October 5, 2020

The view from Billinudgel

Vale Susan Ryan

By Mungo MacCallum

Susan Ryan. Via Twitter

The pioneering politician was more than a feminist icon

Susan Ryan was much more than a leading figure for women. And she was more than just Labor’s first woman cabinet minister and thus the model for all those who have followed her.

Ryan, who died last week aged 77, was an exceptional politician in her own right. If things had played out a bit differently, she might well have preceded Julia Gillard to become our first female prime minister.

She was a senator, and also something of a maverick. When Bob Hawke determined that his government must have a woman in the cabinet, Ryan was the obvious choice. But when she later went against the prime minister, who wanted to dismantle free university education, he never forgave her. She was demoted, and left parliament soon afterwards.

All was not lost, of course; her subsequent career – including her appointment as age discrimination commissioner in 2011 – was extraordinary. But politics was her true vocation, and for many observers – me included – there was always a sense of what might have been.

Ryan’s ambition showed early. Under Bill Hayden, a fellow moderate lefty, she had been the shadow minister for communications, the arts and media, and later Aboriginal affairs, but she deserted him for Hawke because she believed that Hawke was more likely to win government. Later she went back to Hayden to join his Centre Left faction, where she felt more comfortable.

After Hawke’s election, Ryan went to his confidant, Mick Young, and said she wanted a “real” job. She was rewarded with the education portfolio, a senior role in which she was outstandingly successful – the retention rate for Year 12 pupils trebled under her watch.  

But she had her frustrations. I accompanied her on a trip to the Torres Strait Islands, where she was reduced almost to tears at the lack of school funding, a result of the intransigence of the Queensland government, which jealously guarded its constitutional responsibility.

She will be best remembered for the Sex Discrimination Act and the huge advances women gained during her time in the ministry, but she was never a single-minded feminist; her reforms crossed all thresholds, including those of gender.

She has rightly been described as the best kind of Catholic, one who put social conscience and activism above dogma.

Of course, she had her detractors. Hawke’s acerbic finance minister, Peter Walsh, dismissed her as an unreconstructed Whitlamite, a put-down she willingly embraced. Perhaps it arose from the occasion when her teenage daughter, in Walsh’s earshot, asked her how much she received in child endowment. When told, the girl was appalled: “That’s not even enough for two strawberry daiquiris,” she lamented. Ryan blushed as Walsh fumed. It was one of the very few times she was lost for words.

Ryan was frighteningly intelligent, politically savvy, balanced, funny, optimistic and committed. Truly the life of the party – especially the Labor Party. And the ALP will miss her, as will we all. But she was not and is not irreplaceable. Generations of women (and men) will follow where she so capably led. And that is her greatest legacy.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum was a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Much of his work can be found here: The View from Billinudgel.

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