In mid-1983 I acquired a cellphone name from Susan Ryan. Would I have an interest, she requested me, in making use of for the job of head of the Workplace of the Standing of Women?
This was the ladies’s coverage recommendation unit that had languished in low-status and non-powerful bureaucratic backwaters below the Fraser authorities, however which the newly elected Hawke authorities had given a lift in energy and status by inserting it inside the high federal Division of Prime Minister and Cupboard.
OSW, because it grew to become recognized, grew to become Ryan’s car for pursuing the agenda to enhance girls’s standing – as we put it again in these days earlier than “equality” grew to become our most popular language – throughout a variety of coverage fronts.
Ryan was Labor’s first-ever lady cupboard minister.
She was in a rush to implement a wide-ranging feminist agenda developed by girls’s teams over the previous decade and which the Hawke authorities appeared able to embrace. I used to be proud to help her in getting it performed.
However our early euphoria shortly bumped into the brutal realities of politics. Ryan had outstanding coverage wins, they had been usually extra laborious gained than is appreciated right this moment, and infrequently achieved with out what had been usually excruciating compromises.
As an illustration, the Intercourse Discrimination Act of 1984 – which has rightly been singled out since Ryan’s sudden and premature dying on the weekend as her signature achievement – was a pale shadow of the non-public member’s invoice that Ryan had developed in opposition and used to popularise the notion of federal anti-discrimination laws to her colleagues and the citizens.
The Hawke cupboard had not been ready to simply accept its affirmative motion provisions, in contrast to Labor’s caucus in opposition, and these had been excised earlier than its parliamentary debate.
Determining how you can develop a separate affirmative motion program to boost girls’s employment was the highest precedence Ryan handed me after I began at OSW.
The ultimate Intercourse Discrimination Act invoice contained a number of exemptions, main many feminists and legal professionals to criticise it as a toothless tiger that had conceded manner an excessive amount of to safe passage. It was simple to make this case.
The laws when enacted contained two main exemptions – the Australian defence forces and paid maternity go away, the latter requiring a particular dispensation from a global labour organisation conference – however scores of industries and pursuits additionally had been allowed to proceed on their merry misogynist and discriminatory methods.
These included the insurance coverage and superannuation industries, non-public golf equipment, spiritual organisations, sports activities and faculties.
Ryan had taken the pragmatic view that it was preferable to get primary anti-discrimination laws in place and work to take away these exemptions over time.
Her technique was vindicated: most of those exemptions at the moment are gone. If American feminists had been equally conciliatory, they may have gained the Equal Rights Modification – additionally fiercely opposed by the insurance coverage business. As a substitute, their purist stance signifies that nearly 40 years on, the USA has no constitutional assure of ladies’s equality.
Australia, due to Susan Ryan, has laws that, whereas removed from excellent and definitely not adequately resourced by the federal authorities, offers a level of safety.
Ryan’s 1984 laws made sexual harassment illegal, the primary jurisdiction on the planet to take action.
This landmark didn’t obtain a lot consideration on the time, overshadowed by the larger achievement of the laws itself.
It was solely in 2019, when the #MeToo motion made sexual harassment a red-hot challenge, that this pioneering side of Ryan’s laws maybe received the credit score it deserved.
If passage of the Intercourse Discrimination Act required Ryan to battle towards enterprise pursuits and rightwing teams, who contended the laws would destroy the household and wreak havoc in society, she had a distinct type of opposition to different central coverage goals: her personal cupboard colleagues.
Foremost amongst these was Peter Walsh, a senatorial colleague of Ryan’s who was finance minister and thus controller of the federal government’s purse-strings.
He was ready to do battle to cease the large enhance in childcare spending that Bob Hawke had proposed in his marketing campaign coverage launch speech for the 1984 elections.
He additionally flatly refused to fund the company that Ryan proposed to manage the affirmative motion laws.
This had handed with Hawke’s sturdy assist. He had really taken the virtually unheard-of step of introducing the laws in parliament himself.
Ryan dealt together with her recalcitrant colleagues with humour and guile, however the odds had been usually stacked towards her.
There have been no different girls across the cupboard desk. Even prime ministerial assist was no assure of victory, which maybe was a marker of the place girls actually stood on the totem pole again then.
Susan Ryan was there and we – girls particularly – owe her unreserved gratitude for being there. Typically alone, all the time combating.