ELIZABETH REID WHITLAM LEGACY PAPER LAUNCH
I’d like to begin by paying respect to the ancient Ngunnawal people, upon whose land we gather this afternoon and pay my respects to their elders’ past, present and emerging, on the pathway to Referendum Day on October 14, in a little over two weeks.
And I genuinely look forward to the opportunity to enshrine constitutional recognition for Australia’s first people through that national vote.
I’d also like to acknowledge all special guests here today including:
- Dr Elizabeth Reid AO
- Professor John Juriansz - Director of the Whitlam Institute thank you for hosting and the Whitlam Institute for inviting me here today.
- To the esteemed panellists – it’s a great honour and privilege for me to be invited here today to make a few remarks.
As Canberra born child of the 70’s - my father, a pragmatic and faithful Labor voter and my mother, a radical leftie with a strong feminist vibe, hotly debated dinner table discussions between my parents about the Whitlam government and its policies - were some of my earliest childhood memories.
Perhaps it was the trauma associated with a threat to move to New Zealand if Malcolm Fraser won the election or worse still the childhood imagery of “Fraser’s razor gang” my father constantly talked about and of which I as a six-year-old was absolutely terrified of – one way or another – from my earliest memories the Whitlam Government has loomed large.
So, it’s an enormous privilege and honour to be here to introduce Dr Elizabeth Reid – and congratulate her on the launch a new Whitlam Legacy Paper Revolution and Reform – the women’s liberation movement and the Whitlam years.
Congratulations on such a generous and honest reflection on the heady times of the Whitlam government and the role that Australia’s feminist movement played in shaping the future of this country.
Elizabeth really doesn’t need any introduction to this audience here tonight as we all understand the huge impact and contribution Elizabeth has made in the feminist movement, in public policy, as a revolutionary and as a reformer.
She’s had the most incredible career and her contribution to public life and the public good here in Australia and internationally has been extraordinary.
The essay we are here to celebrate - is as you would expect from an author like Elizabeth Reid historical, political, theoretical, feminist but with an honest and reflective account of her time bridging the two worlds of women’s liberation activism and bureaucratic and political reality.
When two forces collide. As brutal as that sounds. The essay gives us a sense of that.
As special adviser to the PM on issues affecting women and children Elizabeth Reid was the country’s first - in fact, the world’s first - and as with every first, the road she dug has paved the way for the rest of us to follow and continue her important work.
Back in 1973, Elizabeth applied for the job of Whitlam’s women adviser.
There were more than 400 applicants for this role - and it was the most keenly discussed job ad in the country at the time.
I imagine there was many times in the almost three years that followed her appointment as Special Adviser that she wished one of the other 400 odd applicants had been the successful one!
For those in the movement, the position itself was freighted with possibility - but also danger.
For the successful candidate - there was the risk of selling out, neutering the radical promise at the core of the women’s movement.
But there was also the enticing promise of steering policy – which had been overwhelmingly the territory of men and importantly achieving some outcomes and much needed reform for women in Australia.
Only 7 years earlier, women in the public service had to resign when they married.
So, there was no shortage of caves to emerge from.
And so, in the autumn of 1973, the women’s movement - and Elizabeth Reid herself – had to make a choice.
Continue their work as revolutionaries, marching in the streets, waving placards, and trying to effect change from the outside?
Or take this unique opportunity to step into the corridors of power and see if change could be affected from within?
Thankfully for all of us – when Whitlam opened the door, Elizabeth saw the benefits to women of walking through it.
The essay provides a comprehensive account of those years honest and with analysis that is only strengthened from the distance that five decades provides.
Anyone who has watched the archival footage of Elizabeths first interview on being appointed to the role of PM adviser on women can immediately pick up the pressure and scrutiny that one person in one position was placed under.
Her treatment by the media was shocking – even to someone like me who doesn’t think they can be shocked by the media’s treatment of anyone anymore!
Whilst the accounts of the gatherings in suburban Griffith and the organising energy of the women’s liberation movement is exciting to read about and leaves one slightly envious of missing out on that, 1970’s Australia and the social conservatism that existed in many parts of the country meant Elizabeth Reid’s careful balancing act between revolution and genuine reform was a delicate one.
Reading the essay, watching that footage, and reading accounts of that time – particularly in Michelle Arrow’s collection of essays Women and Whitlam – brings home not only the enormity of the task that was before Elizabeth and her colleagues but also the strength of the resistance to her work and the incredible fortitude and resilience she displayed despite the provocation and disrespect she was shown by some.
The pressure that was placed on one appointment within government can’t be underestimated.
Not only was everyone - critics and supporters - watching what she did and how she undertook her role, but thousands of Australian women were relying on her to make their lives better.
And there was so much progress achieved during these years.
- The right to work
- Equal pay
- Access to education
The foundations of government policy being used to improve the lives of women and children began during those years.
And it wasn’t only the policy reforms which I mentioned before – it was also the structural changes within the public services, across multilateral fora, about participation in international meetings which finally had Australia as an active participant in the debates on women’s rights.
As Elizabeth herself points out in her essay – it wasn’t only the individual reforms such as legislating equal pay for work of equal value it was how those reforms changed the narrative – by breaking down entrenched societal stereotype of the male breadwinner and head of household as the accepted structure of the Australian family unit.
I regularly meet women as I travel around Australia who talk to me about how they would never have got into uni if it hadn’t been for Whitlam’s government.
And those who often emotionally recount, how no-fault divorce – meant they could start their lives again.
Now I don’t want to sugar coat those years – not everything worked, not everything that was pushed for was delivered.
And the delicate balance that Elizabeth had to navigate must have been so personally draining and disheartening at times.
But what I do know – looking back over the years that have passed – the early 70’s was a serious step change for women in this country.
There hasn’t been a time since when so much happened in such a short space of time. And importantly – where so much has lasted. The funded women’s sector today – found its feet in those years. As did the formalised childcare sector.
The bureaucracy changed forever – with the Equal Opportunity Office, assessments of impacts on women on cabinet submissions, abolishing age limits and men and women only jobs.
The social security system changed forever – legitimising the role of single parent families. And Elizabeth Reid was at the forefront of that change.
Reading and listening to interviews with Elizabeth Reid I’m struck by her composure and her cool during the heady days of the Whitlam government.
She managed the delicate dance that so few of us achieve - she worked within the structures to effect real change - while maintaining her radical heart.
A cool head and a radical heart are a potent combination in politics - and also in revolutions - and Elizabeth is a role model in this respect.
In 2023 the Parliament looks very different from when Elizabeth started at Parliament House what is now known Museum of Australian Democracy just down the road, fifty years ago.
This is first Australian Government in history to be made up of a majority (53 per cent) of women.
And the number of women in Cabinet has increased to 10 out 23 members (43 per cent) – the largest number of women ever in an Australian Federal Cabinet. But many of the struggles remain – it’s the unfinished work before us.
Women of my generation and those that have followed owe enormous gratitude to Elizabeth Reid and the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s.
Elizabeth thank you for everything you have achieved including the generosity of writing this essay and sharing your perspective, your knowledge and your advice.
You have made an enormous difference to the lives of every woman and girl in Australia through decades of dedication to women’s rights and through your work.
It’s an impressive legacy that is rightly being acknowledged tonight.
And thank you for reminding us that revolution, reform, and Labor Governments go together!