Speech by The Hon Kate Ellis MP

Address to the Don Dunstan Foundation celebration event 35th Anniversary of the passing of equal opportunity legislation in South Australia “Passing the Baton”

Speech delivery location: Bonython Hall, University of Adelaide


There is something really special about having such a large gathering celebrating what is a momentous occasion. And I must say from a personal point of view, I am particularly delighted to be here today because the truth is that the changes we are celebrating today happened before my time. They happened before I was even born.

And this is really an opportunity for me to recognise the fact that just because I wasn’t around, my life has been affected by them each and every day, and my life has been affected by the hard work of so many women in particular, but also men and amazing premiers who have made a real difference to the world that I was lucky enough to be born into, to the family, to my mother’s role working and raising me. And this is an important opportunity for me to say thank you to these women, and thank you to all of you who worked so hard.


I’d also like to particularly thank the Don Dunstan Foundation. I think it’s wonderful that we are here tonight celebrating great South Australian successes. And I for one, am someone who, to be honest, is often sick and tired of hearing about what we can’t do, hearing about our failures, hearing about this alleged attitude in South Australia, in Adelaide, of not going ahead and not doing things.

I think what tonight is, is a reminder that we have a proud reformist tradition in this State, particularly when it comes to women’s rights. On so many occasions, South Australia has led the way. That is something that I’m incredibly proud of, that’s something we should all be incredibly proud of. But I think it’s also something that reminds us of just what a dynamic and a remarkable place that we call home. And that we can lead the country, and we must continue to do that.

It is clear from the history of gender policy that this is something that is very special to South Australia and to South Australians. We know that when David Tonkin first introduced the Private Member’s Bill, later picked up by Don Dunstan and passed through the Parliament, that as Anne said, there were no speeches opposing that Bill from either side of the South Australian Parliament.

Now some years later, when the Federal legislation was introduced, sadly that was not the case. And if anybody wants a laugh, you should reflect on some of the speeches that were made at the time, which indicated that if Australia dared pass sex discrimination laws at the Federal level, then society as we know it would collapse, it was unAustralian, it would lead to the breakdown of the family, it would turn the place into an absolute mess.

Now of course that wasn’t the case. But I do think it is special and it is remarkable that in South Australia, both sides of politics worked together to bring about this important change.

And when it came to the 20th anniversary of this legislation, the Hon Justice Catherine Branson spoke on the occasion, and she noted in her speech on the Act that a sense of optimism infused the debates on the Sex Discrimination Bill. And that people generally believed that the legislation would soon enable women to participate equally with men in all aspects of life.

Now, what a difference 35 years makes. In some ways, the issues that confront us now are even more challenging because they’re not as obvious. They’re not as obvious as when women can’t go and get bank loans without having a male guarantor. They’re not as obvious as when women can’t go to a bar. They’re not as obvious as when we are being obviously shut out of institutions.

But that does not mean that they don’t exist. And I think that tonight, I’d really like to focus on the fact that we must not become victims of the successes of the women that went before us. The fact that we managed to break down so many barriers and so many obvious walls cannot hold us back from those that remain.

And despite significant social changes in the past 35 years, it is the more subtle barriers to true equality that trouble us today.

Now, as it’s been mentioned we have a female Prime Minister and a female Governor General, and hooray for that, I think that’s wonderful. But they are also very obvious symbols which mean that, when I came into this portfolio just a few months ago, I can’t tell you the number of men, and indeed the number of women, who said, why do we need a Minister for the Status of Women?Look, we’ve got the Prime Minister, we’ve got the Finance Minister who’s a woman, the Health Minister is a woman, Families and Community Services is headed by a woman. Women are everywhere, why do you need a Minister for the Status of Women?

And, I think there’s probably a lot more people that thought it, than the people that asked the question. I’m sure there’s someone in this room that can tell me, but from my research, it’s the first time since 1979 that now at a Federal level, the Status of Women has now been downgraded from a Ministerial position and the Opposition have put it as a Parliamentary Secretary position.

Now, I think what all this means is that together, we need to make sure that we keep making the case. We need to make sure that we keep highlighting what the next obstacles are.

And just touching on some of them briefly, some obstacles to equality remain absolutely entrenched. Women still find themselves marginalised economically, socially at work, and even though they are joining the workforce in greater numbers than ever.

ABS statistics tell us that women currently earn 83 cents for every dollar earned by men. And, to put this in context, if current earning patterns continue, the average 25 year old male today will earn $2.4 million over the next 40 years. The average 25 year old woman will earn $1.5 million, which of course is almost $1 million less over her working life.

Now these sound like really big figures when you’re talking about earning that much money, but the reality is that women remain disproportionately reliant on Australia’s pension system. That in June 2010, women represented over 70 per cent of all old age pensioners. Family breakdown, the low value placed on caring roles, and limited access to superannuation, mean that women are more likely to slip into poverty and more likely to slip into poverty earlier in life.

Now far from the really obvious symbols we might have had in the past, far from women being barred from organisations, I think that it is a tragedy if we don’t recognise that we still have very big obstacles ahead. And often it’s the women that we can’t see, it’s the women that might not have a voice, it’s the women who might not be on the front pages of the newspapers talking about their plight in life. But if women are slipping into poverty in their older age then I think that is a very big issue, and one that means we need to address the economic security as women as a mainstream priority.

The other issue is that whilst Australia is first in the world for women’s educational attainment, it ranks only 24th in the world for women’s economic participation and opportunity. Now something is clearly going wrong between those two statistics. There’s a clear gap between women graduating in equal or greater numbers and their professional fulfilment and their full participation in the economic life of the nation.

Despite making up 45 per cent of Australia’s total work force, women remain grossly underrepresented in leadership and management skills, in virtually all sectors. In the private sector, women hold around one in eight executive management positions, and women hold less than nine per cent of private board directorships of our top companies. We’ve dropped behind all of our OECD counterparts on the number of women on corporate boards, with the exception of Japan.

And we only need to look at the statistics when we look at violence towards women, just how big an issue remains. One in three women subjected to physical violence in their lifetime. One in five Australian subjected to sexual assaults. These figures are horrifying, and they show that whilst we have a lot to celebrate tonight, we absolutely have a whole lot of work to do and we should never ever forget the task which lies before us still.

Now the truth is there is no silver bullet when we are talking about solutions to these issues. We need a combination of policies. We need to make sure that we have fair work policies, access to business, access to education, access to child care, access to the whole range of different Government supports. And I guess without following through, all of the policy announcements and all of the new programs that we’re putting in place tonight.

I would just like to say that I want to assure, particularly the South Australian women who are here tonight, the South Australian women who work so hard to bring about these changes, that each and every day as a woman, I am grateful for the changes that came about. But I am also inspired by the efforts which we’ve seen, the real results that we can see, to bring about change. And I know that it’s my job as a legislator to make sure that we continue to bring about that change because I know we’ve got a whole lot of work to do.

So congratulations to all of those who’ve worked hard to bring these laws, and it’s my hope that we have gatherings like this in the future. I was going to say that one day my daughters will be here celebrating but as I don’t have a daughter and I don’t want you all to have to wait for that, so I’ll leave that well alone.

But I do hope that we are here again in the future with a whole range of milestones, and particularly that South Australia continues to lead the nation. Thank you very much.