01 August 2019

I rise tonight to make a short contribution on an important anniversary, which is the 30-year anniversary of the first woman elected to lead a government in Australia, and that was Rosemary Follett, here in the ACT. She was elected the first Chief Minister of the ACT in 1989, at the beginning of ACT self-government.

Prior to being elected Chief Minister, Rosemary was the member for Fraser in the ACT House of Assembly, which preceded self-government, and she had also become the president of ACT Labor in 1987. It's hard for me, having been a chief minister following Rosemary, to understand or get my head around exactly how difficult being in that inaugural territory parliament, in the election in 1989, would have been. People who haven't followed territory politics closely might not be aware that self-government was rejected by the ACT community, the people of the ACT; they had wanted to remain under the administration of the Commonwealth. So there were a whole range of competing pressures. One was a community that didn't want self-government. Another was that significant cuts had to be made by the incoming ACT government to deal with cuts by the Commonwealth that had transferred with the election. Along with that, there were only five Labor members, I think, in the first parliament, and four Liberal members. There were a range of anti-self-government parties—in fact, there were representatives from the Abolish Self-Government Coalition and the No Self-Government Party. The ballot paper, the whole election, had been very, very difficult, I think.

Rosemary reflected, on the weekend when we had the anniversary celebration, that, walking into the chamber that first day, it wasn't clear to her if she was walking in to become Chief Minister, opposition leader or, indeed, a member of the crossbench, depending on how the vote flowed—because the assembly is the chamber that elects the Chief Minister after the election of the Speaker, and so it's done by secret ballot. To this day, she maintains she doesn't know how she got nine of the 17 votes. But she did become the first female head of government in Australia, the first Chief Minister of the ACT. There were a lot of firsts for Rosemary. She's very humble about the contribution she made to politics, but I know as someone who lived in the ACT who wasn't a member of the party, certainly, Rosemary being the first and being such a strong role model encouraged women like me to get involved in politics and to stay in politics.

Rosemary also had to deal with minority government, which isn't easy, in a very turbulent time. The Labor government she led was short-lived and was removed by a motion of no confidence by the ACT assembly, but she returned in 1991 and then led Labor to election victory in 1992. Labor lost the following election, but Rosemary remained in the assembly until 1996. There were many measures she put in place as Chief Minister—important changes in a very new ACT government, with an ACT public service that hadn't existed before. She had a very reluctant public service. Many of the people who came to the ACT public service were people forced to leave the Commonwealth Public Service, so they weren't happy to be there. There were no laws; the first parliament had to create the statute book.

The challenges before Rosemary were many, and she spoke about this at the 30th anniversary event. She spoke from the heart, I think, as she reflected on the words she used during that first election campaign, and when she was newly elected, and how she has remained true to those words. I think that's a very important lesson for all of us in politics, particularly those that stay around a long time: to stay true to the things that originally drove us. Rosemary led the way for many women, not just here in the ACT but across the country, and her public service continued after politics. I have to say, the second female Chief Minister, Kate Carnell, was very sharp, and offered Rosemary a job outside the parliament, which she took, and worked in the public service for the public, as she always has. We thank her very much for the work she did. To Rosemary: we thank you for your service.