SPEECH TO NATIONAL LABOR WOMEN'S CONFERENCE 2023
SATURDAY 10 JUNE, 2023
I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the lands on which we meet, the Whadjuk-Noongar people, and pay respects to elder’s past, present and emerging.
I honour their custodianship and care for the country.
I extend that respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples from all points of the southern sky.
In the same spirit of respect and reconciliation, I look forward to working together as part of the Albanese Labor Government to implement the Uluru Statement from the Heart in full, including a constitutionally enshrined Voice to our National Parliament.
I thank and acknowledge Aunty Colleen Hayward AM.
To my Federal Parliamentary colleagues - it is great to see you here.
Thank you for your messages of support this week.
I acknowledge the many State Ministers and MPs present.
To all of you here at this conference - I want to thank you for coming, and for all that you do to further the cause of women across Australia.
Thank you, the Labor Women’s conference, for inviting me to speak today. I know how much work goes into events like this. So, you’ll have a rest – probably tomorrow night, after putting it all on.
I’d also like the acknowledge the other speakers who join us today including my friend and colleague Senator Penny Wong, and the Secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, Sally McManus.
Today in the time I’ve been given, I’m going to reflect a bit on how we got where we are today and covering the power and the struggle of women to bring about change through activism through the Labor Party and by the Labor Party. And I’m doing this because in history informs the present and it also informs paths we might go down in the future.
In April 1973, Canberra academic, Elizabeth Reid, arrived in the office of Gough Whitlam to begin an historic appointment – as Australia’s first ever women’s adviser.
And in fact Reid’s appointment was a world-first.
But it was an appointment that some within the movement criticised.
They thought it took Reid from an outsider to insider, from activist to apparatchik.
Reid arrived in the position as a “seasoned activist.”
A member of the Women’s Liberation Movement and the Women’s Electoral Lobby, this activism included: abortion law reform, same sex law reform and the fight for the recognition of rape within marriage.
But that activism didn’t stop the moment she got her pass to Parliament.
Reid’s activism could be seen in so many things she achieved in the two and a half years she was Whitlam’s advisor for women.
Under Reid’s guidance, Whitlam, a strong advocate for women in his own right, reopened the equal pay case, extended the minimum wage to women, introduced paid maternity leave in the public service,established a single mother's benefit, funded community childcare, made the Pill easier and cheaper, introduced accessible no-fault divorce, and funded refuges and women’s health centres.
Reid emphasised the need for all Cabinet submissions to include an assessment of their impact on women, so that women and their lives were visible in decision making.
She was ahead of her time. And this is a process that we in the Albanese government have brought back in after 10 years of Coalition government where women’s policy languished as an add-on once all the other decisions had been taken.
In fact, really it wasn’t even an add-on – since Scott Morrison, when he awarded himself all those extra ministries still stayed well clear of giving himself the Women’s portfolio. Unlike Tony Abbott – who gave it to himself when he realised he forgot about it in the administrative orders.
Looking back with 2023 eyes, where there is a Labor Caucus that is majority women, it shocks me that until 1972, no major party had women’s policy.
What followed in those brief few years of activity where Reid and Whitlam pulled the levers was nothing short of a revolution for women in this country.
Writer Helen Garner spoke for a lot of women of her time when she said,
“Feminism came like a bombshell into my life in the early 70s and enabled all sorts of things for me. It’s been a liberating force in my life and I’ll always be grateful for that.”
Before Whitlam, Reid – and others of her generation, had cut their teeth in protest marches and meetings.
I loved reading about that time in the excellent book by Michelle Arrow – Women and Whitlam.
Even though the book has just been released, my copy is a total wreck – totally bookmarked and dog-eared.
In chapters written by different women, they talked about the excitement and energy of that era.
It’s a thrilling read.
There were the parties in the L-shaped houses in the Canberra suburbs that I know so well, with the men in safari suits and the women in flares – free-range children under-foot.
They wrote of a time where taboos were smashed, of old norms falling away. Of women going into places previously off limits – the front bars of pubs, for example, swearing and drinking in a deliberate provocation of what was thought of as lady-like at the time.
And they wrote about the conscious raising sessions and meetings in women’s homes, their share houses, and suburban kitchen tables, and community halls.
The women’s movement in Australia started in these small groups and spread.
When Reid was appointed, she went around the country having meetings with women of all backgrounds.
She met women from the land, women from factories, First Nations women, migrant women,
educated women, working class women, older women, students.
It was a listening tour – to hear how women lived and hear what they really wanted.
She was listening and also reading. Apart from the PM – Gough Whitlam, Reid received more letters than any other politician in Canberra.
But what Reid was actually engaging in was a mass consciousness raising exercise.
Around the country women were meeting, and women were speaking out. And in articulating where they were and what they wanted; they were able to see the gap between these two states.
It is that gap that informs what action must take place to progress the cause of women.
Once you raise the consciousness – you’ve done a crucial part.
Change cannot happen without it.
Raising consciousness is the rising of the hackles and of the heart rate.
It’s the flicker of anger, the disturbance in the gut, the feeling that something isn’t right, that there’s an injustice.
That something must change.
And you are possibly the one to change it.
Once your consciousness has been raised it’s hard to go back to how things were.
The next step is to act.
Great advances for women have only occurred when consciousness has been raised, and when women have acted.
In the late 1960s Zelda D’Aprano honoured in Melbourne last month with the unveiling of a new statue. In the late 1960s, she paid only 75 per cent of her fare when travelling on the tram to reflect the gender pay gap at the time of 25 per cent.
And she led a pub crawl to protest against women being restricted to ladies’ lounges in pubs, where the drinks were of course more expensive.
She sounds like my type of feminist!
Then there’s Ruby Rich.
In 1923 she was introduced to the Feminist Club of New South Wales, which activated her politically.
The rest of her life was spent furthering the cause of women, including reproductive rights.
Or Louisa Lawson, who campaigned for women's right in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Lawson, was a publisher of a journal “Dawn,” concerned with women’s issues, and did this while dealing with her wayward son, Henry Lawson.
Or feminist and suffragist Vida Goldstein, who stood as an independent candidate in 1910 and 1917 for the Senate and in 1913 and 1914 for the House of Representatives.
Each of those had their consciousness raised by an injustice.
Each of them had seen a gap, in women’s pay, in Indigenous women’s education, in women having a public voice, in women’s reproductive rights, in women having a vote.
And that is where their action took place.
Their actions changed the country – and progressed the cause of women.
Now you never hear the words “consciousness raising” anymore.
The term carries a big whiff of the 1970s and is as of its time as bellbottoms jeans and fondue sets.
The term woke would probably be the modern equivalent.
It means to be awake to the structural injustice you experience.
It says something about how this has been co-opted into an insult, about how threatened people are of this awareness.
People are threatened because it is the spark that ignites the activism.
And without activism, there is no progress.
As I look at you all here – Labor activists almost 50 years after Whitlam, there must have been a consciousness or a spark that ignited and brought you here today, something about the Labor party that made it your cause.
For me when I joined, when I stood for Parliament, it was the fact there were no women in the parliamentary Labor Party in the ACT. And in the year 2000 I just couldn’t accept that. I didn’t want to be a politician but I put my name on the ballot paper and somehow got elected. But it was the point of standing up – and the ACT Parliament has now been 50 percent women for some time.
Consciousness raising still occurs – thank goodness - but it now takes on new forms.
It takes the form of the women’s marches that occurred in Canberra outside Parliament House and across the country in 2021.
It takes the form of the MeToo hashtag and subsequent stories of women who suffered sexual abuse and harassment that were shared across the internet and in the news.
It takes the form of a tweet, Instagram post or a call out such as when Chanel Contos asked via an Instagram story how many young people in the private school system had experienced sexual harassment or assault.
Hundreds of young women responded. The common issue was a lack of consent.
And in that space, Chanel took action and is now a sexual consent activist, who fights to get consent taught through schools.
But most activism comes from the names we don’t always hear.
All the women that attend the meetings, the rallies, the forums, the gatherings.
The women across Australia in 2021 who attended the marches and said, “enough is enough.”
The unions who fought for equal pay, for an increase in wages for aged care workers, for ASU members during the Gillard government who received an overhaul of pay and conditions.
It is the women that spoke out under the #MeToo hashtag and the women that supported those women that spoke.
On reading Woman and Whitlam what stood out were all the women who weren’t necessarily named in the book or known in history but whose contributions were part of the tapestry of the movement.
The women who participated at every level and all different levels.
Their contribution and their participation made a difference.
Their contribution and participation gave energy, support and impetus to the front women of the movement.
In September 1975, women came to Canberra from all over the country for a Women and politics conference.
More than 700 women in groups as disparate as the CWA to Woman’s lib converged.
The goals of these women were often not shared but it expanded political horizons - and started political careers.
A Labor government brought all these women together to listen and to feed the concerns on the ground into policy.
Labor is, and should always work to remain, the natural home for all women who see that change needs to happen and are prepared to do something about it. And who recognise the power of government to achieve that change.
Labor was the home for Elizabeth Reid, and others of her generation, and it remains the home for progressive women who agitated within structures and outside structures to change things for the better for women of this country.
It is home for all of you who are here today, who have also seen your fair share of meetings, protesting, marching, organising.
And you’ve done your fair share of noticing and calling out, of talking and thinking and you are doing it under the umbrella of a party that will walk with you on that path to change.
A party that you have helped shape and will continue to shape.
Labor is the natural home of those that want to make society a better place and it always has been.
It’s the natural home of the worker, the union, the working class.
It’s the natural home of those that wanted to reform the health system so that everyone no matter rich or poor could access top quality health care.
It’s the natural home of those fighting for constitutional recognition of our first peoples.
And it’s the natural home of women.
In Labor there is in the DNA of the party, a willingness to do something about the gaps we see in society.
And importantly, a willingness, born of our connection to movement, to hold space for the contest of ideas, for the campaigns and the struggle inside our party that are key to momentum and moving forward.
As a party and a movement, we work to fill those gaps – and take people with us – to a place of higher ground.
One of these gaps that Labor has been prepared to fill, is women in the party.
In political history – after getting the Vote in 1902, the Liberal party initially lead the way on women getting elected.
For Liberals “quotas” are a dirty word – but for Labor it was a solution – a way of overcoming a gap and rectifying an injustice.
On 26 September 1994, and I know many of you will have been in the room, the ALP made a decision to introduce quotas for women at that National Conference.
This decision prescribed that 35 per cent of candidates preselected for winnable federal parliamentary seats must be women, whether the ALP was in government or in opposition – by 2002.
In 2012 this was replaced by the 40:40:20 quota.
In 2022, for the first time in Australian history, a majority women government was elected federally.
And now there are now 55 women in a Labor Caucus out of 104 MPs.
We know who is at the decision-making table matters.
And increased diversity of lived experience results in better outcomes for women.
We have brought in changes such as cheaper childcare, increased paid parental leave, the expansion of the Single Parents’ Payment and the abolition of the punitive ParentsNext scheme and fair pay for aged care workers. But there is a lot more to be done, my friends.
Change sometimes feels achingly slow in the making.
Other times it seems to come from nowhere – so suddenly, it feels – as Garner describes – like a bombshell.
But this seemingly sudden onset of change only happens because of the work of women like all of you here today.
Women who support the cause of gender equality in the Labor party, and Labor policies of gender equality that will benefit all Australians.
Women who know there is nothing sudden about these moments.
Moments are the work of years.
It is women seeing an injustice, having their consciousness raised and doing something about it.
It is women across time and space, bound by an invisible thread that connects all of us in the movement whether our names are known or unknown.
That invisible thread is the commitment to changing things for women and for giving women a fairer deal.
There are many forces against progressive change – ranging from inertia to outright hostility.
At the heart of the fight is power.
What we have done since the suffragettes, and the birth of the union movement, is the fight to get our share, to live up to the promises of what democracy and equality really is.
But we know in politics power isn’t relinquished without a fight.
Activists and politicians have different ideas about whether the best way is to agitate within or outside power structures.
This was a live issue in the 1970s but less so now I think. I think we have arrived somewhere more of like that taco ad which is “why not both?”
We need all the activists and all the women with the different skills, backgrounds, views and personalities that bring those skills to the fight.
My arena, the area where I fight, is in politics and in policy.
But it is the work of the women in the Labor party rank and file, and activists in the women’s space that inform a lot of what I do.
What we do in numbers changes the nation.
And it doesn’t matter if you are an activist or a politician, or a bit of both.
History doesn’t care change is change and in the grand sweep of history, the women in the future benefitting from the change won’t judge you for which change pathway you travelled.
Whether you bend your arm and build your muscles as an activist or in the parliament, they’ll be disagreements and debate but ultimately change and progress is agnostic to the process.
Progress is progress.
Elizabeth Reid believed in “living the revolution.”
You mobilise women – you raise consciousness – that’s the first part, then you change the systems that deny women full personhood and agency.
The story of consciousness raising is the story of the consciousness of our nation.
It’s got us to where we are now.
But the fight is ongoing, and I thank all of you for playing your part.