Speech by The Hon Tanya Pibersek MP

Speech to Emily’s List ACT dinner

Location: Southern Cross Yacht Club, Lotus Bay, Mariner Place, Yarralumla, Canberra

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I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet this evening, the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people, and pay my respects to their elders, past and present.

I also acknowledge my Senate colleagues Kate Lundy and Louise Pratt, as well as ACT Legislative Assembly members Mary Porter AM and Joy Burch.

It was Nancy Astor who in 1922 said of women entering parliament:

“We are new brooms; let us see that we sweep the right rooms.”

Many of you would know of Astor’s story as the first woman member of the House of Commons when she was elected in 1919.

What is perhaps less well-known is that universal suffrage for all adults over 21 years of age was not achieved in the United Kingdom until 1928 – nearly ten years after Nancy Astor was elected.

Yet here in Australia, while (non-Indigenous) women were able to vote 25 years earlier than in the United Kingdom, they had to wait 25 years longer to be represented in the Federal Parliament.

It was not until 1943 that the first of Nancy Astor’s ‘new brooms’ – Dame Enid Lyons and Dame Dorothy Tangney – were elected to the Australian Parliament.

In different ways, the stories of these two women are remarkable.

Enid Lyons lost her husband – the former Prime Minister Joseph Aloysius Lyons – in 1939.

She was just 41 at the time – and became the sole parent of their 11 children.

Interviewed many years later she said:

“I had the children to try to settle into…a new life. They’d lost their father, which was to them a terrible grief because, of course, he was a wonderful father to them.”

Yet even with these massive family responsibilities – she became the first woman ever elected to the House of Representatives when she won the Tasmania seat of Darwin in 1943.

Not surprisingly – she later wrote that juggling work and home duties, organising her large family, coping with childhood illness and medical problems, liaising with teachers as well fulfilling social duties in her constituency was extremely tiring.

And of the experience of her time in Parliament, she said:

“I would sometimes look at the men about me and envy them for having wives. Were there any of those politicians, I would ask myself, who even washed their own socks?”

Fortunately – in 2009 – I am pretty confident that most of my colleagues, men and women, can operate a washing machine.

But other things have changed.

Enid Lyons was one of only four women to sit in the House of Representatives from the time of federation in 1901 until October 1980.

But in April 2009, Australia wide, and across all parties and parliaments, there are now more than 250 female parliamentarians – over 30 per cent of the total number.

From such a low base fewer than 30 years ago, this is an outstanding achievement.

And on the Labor side, it is due in no small part to Emily’s List.

When I was elected to the Parliament in 1998, twenty-four other Labor women were elected at the same time – fifteen in the House of Representatives and nine in the Senate.

There are now forty-one Labor women in the Parliament – over 35 per cent of the Labor caucus.

Happily we will probably never see a repeat of the experience of Dame Dorothy Tangney – who I mentioned earlier.

Dorothy Tangney was the first Labor woman elected to the Federal Parliament – when she became a Senator for Western Australia in 1943.

Throughout her parliamentary career, Dame Dorothy was dedicated to social justice – something she foreshadowed in her first speech where she said:

“…we must proceed with the plans which have already been partly put into operation, so that we may give to every man, woman and child in this community the social security which is their birthright.”

With my other Ministerial hat on, I found it interesting that Dame Dorothy’s daily experience in working class Fremantle during the Great Depression revealed a deep empathy with the many Australians who were still living in poor housing in the early 1940s when she said:

“Our present housing conditions are causing a great deal not only of discomfort but even of hardship to many members of the community…By homes I do not mean flats or one-room tenements. I am thinking of homes with gardens to enable families to live in decency, instead of being brought up like rabbits. In any scheme of social service we must be certain that these reforms are introduced, and that our health and education systems and our housing facilities give to the worker, and indeed to every other member of the community, what he has a right to expect.”

Dorothy Tangney served for a quarter of a century in the Australian Parliament – the second longest of any woman in our history – a distinguished political career by anyone’s reckoning.

Yet I am sure it remained a great source of disappointment to her that she never served with another Labor woman for that entire 25 year period.

Because while Dorothy Tangney was the first Labor member of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party – the second and third, Joan Child and Susan Ryan – did not arrive until 1974, six years after she had departed.

Thankfully – times have changed since the days when Enid Lyons and Dorothy Tangney served in the Federal Parliament.

Women are now more consistently achieving high office, good pay and significant influence.

The days of women not being represented – or at the very least seriously under-represented – in the corridors of power are behind us, thanks to the enormous effort over generations of many inspirational women here in Australia and around the world.

It is hard to argue in an Australia that has a Deputy Prime Minister, a Governor General and a Deputy Leader of the Opposition who are all women, that women as a group are locked out of political leadership.

In five of our eight States and Territories, a woman has served as Premier or Chief Minister.

Across our society more broadly, more women than men are graduating from university.

Women live longer, and generally lead healthier, happier lives than men.

If women are doing well by so many indicators, why is it necessary to continue to argue for equal representation?

Because the battles have not yet been won.

Women earn 17 per cent less than men.

Poor economic outcomes in mid-life are exacerbated in later life – with older women making up 60 per cent of those on the Age Pension.

Research by the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling has found that over a 40-year period, women will have earned $1.5 million.

Yet men will earn one and a half times more – $2.4 million over the same 40-year period.

Women’s poorer economic outcomes are obviously compounded when relationships breakdown.

Greater equality economically and socially between men and women benefits us all.

It is obviously good for women – and despite the fact that men might have to share some of the better jobs, it is good for men too.

By limiting women’s opportunities through discrimination, inflexible workplaces or social expectations – we are also limiting the opportunity for men to be equal parents and hands-on nurturers.

Improving women’s choices and earning capacity reduces pressures on men to be sole breadwinners.

There is also a compelling body of evidence that gender equality is good for the economy as a whole.

The Economist magazine noted in 2006 that women’s economic participation had been fundamental to recent economic growth when it said:

“Forget China, India and the Internet: economic growth is driven by women.”

It is time for Australia to rethink the way we support women and men to both work and care.

Part of this can be done by giving men the opportunity to have a much greater role in caring.

Of all the household care performed, fathers only do about ten percent alone, in sole charge of children.

Yet research by the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency tells us that over 60 per cent of men would like to spend more time with their children – and believe that work commitments prevent them from doing so.

A new generation of fathers is seeking the opportunity to play a more active role in family life – yet the number of men able to work part time to better share the care of young children is still small.

Unfortunately it is still rare for workplace culture and expectations to be supportive of family-friendly arrangements for fathers.

But things are changing.

While there is no doubt that Paid Parental Leave will be remembered in the future as a lasting public policy achievement for women – my hope is that it will also be a boon for men.

This is more important than ever before as we need more men to be supported as equal partners in child rearing from the beginning.

Equal caring allows fathers to share in the joy that parenthood brings.

It also sets in place positive family culture where mum and dad are equally likely to do less glamorous jobs like cleaning, ironing and the mashing of food.

And by assisting more men to take parental leave, we can help to rebalance the inequities women continue to face at home and at work.

To conclude – Emily’s List makes a terrific contribution to improving women’s representation across Australian public life.

I think at last count you had supported over 120 new women MPs into parliaments around Australia.

We have come a long way since the formative experiences of Enid Lyons and Dorothy Tangney – but there is still a long way to go.

Beyond the statistics, even in 2007, when Anna Bligh became Premier of Queensland, she told Australian Story:

“When I became Premier it was one of the most frequently asked questions in the first couple of days: What difference would it make having a woman Premier? And you know, I had to say, “I don’t know, I’ve never done it as a bloke! Who knows? Let’s wait and see.” I think one of the differences frankly is just that it is still a bit of a novelty.”

I look forward to the day when the significant achievements of women like Anna Bligh are no longer regarded simply as ‘a bit of a novelty’.

There is definitely no lack of talented women in Australia.

The participation of women in Australian political life has been hard won.

It should not be taken for granted – because the decisions we make as a community are better when we use all the information, all the life experience and all the talent our nation has to offer.

Perhaps one day I might even be able to come back to you and say with confidence that all the men in the Federal Parliament really do wash their own socks.

Thank you.