ADDRESS AT THE AUSTRALIAN CENTRE FOR LEADERSHIP FOR WOMEN
March 10, 2017
I want to start by acknowledging the traditional owners on the land, I pay my respects to their elders, and I pledge to keep walking the long road towards reconciliation.
I thank Diann Rodgers-Healey for inviting me to speak today - at such an inspiring place.
I also want to thank my friend and parliamentary colleague and your local member - Sharon Bird, the Member for Cunningham.
It’s great to be back in the Illawarra.
Happy International Women’s Day everybody!
The theme of today’s event is ‘gaining the unexpected’.
And it got me thinking.
It got me thinking about the importance of International Women’s Day.
About the importance of remembering the stories of the suffragettes.
About the importance of remembering the women who came before us.
Women who fought so hard
Women like Henrietta Dugdale – who formed the Victorian Women's Suffrage Society in 1884, the first of its kind in Australia.
Women like Edith Cowan - the first woman to be elected to an Australian parliament.
Women like Susan Ryan – who pioneered anti-discrimination and equal opportunity legislation, including the landmark Sex Discrimination Act 1984 and the Affirmative Action Act 1986.
Even though it was established more than 30 years ago – the Australian Human Rights Commission says the most commonly reported case of discrimination is against pregnant women.
I’m sure many of you were as disappointed as I was that Hillary Clinton wasn’t elected President last year.
The reaction of so many women here in Australia was one of despair and disbelief.
For many of us the US election was a depressing reminder that the chips are stacked against women.
That sexism, discrimination and gender inequality are still prevalent in modern society, especially in the workplace.
And it’s not just in politics.
Men in Australia are still paid on average about 20 per cent more than women.
I recently met with some of the young women playing in the new AFLW league.
They still don’t have equal pay but they are campaigning for it – and it’s so exciting to see a new barrier being demolished.
Clearly then gender inequality is a problem that affects all women.
So I come back to ‘gaining the unexpected’.
And I believe there have been recent unexpected gains.
Gains - that may seem unlikely at first glance.
The consequence of last year’s US election has been the emergence of new movement for change led by women.
A movement that says we want better.
Some of you might have seen on the news the speech that President Trump gave last week to Congress in Washington DC.
What you might not have seen were the many female members of congress all wearing white.
Wearing white as a show of solidarity.
Wearing white as a tribute to the generations of women who marched and fought for women’s rights.
It was an impressive sight.
And here too in Australia we’ve seen public protests led by women.
We’ve seen the issues affecting women brought into sharper focus.
We’ve seen a great groundswell for change in the area of domestic violence – led by Rosie Batty.
And it’s my hope that the current movement for change will see a new generation of women leaders.
A new generation of women – some of whom may be in this room.
Women who can bring about the next chapter of change towards gender equality.
Now some of you might think - this isn’t for me.
What do I know about politics?
You may think you’re not an activist.
Or that you’re struggling to make a difference to your own life – let alone someone else’s life.
That politics thing – it’s too hard.
Of course by being here today, by being involved in the Women’s Leadership Group, by writing your essays you’re already agitating for change.
When I was growing up in Wangaratta in the 1960s and early 1970s – I could never had anticipated that I would serve as a Member for Parliament for more than 20 years.
So let me tell you a little bit about my story.
In 1971 I was in my final year at school, Wangaratta High.
I had just returned from a year in Japan and had my eyes opened to the world.
A girl who had grown up in the country just starting to define my political views.
I gave my first speech that year, at my school, on Germaine Greer's book, The Female Eunuch that had just been released. The next wave of women’s liberation was under way.
Gough Whitlam was on his way into power.
And there was a mood for change in the air.
It was the Whitlam Government in its first week in power that removed the Commonwealth sales tax on the contraceptive pill and made it available through the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.
At the end of 1972, I volunteered in the highlands of Papua New Guinea and for those few months confronted a totally different reality.
I was on my way to doing what I could to create a more equal society.
I got heavily involved in volunteering to support women escaping domestic violence in one of the first women’s refuges in Australia.
We wanted women escaping violence to have a safe place to live and intended that the way we would deliver the service would be on feminist principles.
During the 1980s and early 1990s I had the chance to work in the political offices of two men, David White and Brian Howe who wasted not a moment of their time in Parliament.
I saw first-hand how politics can bring about change.
Brian Howe, a former Deputy Prime Minister, was a standout social policy reformer in the Hawke and Keating Governments.
Those Governments delivered Medicare and superannuation for most working people, including many women who never dreamt they would have super.
Over the 5 years from 1990 I led both the inquiries into the health system and then urban and regional development, for Brian.
He showed me how to use research and detailed policy development to deliver change.
By the mid 90’s I had decided to take the leap into Parliament.
MAKING CHANGE - PAID PARENTAL LEAVE
Once I was in the Parliament I didn’t want to just make up the numbers.
I wanted to make a difference. I’ll just give you one example.
The Whitlam Government had introduced paid parental leave for Commonwealth public servants and over the years some businesses had set up their own schemes.
But by the time I was in the Parliament more than 30 years later, a national paid parental leave scheme was still not a reality.
I had children myself by this time and knew from personal experience how important this issue was.
My partner Ross had taken a year off his job when our Louis was born, my job only gave me a few weeks off.
Many women wanted paid parental leave as a workplace entitlement.
The ACTU and some women business leaders were very important drivers of the external debate.
This is one of the important parts of delivering change: strong advocates to build the momentum.
When we were elected in 2007 I knew we needed to act quickly.
You never know how long you will have to deliver a change as big as PPL – it takes time.
I secured the agreement of Julia Gillard, at the time the Employment Minister and Deputy PM to get the Productivity Commission to do a big inquiry into how PPL could work in Australia.
This is another example of how to get detailed policy work done.
After some long and difficult internal debates, Labor’s paid parental leave scheme offered working women 18 weeks of paid leave.
I still recall visiting Sydney’s Westmead Hospital with then-Prime Minister Julia Gillard on New Year’s Day, 2011.
It was the first day the paid parental leave scheme came into operation.
The new mums we met were of course ecstatic to be new mothers.
And now they could look forward to more time at home with their newborn baby, comforted by the financial security provided by paid parental leave.
Now six years later - more than 850,000 families have benefited from Labor’s paid parental leave scheme.
It remains a landmark reform of the former Labor Government.
A reform that we should all celebrate on International Women’s Day.
Because paid parental leave has been good for working women and it’s been especially good for babies.
And despite what Pauline Hanson says – women aren’t getting pregnant to go on paid parental leave.
There is a work test associated with paid parental leave.
So I just want to bust that myth that she is trying to create.
And I also want to say once and for all that women who access both employer and the government’s PPL schemes aren’t double – dippers or fraudsters as the Liberals have claimed.
These women are using the scheme as it was designed and as it was recommended by the Productivity Commission.
And my own experience with Ross, my partner taking time off to care our children, I also wanted to do more for Dads. So we did. Dad and Partner Pay was created in 2013 – it’s still only 2 weeks but it’s a start.
In my time in politics – I can’t remember a period of such low public trust in politicians and government.
That combined with the rise of Trump and the appalling treatment of women politicians like Hillary Clinton and Julia Gillard.
It would be easy for women thinking about becoming involved in politics or political activism to say - it’s not worth it.
You may not want to put yourself through that.
But I believe it’s more important than ever for women to get involved.
As I said earlier – I think there is a new movement for change.
If you’re pessimistic about the future, then get involved.
The biggest threat to our democracy isn’t nationalism or populism.
The biggest threat to our democracy is apathy.
People not getting involved.
And that’s why I’m so encouraged to see the way so many women have reacted in recent months.
Women are coming together for change.
And change doesn’t happen by accident.
You have to fight for it.
You have to build the case for change in the community.
You have to persuade people of the need for change.
And yes, change that can improve the lives of people and create a more equal society.
So don’t be a passive spectator.
Make a difference with your own life.
Change isn’t achieved when people give up when things get hard.
My hope today is that by sharing my experiences of policy reform I will have encouraged some of you in this room to do great things for women across Australia and the globe.
Thank you and happy International Women’s Day.