Speech to National Labor Women’s Conference 2023 - Perth, Western Australia - 10/06/2023

10 June 2023





I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the lands on which we meet, the Whadjuk-Noongar people.

I thank and acknowledge Aunty Colleen Hayward for the generous, gracious welcome to country.

To pay my respects to elders, to their custodianship, and to remind us all that we have a great challenge this year to campaign for a successful referendum for recognition and a voice to the parliament.

To my Federal Parliamentary colleagues - it is a privilege to serve with you.

I acknowledge the many State Ministers and MPs present.

Unionists, activists, delegates, feminists.

I want to thank all of you for coming, and for all that you do to advance gender equality in Australia.

I want to particularly acknowledge two dear friends who are with us today.

First, our West Australian hosts’ former State President and former Member for Hasluck, Sharryn Jackson.

Sharryn and I were both first elected to Parliament at the 2001 Federal Election.

There were a lot of dark times back then – Labor was deep in the wilderness, torn apart by leadership ambitions and the endless wedge politics that characterised the Howard era.

Sharryn was the best comrade I could have asked for.

We were both backbenchers from what in those days were sometimes referred to as “outlying states”, but we are both not the kind of people to wait for an invitation to contribute. We are in the labour movement and the Labor Party to be in rooms where decisions were made.

Within a year of our first election, a special rules conference was held, Sharryn and our Labor sisters saw the opportunity to strengthen Labor’s affirmative action rules, increasing the minimum women’s representation from 35 per cent, as agreed at the 1994 conference, to 40 per cent.

As you might imagine, there was quite a lot of resistance to this.

We were told it was ridiculous, unrealistic, and would result in frontbenchers being deselected.

These warnings were almost matched by the rush to take credit once the rule change passed.

It is important to remember why we and many other Labor women worked so hard on this for so long.

We believed our democracy works better if our Parliament is representative of our community.

We believed as a matter of principle that women should have equal opportunity to represent their communities and exercise political leadership.

And we believed we needed to change the culture of our Party. And it has changed. We see that every day.

Sharryn’s contribution to advancing affirmative action was a huge step towards equal representation and is a big reason why more than half of our federal caucus is now women.

Thank you, Sharryn.

Recently, with women’s representation in the LNP party room going backwards, the Liberal Deputy Leader Sussan Ley has said she wants to see more women preselected. I’m sure all of us here would wish her luck. And we would be happy to share our experience - that hope doesn’t overcome exclusion without leadership and action.

Just as wise, funny, smart, loyal and tough as Sharryn is my fellow speaker today, Katy Gallagher. I am so proud to serve with Katy and so grateful for her friendship.

Katy is Manager of Government Business in the Senate. That title does little to describe one of the most consequential, gruelling and high-pressure jobs in the whole Parliament.

But just think about it. Manager of Government Business in the Senate. In a Chamber where we do not have the numbers; where the crossbench is increasingly divergent and the only thing that’s consistent about the Noalition is their obstruction – her job is to make sure the Government’s commitments and legislation are delivered.

This responsibility alone makes Katy one of the most pivotal members of the Government. But her integrity and ability to empathise and find common ground with everyone she deals with; her hard work and her professionalism mean that day after day, she is delivering for the Government when and where it matters most.

Katy is also Minister for Finance, Women and the Public Service. Each important, and the combination of Finance and Women especially so.

Bringing the women’s portfolio together with the finance portfolio demonstrates the centrality of gender equality in the Albanese Government.

The contrast with the LNP couldn’t be more stark.

They lurched from Tony Abbott appointing himself Minister for Women, to Scott Morrison renouncing any prime ministerial responsibility for women at all, when he declared Marise Payne was the prime minister for women.

Both these examples tell us something about how these Liberal leaders view women – as some kind of stakeholder group, as “others,” separate from the main body politic.

I recall a friend who really didn’t follow politics telling me that when she saw Mr Morrison speaking on television: I never feel like he’s talking to me.

Until the LNP learn to listen and talk to women – until the LNP changes its own culture – women will not have much interest in listening or talking to the LNP.

Labor knows that when women are treated as token – when gender equality is optional – progress falters on every front.

A strong Australia is an Australia in which women can fully participate and succeed.

That is the Australia that it’s Labor’s project to build.

And just as we commit to this project at home, we also commit to it in the world.

Gender equality and support for women should never be an optional add-on as we make our contribution to shaping the world.

On the contrary, it is indispensable to building the global community of nations of which Australia is a part.

But we are seeing worrying signs, of progress slowing and in many cases being reversed, and that is what I want to focus on today.

A great Australian woman was at the forefront of some of the earliest progress.

I have often talked about Australia’s three greatest statespeople: John Curtin, Doc Evatt and Gough Whitlam – who showed us the path to advance our interests in the world.

We rightly celebrate Curtin setting the foundation for the alliance in our darkest hours in World War Two.

Evatt shaping the international system of rules and institutions in the wake of that war.

And Whitlam orienting Australia in our region.

Of course, women didn’t have many seats at the table at these stages of history. But when the opportunity was there, women made their presence felt, and those women ought to be celebrated.

In Australia’s case, it was Lady Jessie Street.

Jessie Street was many things. She was an activist for women’s rights and Aboriginal rights; an ardent pacifist; something of a Soviet sympathiser; sometimes a Labor candidate; other times an independent candidate; the wife of New South Wales Supreme Court Chief Justice, Sir Kenneth Street; the mother of another New South Wales Supreme Court Chief Justice, Sir Laurence Street.

And at the early conferences where the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were adopted, Jessie Street was the one woman on Australia’s delegation.

At the San Francisco Conference she worked with other women like Bertha Lutz of Brazil and Minerva Bernardino of the Dominican Republic to ensure the equality of the sexes was recognised in Article 1 of the UN Charter, as well as helping secure the so-called “equality clause”, that stipulates there should be no sex discrimination at the UN or any of its subsidiary bodies.

This was a stipulation that faced strong resistance. But Jessie Street knew equality needed to be actively recognised. She said, “Where the rules are silent, women are not usually considered”.

Jessie Street was also instrumental in the establishment of a permanent Commission on the Status of Women at the UN - and was its first Vice President.

Street was a natural headline maker. Her public rebuke of a New York pastor who suggested women were temperamentally unsuited to leadership made newspapers around the world.

Her response was that “the state of the world under the exclusive guidance of men does not inspire women with confidence.”

But beyond the quips, she was deeply committed to her principles.

She spoke cogently and frequently of the importance of women’s rights. Of the need for equal pay, and for equal rights.

I speak of Jessie Street today because the norms that she helped establish are being eroded.

In fact, there is a growing and sophisticated global campaign to suggest gender equality is optional.

This is despite the fact that we know that gender equality went backwards during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite the fact that the World Economic Forum reports that last year global gender equality slipped to 2016 levels, that it will now take 132 years to reach full parity. And that according to CARE Australia, food insecurity affects 150 million more women than men.

Despite the fact that we have seen a surge of sexual violence in conflict in Ukraine, Ethiopia, Myanmar and Haiti.

That in Afghanistan, the Taliban is depriving women and girls of their human rights.

Despite the fact that in Iran, women like Mahsa ‘Jina’ Amini stood up for their rights and have faced a deadly crackdown.

In other words – despite all the evidence that gender equality is not optional, and can never be optional.

Despite what we know about the benefits to societies, economies, and democracies when women are fully included.

Despite these facts, in the last five years, progress on gender equality has been imperilled.

Matters of gender equality are increasingly fodder for cynical politics in the multilateral system, for those who do not believe human rights are universal.

We see gender becoming a Trojan Horse for those pursuing geopolitical ends.

Countries like Russia and Iran, supported by conspiracy theorists and right wing extremists, manipulating attitudes on gender, questioning agreed international rules and norms of established so many years ago.

This campaign dismisses the women who speak out for equality as ‘agents of Western influence.’

It seeks to unpick the legacy of inclusion and representation established by Jessie Street and her peers.

This legacy was never a “Western agenda”. As I pointed out, Jessie Street worked with women from a number of countries including from what is referred to as the Global South.

They had a shared vision for a better world and a shared conviction that human rights really are universal.

And before those women and since, women around the world have sought to claim civic space and speak out against injustice - to assert their right to fully participate in society.

Professor Maria Teresa Ferrari of Argentina pioneering the study of women’s health while fighting for equal recognition for women academics.

Malala Yousafzai claiming her right to an education in Pakistan.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first democratically elected woman leader in Africa, and awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for her work on non-violent efforts to promote peace and women’s rights.

In our own region, I pay tribute to Samoan Prime Minister the Hon. Fiame Naomi Mata'afa, a powerful advocate for her country.

Our diplomats report backlash on gender equality across the multilateral system. They report a rollback of women’s human rights and long-standing norms under attack.

In April, the Commission on Population and Development (CPD) failed to adopt an outcome on population, education and sustainable development because of opposition from Russia, Iran and others, refusing to accept long established propositions on gender equality.

We are also hearing reports of well-resourced campaigns that amplify difference on gender equality to wedge, divide, and exclude.

This includes increased disinformation about sexual and reproductive health. More countries reporting attacks on sexual health clinics for the first time.

We see broader challenges to the world’s agreed norms and rules – which have been powerfully expressed through the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

The Goals serve as a blueprint for sustainable development for all the worlds people, expressly including women. The fifth goal is gender equality.

China has launched its own version of the Sustainable Development Goals – its Global Development Initiative.

The Global Development Initiative makes its own selection of which development goals are important. Gender equality is not one of them.

We often talk about challenges to the international rules based system. Those challenges extend beyond trade and international maritime laws, and into the lives of women all around the world.

So there are many reasons to be alarmed about the trajectory of gender equality around the world.

But there is every reason to be resolute.

Around the world, I have 44 counterpart foreign ministers who are women.

And here at home, we build on our proud history.

A history that proves that it is possible to achieve change.

A history that attracts women who are up for the fight.

Jessie Street’s legacy speaks to what can be achieved.

This year, it will be 75 years since Street joined the delegation to San Francisco to frame the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Australia was then one of the eight founding members of the UDHR and thanks to Jessie Street and others like her, gender equality was on the agenda from the start.

Later in her life, Jessie Street played a pivotal role in the campaign for the 1967 referendum which amended the Australian Constitution to enable First Nations Australians to be counted in the census.

This is important.

At its best, the fight for gender equality – for feminism – should make us alive to injustice everywhere.

Because there will always be more work to do to protect the progress we have made…

… and to ensure that our institutions live up to their values for all.

I have said before that efforts to resist progress and wind back hard-won gains remind us that we have to always be vigilant.

Vigilant not just in pressing for further progress, but in defending hard-won progress.

The organisation that Jessie Street helped establish, the Commission for the Status of Women, is a good example.

Earlier this year, my colleague Assistant Minister Malarndirri McCarthy made history as the first Indigenous Australian woman to deliver Australia’s National Statement to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women.

And when Iran was appointed to the Commission on the Status of Women last year, causing understandable outrage, Australia played a leading role in organising to have them removed.

We will continue to do more.

Today we are deeply engaged in every possible forum to advance gender equality.

We advocate at the UN, in the Human Rights Council, and at the International Labor Organisation.

We appointed a new Ambassador for Gender Equality, Stephanie Copus Campbell, who is spearheading our international advocacy.

We are developing a new international gender equality strategy.

Our new international development policy, to be released soon, will make gender equality a priority.

We do all of this because we recognise that the aspirations we champion in our region - peace, stability, prosperity – can only be achieved if we continue to see progress on gender equality.

We do this because we imagine what more our world would be if half the population wasn’t so often held back.

We do this because we recognise that attacks on women and gender equality are attacks on human rights and serve to undermine the rules based order.

And we do this because it is part of who we are as a Labor Government.

The position of Ambassador for Gender Equality – originally Ambassador for Women and Girls – was created by the Gillard Government in 2011.

It was Penny Williams. She is now our Ambassador to Indonesia.

Now there is a growing number of countries with such ambassadors - more than a dozen.

At that time, Australia was only the third country to appoint one.

But it was a natural step for an ALP Government.

It has become part of what distinguishes us as a party. The fact that we recognise gender equality is not optional.

That we don’t need to play elaborate word games to avoid calling ourselves feminists.

This isn’t necessarily surprising. Progressive parties worldwide have been quicker to recognise that equality for women is central to equality for all.

None of this has come easy.

The proud legacy of the ALP on gender equality is a legacy build by ALP women like those gathered for this conference today.

In person again after far too long.

And it is a legacy, like everything else, that we will continue to protect and build on into the future.

We have prevailed before.

And we will prevail again.

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