister Albanese appointed me as Finance Minister, Minister for Women and Minister for the Public Service – a great honour – it was not an accident or a random collection of portfolios.

It was a deliberate decision on the part of the Prime Minister to bring women right into the heart of our economic team and the decisions we make at the highest levels of government.

Gender is not an add-on, but central to our thinking.

We are trying – and I think succeeding – in embedding a gender lens in government, in everything from how we work with the NDIS and social security system, to IR laws, to the Budget more generally.

Almost forty years after Susan Ryan pioneered gender responsive budgeting – we have placed it front and centre of our economic policies and actions again.

Policies promoting gender equality

And our efforts to drive a better deal for Australian women don’t stop there.

In just nine months in government, we have already got cracking in other areas to progress economic equality of women.

  • access cheaper childcare
  • Through our IR changes
  • With the increase to 26 weeks for PPL
  • Through our housing investment
  • With the Women’s safety package
  • And most recently our legislation accelerate the closing of the gender pay gap

These are all policy areas that Susan Ryan championed.

National strategy and gender pay gap

We have also begun work on a National Strategy to Achieve Gender Equality. This is the first time a government made a commitment to achieving gender equality – and set a roadmap to get us there.

This roadmap involves examining everything from;

  • our IR laws to
  • our plan to tackle violence against women,
  • to health and wellbeing and
  • balancing care responsibilities and employment.

And in May we will be hearing from First Nations women at the Women’s Voice Summit for an Indigenous perspective on gender equality.

There is a strong economic case to be made for gender equality.

Breaking entrenched gender norms could boost the Australian economy by $128 billion a year, according to Deloitte Access Economics.

That’s an opportunity I don’t want our country to miss.

As the Prime Minister said, after the 2022 October Budget was handed down: ‘Women’s economic participation isn’t something that just benefits individual women, it doesn’t just benefit families. It benefits all of us.’

Some of you in this room would have been part of the great Labor reforms to advance the cause of women when they were enacted forty years ago.

For those of you there at the time of the first Women’s Budget statement, it must be a shock just how quickly time passes.

Forty years can disappear in the blink of an eye.

But I’m sure you’d also agree – that we have not progressed as much as we should have and certainly not as far as the world has – had Susan and other feminist activists remained with their hands on the lever.

We had decades of Coalition economic policy – such as the baby bonus – that put a libertarian, free market lens over women’s policy and initiatives.

These policies were designed not to encourage women’s workforce participation – but the opposite.

With the election of the Howard Liberal government in 1996, the work of Susan Ryan and others was rolled back.

In 1996, instead of a formal Women’s Budget Statement – a policy statement was released with the name that said it all – ‘More Choice for Women’.

But we all know the jeopardy contained within that word ‘choice.’

Not everyone’s choice is created equal.

And some people have more choice than others.

But the Howard government stuck with it.

They liked the word – and used it to sell a number of terrible policies – including Work Choices in 2005.

In those long years under Howard, women were moved out of the policy frame, as consumers of policy – but also as makers of policy.

So much expertise and knowledge in the public service was delegitimised and discarded.

In those years, the budget for the Office of the Status of Women was cut by around 40 percent and women’s units across departments were abolished.

By 2004, the Office for Women – started by the great Elizabeth Reid in 1973, in a historic appointment by the Whitlam Government – was moved from the central department, Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet to the Department of Community and Family Services.

The Office for Women lost their links to Cabinet and the PM.

They were at best sidelined and at worst silenced.

Women’s issues became repositioned as ‘family issues’ – and with that women were put in their place.

For the Howard government – a woman’s place wasn’t in the Senate, or in the workforce – it was in the home.

Rudd and Gillard years

In the Rudd and Gillard years – as well as welcoming Australia’s first female prime minister, institutional changes were made to recommit to the cause of women’s equality.

This included the appointment of a Minister with full ministerial responsibility for women’s issues.

I’d like to acknowledge the incredible work of Tanya Plibersek both in government and opposition for her work in the women’s portfolio.

In 2008 in its first Budget, the Rudd Labor government reinstated a form of the Women’s Budget Statement.

These Budget Statements were published between 2008 and 2013 and highlighted the gender gaps that needed addressing.

Under the Rudd/Gillard governments – women were supported to go back to work and participate in both the workforce and home life.

  • The first paid parental leave scheme was introduced.
  • There were substantial increases to childcare funding.
  • There was the introduction of a new National Quality Framework to improve childcare standards.
  • And new worker protections under the Fair Work Act.

The last ten years

Then things reversed again, with the election of the Coalition Government.

The rollercoaster ride of women’s policy advancement entered another backward period.

In Tony Abbott’s first Cabinet – there was only one woman – Julie Bishop.

Perhaps that is why Tony in all his wisdom made himself Minister for Women – none of us could actually believe he had done that – (there were actually rumours that this happened in response to forgetting about us entirely in the appointment of Ministers).

I’m still processing that one!

By 2014, an official Women’s budget statement felt like a relic from a past feminist utopia.

The famous pictures that came out after the 2014 Budget were emblematic of where we were at.

Two powerful Liberal men, Joe Hockey and Mathias Cormann – the Treasurer and the Finance Minister, puffing on cigars and looking very pleased with themselves, after they’d handed down a Budget that hurt the most vulnerable in our society.

Remember that was a Budget for the lifters not the leaners:

  • That introduced the Medicare co-payment.
  • That raised the pension age to 70.
  • That made medicines more expensive.
  • That caused a spike in university fees – particularly for students studying the humanities.

It was a bad budget for ordinary Australians.

And it was a bad budget for women.

And 2014 was also the year – under Tony Abbott, as Minister for Women, when the women’s budget statement was dumped completely from the Budget documents.

But Labor never stopped releasing the Women’s Budget statements.

We produced these in Opposition.

And feminist organisations, like the National Foundation for Australian

Women produced comprehensive gender analysis of the Coalition’s Budgets – without any funding.

The Coalition may have ditched women’s budget statements, but we never did and the movement never did.

The pandemic

For Australian women during these years, exclusion from economic policy had dire consequences.

We all saw that come to a head during the pandemic years of 2020 and 2021.

Under the Coalition, women suffered disproportionately in the pandemic.

Women were more likely to occupy low-paid and more insecure jobs than men.

And women suffered first and disproportionately from pandemic job losses.

During lockdown, domestic violence spiked – and escape was made more difficult by pandemic restrictions.

Women performed the vast share of lockdown-driven home-schooling, compounding their pre-pandemic burden of an unfairly large share of domestic labour generally, and decreasing women’s participation in the workforce.

And the Morrison government’s positive job initiatives were found to favour men, with job-creation plans focused on male-dominated industries.

Handmaid’s Tale was a vibe

I didn’t watch the Handmaid’s Tale when it was streaming, because I could watch it on the news, and I could see it in the Parliament.

There were women dropping out of the workforce in droves, women stepping away from their careers, women home-schooling their children, women unsafe in the home and stereotypical gender roles were reinforced with all sorts of policy levers that favoured men.

Women were ignored for so long by the Coalition that the government of the day got on without us.

Women were not needed in the party.

They were not needed on the front bench or in the Cabinet.

They were not needed in the workforce.

They were not needed as the Prime Minister’s advisers.

And they were not needed to be spoken to or about.

And remember the day we were told how fortunate we were that we could gather peacefully without being shot at?

That was where we were at until the political pressure got too great and the former Prime Minister realised he had a major ‘women’s problem’ had no choice but to do something.

But it was too late. Nine years of neglect and disinterest cannot be papered over in the lead up to an election campaign.

So when he did bring women into the frame – such as the time he played hairdresser in a photo op in February 2022, washing that poor woman’s hair in Kogarah, there was something off-key and wrong about it.

It was – as one media outlet called it – the photo that horrified the nation.

But by then – in February 2022 just one year ago – , the days of Susan Ryan, Bob Hawke and driving women’s equality seemed very far away indeed.

Australian women have spoken

Australia’s women noticed the backwards slide and they spoke up.

They were not happy with the status quo.

Results from the ANU’s 2022 Australian Election Study showed that the Coalition continued to lose the votes of women, after women started peeling off from the Conservative parties in the 2016 and 2019 elections.

In the 2022 election, 38 per cent of men voted for the Coalition, just 32 per cent of women did so.

In the new 2022 Parliament, nine out of the ten newly elected Independents were women – and Labor had, for the first time in Australian, the majority of women in our Caucus.

The statistics

Women voters were not just acting on a gut feeling that life for them got harder under the decade of Coalition government.

The statistics tell the story:

  • From being a world leader in gender equality in the 1980s (check) Australia has slipped far in ranking, coming 43rd on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index, sandwiched between Bulgaria and the tiny nation of Suriname.
  • The national gender pay gap is slow to close – currently at 13.3% – it’s higher for First Nations women.
  • The median undergraduate starting salary for women is 3.9% less than men despite women graduating in greater numbers from university courses.
  • Women’s super-balances are 23.1% less than men as we approach retirement age.
  • Older women are the fastest growing cohort of people experiencing homelessness and women over 60 are the lowest earning of all demographic groups nationally.
  • Women’s workforce participation lags behind men consistently by 8-9 percentage points.
  • Women’s leadership in the private sector is behind men and unbelievably, 22.3% of governing boards, reporting to WEGA, have no women on them at all.

Women in Australia are more educated than men but we work less, earn less, have less savings, less assets and retire with less.

One third of us experience violence at the hands of our partners.

One woman dies every ten days in this country.

This is the work that remains before us.

And as an advanced nation, I think we can all agreed that this is not good enough.

And we are determined to change it.


Just as Susan Ryan and others in the Hawke government rolled up their sleeves and did the work 40 years ago, now we must continue the work – the work of feminist politicians.

It’s ongoing and never finished.

We are in office – and we have Susan’s and Labor’s legacy to remind us, to guide us and to build upon.

In the 2022 election women across Australia voted for change.

Just as they did in 1983 when Susan became a Minister.

As they did then, women want integrity.

We want equality.

Childcare and better rights at work.

We want an end to the violence against us and our children.

We want pay parity.

We want safety at work.

And we want policy that considers our current circumstances.

In a 2017 interview with the Guardian, Susan talked about cycles in politics and needing to play the long game, and deal with short term disappointment.

She said, eventually, ‘if you keep going you’ll find the right ideas with the right support, actually happen and people get the benefit.’

These are the words- along with her reminder ‘to keep going and that despite the time it takes – we will get there in the end.

That will keep me focussed on my job, as I play a small part in progressing what was started by my Labor colleague all those years ago.

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