Feminist, social activist, public servant and journalist, Marie Coleman was the first woman to head an Australian national statutory authority, the National Social Welfare Commission.
Marie has has spent over 60 years campaigning against the gender pay gap and other social injustices. A founder of the National Foundation for Australian Women she was instrumental in establishing the Australian Women’s Archives Project and lobbied for the Commonwealth paid parental leave legislation.
Marie has been awarded the Order of Australia, the Public Service Medal, the Centenary Medal of the Public Service Institute, and an Edna Ryan award in government. She was inducted into the Victorian Honour Roll of Women and chosen as 2011 ACT Senior Australian of the Year.
Presented by the Canberra and District Historical Society.
Image: Bob Givens, Portrait of Marie Coleman, 6 August 2005 (detail), nla.cat-vn3573210
2019 Canberra Day Oration
*Speakers: Nick Swain (N), Marie Coleman (M), Richard Reid (R)
*Location: National Library of Australia
N: Good afternoon, everybody. We’re just ticked over 12:00 and welcome to the 2019 Canberra Day Oration and a very special welcome to any distinguished guests, any MLAs, political candidates or whatever, good to see you here. My name’s Nick Swain and I’m the President of the Canberra and Districts Historical Society. Our Society’s very grateful for this oration and also assisting with publicity and it’s certainly worked, there’s a great crowd here today. Special thanks to Catherine Martin who’s the National Library’s Events Co-ordinator.
As a historical society it’s especially important that we acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet today. I pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging. Our Society very much appreciates their long and continuing contribution to the area’s history and custodianship.
As many of you know today is the 106th anniversary of the naming of Canberra, on the 12th of March 1913. This year the Canberra Day public holiday was yesterday but we always hold this oration on the actual anniversary, today. The Society has sought to commemorate Canberra Day since its formation in 1953 and since 2002 we’ve invited prominent Canberra residents to reflect on aspects of Canberra’s past, to comment on the present and to contemplate the future. This is what the Canberra Day Oration is about, where we’ve come from, what that indicates and where we might be going.
So – now by way of introduction I’ll tell you a very little about our 2019 Canberra Day orator, Marie Coleman. I’ve had a look at her CV and it’s so densely filled with experiences, achievements in a variety of fields ranging from journalism to social policy, public service and social activism that I’m just simply not game to summarise them especially when shortly you will hear about some of Marie’s experiences firsthand.
The little I will say is this. Marie came from quite a humble country New South Wales background and progressed through her education to be actively involved in many aspects of life at Sydney University. After university she made many significant contributions in the complex area of social welfare policy and continues to do so. In recent years she has received a swag of well deserved awards including being made an Officer of the Order of Australia.
The subject of Marie Coleman’s oration is Canberra, Significant Changes in the Balance of Power. There will be time for questions at the end and there will be a short vote of thanks by Vice President, Dr Richard Reid before we leave at 1pm and we do have to get out at 1pm. So I’ll now hand you over to Marie Coleman and we’ll hear an interesting oration. Thank you, Marie.
M: Well thank you very much, Mr President, and greetings to distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen. I was engaging in greeting to distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen and I too would like to recognise the traditional owners of the place on which we meet.
Now I find it alarming actually that I’m supposed to be delivering an oration. It has certain connotations which are not going to be consistent with what you’re going to hear. It’s more going to be – let me think, well put it this way, when I wander sometimes through the excellent bookshop here or the bookshop up at Parliament House that I pick up the newest edition of somebody’s political memoirs, I tend to read snatches of it, particularly of the periods where I was around, and say ah one more unreliable memory. So that’s what you’re going to be subjected to today, another unreliable memory. There will be no footnotes issues.
I’d also like to make the remark that having said that as I was sitting last Saturday reading The Canberra Times which I endeavour to do partly as a patriotic gesture as a Canberran, I came across a review by Chris – title of the book is The Seventies and because I was being particularly pusillanimous about preparing this address I was tempted to read that review out to you. But much of what is described by Chris Wallace – and notice that caveat, I haven’t read the book yet – forms the backdrop to much – to some of the things that I want to talk about today.
I suppose it would be fair – sometimes I resist that – well anyway it is not unreasonable to say that I have from outside observation lived now for many years a life of activism in public policy. That’s not usually the sort of statement that people who’ve been senior public servants make because to be an activist is anathema to the senior public servant. So perhaps I would say that for 25 years of the last 50 I’ve been an activist outside the public sector and for about 25 years I’ve been sort of an activist covertly within the public sector.
It might be useful to talk a little bit about how I came to be invited to work in Canberra in the first instance because we do have a tendency I think to look at what people have been doing from the time they were established in the Canberra scene so to speak rather than to wonder how they got here. Now I’d been living near but not in Melbourne and working in Melbourne for some time after my return from the UK in 1955. I was initially writing broadcast scripts for the ABC, both radio and later for television then I did some public relations work and then once my youngest child turned three and was at preschool - we had three-year-old preschool in those days in the part of outer Melbourne where I lived – I looked for more regular work.
Now I wasn’t able to join the Commonwealth Public Service which somebody invited me to do because of the marriage. People here will – many of the greyer-haired people will remember the marriage bar – and in the event I got a job as a medical social worker at the Preston North Community Hospital. For those of you are not old Melbournians the Preston North Community Hospital, which by the way no longer exists, was situated on the edge of what had been the Heidelberg Housing Commission redevelopment and again for those of you with Melbourne memories you may recall that the Heidelberg Housing Commission development came into being as part of the Victorian Government planning for the 1956 Olympic Games. Then immediately after it had been the Games village a vast number of people were moved in there from temporary housing. Some people were still living in tent cities on some of the fringes of Melbourne suburbs in the middle ‘50s, something we forget and many of the people who were moved into Heidelberg Housing Commission area were people who were quite disadvantaged and had had long histories of housing instability.
So there I was working at a fairly pointy edge with people who had disadvantages but for whom access to a public hospital was crucial. Now remember this is 1963, ’64, there is no such thing as a universal healthcare system, no such thing as a universal healthcare system. There was no provision at a significant level for people who – person who’d come into hospital and had a stroke and was unable to be cared for at home. There was no general availability of long-time nursing care. There were the remnants of the big old institutions, some of which are dated from the gold rush such as the Bendigo Home and Hospital for the Incurables. I don’t think it’s still called that.
So one of the things that happened to me was that I had thrust upon me immediately having to deal with people who were usually suffering from a lot of financial crisis as well as their health crisis. To give you an example of the kind of thing I mean I had been called one day when I’d got into work to deal with somebody who was in the maternity ward. This was a woman who was approximately my own age. She had – she was on what was then called a class B widow’s pension. We had two classes of widows’ pensioners in those days – this is the Commonwealth pension, of course. Class A were women who had been actually married, known formerly as de jure widows and who had either been divorced or whose husband was deceased. There was also the class B widow’s pension which was for people who had been in a relationship of a given period who were known as de facto widows, that is to say they hadn’t had the blessing of the marriage ceremony.
This particular lady of my own age was in that unfortunate position of being a de facto widow and she had two children by the relationship which had entitled her to be a class B widow and in respect of those beneficent government was paying her a parenting payment – these names of these payments kept on – keep on changing over the years so I won’t attempt to be historically totally accurate – and of course she was entitled to – through the pension a medical scheme, to hospital care for herself and her two children.
The issue was that she was in the maternity ward because she had had a brief relationship with a gentleman who had vanished on hearing of her pregnancy. Now this meant that I had the pleasure of having to explain to this unfortunate woman that it was hospital policy that she was covered during her day in the hospital but because the infant of which she’d just been delivered was not a child of the relationship for which she qualified for the class B widow’s pension, that child was not covered. Were the child to remain in the hospital for any reason she would be charged a daily fee for the child being there.
It was also my sad duty to explain to her that the Commonwealth would be very unlikely to give her any kind of parenting payments in respect of this new baby as indeed it would not be possible for that child to be covered by the pensioner medical scheme entitlement that she and the other two children had which was pretty invidious, bit of a shock to me looking – looking back on it this was something that began to really stir my interest in policies that we had towards women who had children outside matrimony, otherwise known as unmarried mothers, and what the hell we were doing about health insurance to assist people with the cost of medical and hospital care. So it became necessary for me because I had that kind of habit of mind to try to understand and get more into the depth of these things.
Now I was very fortunate that I fell in with the Victorian Council of Social Service at that stage and through - Melbourne is a place of connections. I also discovered that John Deeble and Dick Scotton were working on their doctorates at the University of Melbourne with Ronald Henderson and they were working on the issue of how one might develop better ways to manage payments for hospital and medical services.
So we began not at the request of Dick and John but alongside that probably what was the first of many campaigns that I became involved in to try to promote better public understanding of why these things were a public policy issue. Such was the relative innocence of Melbourne in those days that it was remarkably easy to place stories with The Melbourne Herald and the media were always very happy to have interesting stories to talk about. So that when Dick and John did announce their proposed model at an ANZAS conference in New Zealand I think it was in about ’71 or ’72 – somebody here may remember that year better than I do – we had an actual proposal for a model of national health insurance which we could throw our energy behind. That in itself became one of the campaigns which had brought me to the attention of the then federal Labor Party then in opposition.
Another matter which had brought me into some kind of notice was we then began to – one seemed to be running campaigns at a vast rate. We ran a campaign on the need for some kind of nursing home payment by the Commonwealth which was successful in the sense that the Commonwealth did introduce a nursing home payment. But during that period I spoke with many organisations and entities and it was not a politically partisan exercise. Indeed I remember once I was addressing the national conference of the - no, it was the state conference of the women’s section of the Liberal Party, was being chaired by Senator Dame Ivy Wedgwood and the federal Minister for Health then was a Dr Jim Forbes, not a medical doctor.
But as he was speaking he was talking about the wonders of what the Commonwealth policy was and Dame Ivy sent me a note down along the table which when I opened it read don’t let him get away with that. I find it hard to imagine such a thing happening these days but it was very interesting that there was a much more open situation about the discussion of some of these issues.
But it’s also worthwhile, going back to the point I was meant to make about bringing up the subject of this book by Michelle Arrow, it’s very easy to forget what an incredible foment most western societies, including Australia, was in – were in in the ’50s and early ‘70s. This was a time of – in this country of the wars – of public dissatisfaction with the war in Vietnam, street marches organised by Dr Jim Cairns – I’ve never quite forgotten my sainted mother who was a lifelong Liberal voter telling me one day that she had gone out into the streets to support Dr Cairns and I raised my eyebrows and she said he is a doctor, Marie.
But putting that to one side we saw in that period the so-called swinging ‘60s, yes, but there was an immense growth of countercultural organisations of people forming groups which were based around the proposition that they were entitled to be heard. I remember Winston McCaughey coming back from a posting with her then husband, Patrick, in the States and Winston was seized with the idea of converting everybody to community-controlled childcare. Now at that stage in Melbourne there were a very limited number of public childcare centres and - this is a true story – the occasional childcare centre run by Melbourne City Council actually had a chute that you could deliver a child down if you were in a hurry.
To my personal recollection the South Sydney Municipal Childcare Centre which was run by an S of a woman who was a nurse would not permit a parent to go beyond the first corridor so the parents never penetrated into where children were because of the risk of infection. So the idea of community-controlled childcare was an idea whose time had come, to use a phrase of that period, so there was community childcare movement. A group of very solidly middleclass girls got together and formed what was going to be the Breastfeeding Society but they were told that Breastfeeding was a tad risqué so they became the Nursing Mothers’ Federation of Australia. A group of former psychiatric patients got together and formed a self-help group for people who had had psychiatric illness.
I cannot begin to convey to you if you don’t remember that period how shocking these things were to the establishment quite apart from Billy Mackie Snedden describing one of Jim Cairns’ marches in advance as going to be a group of bikies pack-raping democracy. I do recall that a lot of my friends who were extremely respectful ladies from Melbourne got out and marched because of that.
But turning to the single mothers’ side of things we began to see the formation of groups of women representing single mothers and I was at a conference where the Professional Association was about to debate the psychopathology of unmarried mothers when a particularly difficult social worker – I say that with admiration – called Eric Benjamin got to his feet and said I’d like to introduce – and he produced a young woman, again of impeccable middleclass characteristics, who is going to explain to you how she became an unmarried mother. Which she did, to the great mortification of all of the social workers there.
So we’re talking about a period of listening to consumers, of thinking that things had to change in some way and that’s before we get to the enthusiasm with which Gough Whitlam and co were advancing the idea of it’s time. So it was that I was invited by Mr Whitlam in the event that he won office to come to Canberra as a Commissioner of a combined Health and Welfare Commission. The Health Commissioner would be Dr Sydney Sacks, I would be the Welfare Commissioner and there would be an integrated health and welfare administration in Canberra.
Now that didn’t happen. Long story, the caucus elected Dr Doug Everingham to the Ministry and health was split back off and Syd became chair of the Hospitals and Health Services Commission. I became chair of the Social Welfare Commission and we began a period there of much more openness at government level to inputs from consumers. I can remember Minister Hayden had a group of people put together to talk about benefits, unemployment benefits I think it was in particular and he actually insisted on having some people who’d actually been on unemployment benefits participate in the discussions. These sorts of changes I think were being felt across all the areas of social policy.
One of the other things which was occurring at that time of course was the Ronald Henderson-chaired Royal Commission into Poverty in Australia. The ideology of that in itself was interesting because it had come about because the churches and the others in the community had been agitating about the level of poverty in Australia and in some way that had persuaded William Wentworth, then the Minister for Social Services, of the importance of looking at poverty in Australia. Indeed one afternoon I got – this was before I – not long before I came to Canberra I’d had a phone call from David Scott who was head of the Brotherhood of St Laurence asking me if I would be available to meet at Ronald’s office at the University of Melbourne. When I got there it turned out that we were to participate in a conference call with William Wentworth or Willie.
Now there were no speakerphones in those days so everything had to be repeated backwards and forwards but essentially there were four of us in that room and we were being asked whether we would support, endorse a Royal Commission into poverty. It was exciting and it was exhilarating to be involved with social change in that way. Of course when Labor did come into power the Royal Commission was significantly expanded to cover other areas apart from the specific area of income poverty that Ronald had been so concerned about and which some of you may recall came from the original Melbourne poverty survey which Ronald had paid for out of his private means which were quite able to do that.
We saw interesting things come out of that, the Royal Commission was given funds to test out various other approaches. One of those that my friend, Connie Benn, was given the job at the Brotherhood of developing a totally new approach towards client welfare services changing from that old top-down I’m a professional, I’m going to help you to coming back from the client to start a new family centre which was modelled around what these groups of families, mostly from the Fitzroy area, were looking for.
So it was a remarkable time in terms of changes. Now I might have hinted to you that I found Canberra a little bit different from the freewheeling social policy scene in Melbourne. I was commuting of course which made life a little bit less easy and I was distinctly a rarity, being not only running one of the new entities that Whitlam was creating as alternative sources of policy advice but also being a relatively young woman and at that stage one of the very few women at that level in the Commonwealth Public Service.
It was an exhilarating challenge that we had but it was also very complex trying to deal with entrenched attitudes. I’d say by way of anecdote I was at a dinner party on one occasion in old [Mugaway] 28:40 hosted by some people I’d known in Melbourne and I think there was a judge and his wife there and a couple of senior naval people and their wives. One of the wives asked me very graciously whether I found Canberra stratified and I’d said yes, I did. She said oh we often dine with captains and their wives. So at that stage the judge’s wife asked me very kindly to change the topic whether I dined without my husband. So I don’t know whether there are still conversations like that in old [Mugaway] because I no longer move in such salubrious circles. But it was a bit of a change from client-controlled family centres in Fitzroy is all I can say. The interesting [tie] 29:37 thing of challenging medical social workers who wanted to talk about the psychopathology of unmarried mothers.
Now one of the first tasks that I remember setting in on in Canberra was looking at the issue of sole parents – what was going to be an unmarried mothers’ benefit which obviously the Social Welfare Commission was very anxious to endorse and I’ve not yet forgotten that one of the arguments which was led against it by a senior officer of the Department was that – I’m not saying this is logical – that it would be improper to introduce a payment at that level because it could encourage women in Tasmania to kill their husbands in order to get it because their level of wages for agricultural labourers in Tasmania at that time was lower than the proposed payment. That’s very hard to argue.
We did succeed in getting the first Commonwealth payment for never married women and as David who’s here will know, that’s gone through many iterations. But – and eventually it became – it was complemented by a payment for sole male parents which had not been there. At a larger stage it was decided to roll all the payments for women – well for sole parents with dependent children, whether they be male or female, into the one payment for – to be known as sole parents. I can remember a colleague who’d been working on that long after I’d stopped working in that area of the Department saying to me that one thought had been that that might reduce the stigma associated with the payment being for never married women.
I was thinking about that again this week as I was reading some of the submissions to the Senate Inquiry into that payment known as a Parent Next where we’re reading of sole – nearly always single women – sole women. They may have been married, they may have been divorced, they may have been never married – being required now to attend all sorts of courses and having their payments cut off if they don’t agree. It’s a program which has been farmed out, contracted out to private providers and there is no longer a provision for the people who are notionally being helped to appeal to Commonwealth administrative law against those decisions.
It’s an astonishing change from that beginning of no, it’s not psychopathology, it’s what happens to people through to let’s try to have a universal payment which is helpful for people through to how can we punish these deplorable people? It’s a huge arc of change and it worries me a great deal. It worries me that we now know – remarkable statistic somebody produced the other day in an attempt to make the situation more real, they said that there were now so many children living in poverty that we could fill the MCG seven-and-a-half times and I thought it’s a very curious metric. But the fact remains we have more children living in poverty in Australia in 2019 than we had when Ronald conducted his Royal Commission into poverty in the early ‘70s.
They’re living in poverty because of conscious decisions of public policy about how to make supports more difficult – to treat people who need support in a generous society as leaners, not lifters, to use a phrase which is still in my memory from the 2013 budget. Very interesting change in attitudes. We are being disgraced as a nation this week because we have the Council for the Single Mother and Her Child and a parent complaining at the United Nations that the parents’ rights, human rights have been adversely impacted by this particular policy.
So what I'm seeing is this vast change in attitude as I said over a period of time which seems to me to be less easy to shift through civil society than we found it in the late ’60s and early ‘70s even though at that time achieving change seemed very challenging indeed. But this does leave me feeling strongly still that there is an important role for civil society, for activists in working to try to change public policy trying to make sure that we move from a punitive frame of mind to one which recognises that in a decent society people ought to be able to live with some degree of comfort and without being discriminated against.
So I guess what I'm saying is – demonstrating that old activists may get elderly but we keep on being active. Thank you.
N: Thank you so much, Marie, that was fantastic. I’m not going to steal Richard Reid’s thunder. We’ve got time for some questions and there should be a couple of microphones around. Who’s got the microphones? There’s one up the back? Yeah, okay, microphones are just coming. Okay, there’s a question right at the far back. Marilyn.
A: Thank you very much, Marie. I’m one of those people who – well we’re not supposed to be able to remember the ‘60s, remember, because we were there. No, my question is actually – or a perception that I have perhaps that over more recent decades the I’m okay, me, me, me sort of factor rather than a sense of maybe the broader community or civil society is maybe playing into politicians and other decisionmakers that you’ve just described of punishing people because we’re okay or something like that. I see it - a little bit of an Americanisation because we do have our myth of fair go and that seems to have fallen out somewhere along the way. So I just wondered whether that sort of I’m okay, they’ve failed the whatever ideal of where we should be is part of why people are getting away with the sorts of decisions you described at the very end?
M: In short to a degree, yes but I think there are other things. Since the ‘80s we’ve seen not only in this country but certainly in the UK and in others a tremendous move away from belief in the role of government as an instrument of improving social equity so that there has been a push to both limit the scope of government, to increasingly use private contracted providers for provisions of service and the reduction of any kind of client capacity to have a strong active role. So those changes have been very important and they probably reflected that move to if you have a go we’ll give you a go and if you don’t have a go we’ll have a go at you kind of concept which permeates the situation today.
It’s interesting that New Zealand whom we sometimes follow after and we sometimes lead went through a lot of that and is now conducting a range of changes and reviews of their public policies because they found that they had a shockingly high rate of child poverty, for example. So New Zealand seems to be coming through into another side of things. Whether we will I don’t know but I think you’re right, that the very much more atomised society that we’ve seen develop does play a part in underpinning public acceptance of those attitudes towards the role of government.
A: Hi, I want to raise the issue of transitioning to mothering women. When they have a child at personal sacrifice –
M: I can’t hear you properly, I’m sorry.
A: Sorry, I want to raise about the issue of mothering and women – and feminism and women. When women have a child they do an extremely good public service in creating future citizens who will pay tax but that role of doing that is not valued and we know that transitioning to mother is the stopping point in gender equity. It has many flow-on effects for future generations for children around poverty. How do we address that issue in our society? How do we value a role that is truly feminine and create opportunities for that woman to be productive outside of that role?
M: I’m not the person who can tell you how we can do it but it is an interesting issue. We’ve seen a great change in – let me go back say to the Howard years when Mr Howard was very antipathetic to the idea of giving working mothers paid maternity leave and instead he ran a campaign which was around white picket fence values.
We’ve moved now to a situation where we greatly – the economy – we talk economics the whole time – the economy is dependent on female labour but what we don’t really value is the particular role of the woman with a child, instead we insist that she must be in the workforce. Now there’ll be many feminists who’ll want to shoot me for having implied that there might be a role in bringing up children but there is and I’m deeply sceptical about policies that say that people can’t be at home with school-aged children over the age of six years, it’s a complete rejection of a very important task in society.
I think we need to be much more sensitive to the fact that women do remain the primary childrearing people whether we like it or not. We must attempt to produce more policies which share things evenly between both parents but we at the same time I think have to look very much more at policies which value and assist women as mothers as you say.
A: Marie, I think a lot of us here would really like to know a bit more about your early experiences heading up that Commission and in your unique role as a woman in that role. Just give us a few more little titbits.
M: Well it was – I’ve told people before that it started with I was going to be the chair of the – a commission and the first person who picked me up from the airport when I landed in Canberra on that day in March ’73 told me that there’d been much jocularity around the office because chairlady sounded so close to charlady. The fact that I was a woman in that position was definitely a novelty but it did also mean that there – I encountered a degree of sexism, straight out sexism in the office to an extent that I had not had in Melbourne. I don’t know how much of that was because I was both a woman and from outside the Commonwealth Public Service or just what it was all about.
There was constant sniping about the fact that we had pretty much of a gendered balance in the staff of the Social Welfare Commission and constant little stories popping up that I only ever employed women which was not strictly true, I mean you could ask Andrew Podger for goodness’ sake if I employed him. There were many men who worked for the Commission but there was that [naj] 44:48 the whole time about being the first woman at that level in the public sector. Indeed it wasn’t until Helen Williams was the Public Service Commissioner I think that the fact that I’d chaired a statutory authority, was the first woman to chair a statutory authority was recognised in the Commission as opposed to those one or two women who had become by that time departmental secretaries.
It was a very curious situation which I don’t look back on with a great deal of enthusiasm, quite frankly, and it was certainly difficult I think for – Social Services was not the only one to have these policy commissions thrust upon them. I think both education and health were disposed at that time to see their policy commissions as a means of expanding their influence whereas socials had a tendency to see us more as something not quite legitimate and that was very difficult to work with. But having said that it was an extraordinarily challenging and interesting time.
There were masses of competing sources of advice emerging at that time. One would have to say among other things about Mr Whitlam that he did love competing advice. So there were the long-term policy commissions going on there, there were short-term inquiries going on, there were – it was the priorities review staff in his own department. So trying to put a policy proposal forward was very much being part of a competitive scene. I remember when we were asked by Mr Whitlam to produce an alternative preschool and childcare policy that put us into an extremely interesting position because he had simply repudiated the document which had been produced by the Preschools Committee. I found that somebody whom I had been pressed to put onto my group who were working on early childhood policy was in turn reporting through a back door to somebody else in PM and C. It was very strange, very strange indeed. But it also was a time of great innovation in policy and – but at the same time one would have to say it was a tad disorderly.
A: Marie, I first met you at the beginning of the Fraser years when you were still an agency head. How did they compare and contrast with the Whitlam years that you’ve just described to us?
M: Ah yes. I don’t think Mr Fraser was into competitive advice sources, I think he was – but at the same time there was much [Sturm und Drang] 48:44 around what Mr Fraser was doing. At the same stage he was committed to the idea that there should be an expansion of childcare to the great shock of many of his Ministers. That was the job into which I was translated after the Social Welfare Commission and I very much remember being in the Parliament for a meeting of the Cabinet not long after the Parliament had resumed and Babette Francis of Melbourne who – with whom I used to have dinner parties but who had gone on to form Women Who Want To Be Women – produced a cake which she was parading around Parliament and into the Cabinet room which was iced as To The Men In the Cabinet From The Women AT Home.
Went down like a lead balloon with Margaret Gilfoyle but it was extremely interesting, that particular Cabinet discussion which was around what was going to happen with early childhood. Had discussion going back and forth and a Minister from Melbourne - I’ve forgotten his name now, he used to be known as the Little Leg Spinner from Corangamite, somebody else might remember his name - prompted by Margaret Gilfoyle said oh well I really think, Prime Minister, we should promote childcare because after all it was our party which brought in the ’72 Childcare Act. So everybody agreed then that it was good Liberal policy to have childcare.
It was a very interesting time to get through and I think in retrospect perhaps many people would hope that there were elements in the Library Party now who are as Liberal as Mr Fraser was.
N: We might finish and I’ll hand over to Richard Reid who will deliver a [unclear] 51:07.
R: Well ladies and gentlemen, before I begin can I just congratulate our orator on the most remarkable memory and the ability to talk to us – in order to write something I have to talk to us from notes about the most complicated and difficult aspects of Australian society.
I’ve been asked to be brief but unfortunately I come from a country where brevity in public speaking is regarded as the mark of an illiterate fool so I will be a little more expansive in what I have to say.
I think I stand here really at all as someone who if you like is semiliterate because of a woman and that woman would actually be my grandmother who back in the dim, dark, distant days of the 1880s actually matriculated to the National University of Ireland in Physics, Mathematics and French. It was she I’m convinced who convinced my father that education was an important thing for his son and for his daughter and that we should be treated absolutely equally when it came to that.
I now have six grandchildren, four of whom are granddaughters and I certainly after listening to Marie this morning think that their future is more assured because of the battles that were fought by people like Marie back in the 1970s and the 1980s, battles that have by no means been completely won and I’m fully aware of that.
But just to expand a little on a – something that Nick mentioned. He very quickly adumbrated Marie’s early life and I believe this morning – correct me if I’m wrong here, Marie – that on the ABC you said that – something about Dubbo and I believe that you actually come from Dubbo. Is that correct? Yes, you were born in Dubbo. You mentioned something that you didn’t get to in your talk and that is the effect at the moment of climate change and what’s going on in New South Wales and you talked about the fact that the 40,000 residents of Dubbo are rapidly running out of water so here is a whole area that you weren’t able to sort of say too much to us about. But I’d just like to mention that and I’m a strong believer in local history, by the way, that’s why I had to throw Dubbo into the mix.
I thought the idea that at some stage senior public servants were covert activists is a remarkable thing and I think it would be a brilliant idea if some of our senior public servants at the moment could get back to something of that rather than regard themselves as interchangeable with the boardrooms of business Australia. That would be a fantastic thing if we could return to that. But I think the other things that I’ll take away from what Marie’s been saying are a couple of little marvellous images so if I could just share those with you and these images take us back to the idea that we really need to get away from the commonsense economic ideology of the last 30 years so let me just – a position of greater social justice.
So these images that I will take away from this are firstly Marie in that hospital trying to explain to that woman that she would not necessarily qualify for benefits for her child that had just been born. What a horrific way of conjuring up just where we have come from and perhaps we haven’t advanced beyond.
The second one is the image of the childcare chute. I’m thankful that we are going to lunch with Marie, I really must get a little bit more of an idea of what that chute looked like and how it operated and who was at the top end of it and who was at the bottom end of it, who received it.
The third image that I'm going to take away from this morning, and I think I’m right in that you ascribed this to Billy Snedden was the idea that social demonstrations and marches in the streets are bikies pack-raping democracy. Now I mean have we come - have we advanced at all? Have our politicians advanced at all when we have a prominent member of Parliament thinking that the people of Australia actually elect him to the position of being Deputy Prime Minister? I suspect that we haven’t come too far when we’re still at that position.
But certainly I took a lot of hope away from what Marie has been talking about and listening to her on the ABC this morning that maybe the pendulum is swinging back a bit towards the idea of a just society. I certainly hope so and I certainly was interested in hearing about those interesting days of the 1970s and ‘80s when I first came to Australia in 1972 and what was going on and certainly some of my memories go to that. But I’d like to think that if we are – if the pendulum is indeed swinging, that we may get back to a society where there is a better future for all including pensioners, the unemployed, unmarried mothers, the poor and dare I say it, Marie, refugees. So thank you very much indeed for a very illuminating talk.
N: Thank you, Richard. You add yet another dimension to the whole story which is wonderful. I’d just very briefly like to present our speaker with a small gift. Thank you very much, Marie.
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