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Tuesday, 20 March 2012
Page: 3623


Mr DREYFUS (IsaacsCabinet Secretary, Parliamentary Secretary for Industry and Innnovation and Parliamentary Secretary for Climate Change and Energy Efficiency) (16:52): I rise to speak on the condolence motion moved by the Prime Minister in honour of Margaret Whitlam AO, one of Australia's most remarkable women, who was a catalyst for the progress of women's rights, a devoted wife, a loving mother and a life member of the Australian Labor Party. I want to briefly note her contribution to women's rights and liberties.

The Australia that Margaret Whitlam was born into in 1919 was, for women, a vastly different Australia from the nation that we know today. Margaret was born in an era when the public service would require a woman to resign from her position when she married, an era when women had held the right to vote for less than two decades and an era when there were no women members of parliament and no women serving as judges. Far fewer women were in the workforce and those who did work earned a fraction of the pay enjoyed by their male contemporaries.

Her parents' progressive ideas and support set her on her path. Her mother, Mary, was independently minded and encouraged Margaret in the 1940s to become a social worker. Working for the Family Welfare Bureau, she would advise women and their families on how to survive without their husbands and on how to care for their children when their husbands were away—a role she would come to understand all too well as the wife of a federal politician. Her father, Justice Wilfred Dovey, who Margaret referred to as her confidant, pushed her to give university a go and challenge herself. She studied while raising her small children. This balancing act is familiar to Australians today but was very uncommon at that time. As Margaret's life—in partnership with Gough—became increasingly public so did her advocacy for women's rights at a time when the moral, legal and social obstacles confronting women seemed insurmountable. The opportunities available to women today, unthinkable decades ago, are now part of the furniture and are a legacy of her fierce advocacy. Margaret did not hesitate to use her voice and her profile, calling for equal pay, the acknowledgement of de facto relationships and childcare reforms at a time when these ideas were considered not mainstream but rather radical.

Margaret understood the political scene and the difficulty of effecting change, but her ability for straight talking reached a wide and appreciative audience. During the Whitlam government era Margaret held a variety of influential public roles, including as a member of the International Women's Year Advisory Committee, as a television presenter on the program Beauty and the Beast and as a columnist. When reflecting on whether she should be considered a feminist, Margaret fired back: 'I am a feminist in so far as I don't want to be trodden on and I don't want to be used as somebody's handbag. I am not an accessory.' Her spirited and honest contribution was significant in ensuring that Australian women today largely enjoy the same rights and equality of opportunity as Australian men. As the Prime Minister said yesterday, many accomplished women owe a bit of their success to the courage and inspiration they drew from Margaret Whitlam.

Margaret also brought a fresh approach to the role of Prime Minister's wife. She was a confident and outgoing woman with a quick wit, speaking her mind, considering herself an equal and never taking a backward step. Her charismatic and forthright personality were on display on her first trip to London as the Prime Minister's wife. Margaret held her own press conference: 'Ask me an outrageous question,' she said to the media, 'and you will get an outrageous answer.' When asked what she would have done if she had been with Gough on the night of his government dismissal, she plainly stated: 'I say I would have torn up the document of dismissal. I really would have. Also, a mini-revolution would have helped.'

In her capacity as the wife of the Prime Minister, Margaret Whitlam felt a duty to step forward and actively bring about good in the community. She once wrote in her diary; 'What am I to do? Stay in a cage, wide open to view, of course, and say nothing? That's not on, but if I can do some good I will certainly try.'

Margaret was a champion of Labor values, and she and Gough were a formidable team. They were awarded the first life memberships of the Australian Labor Party in recognition of the outstanding contribution they made, as individuals and in partnership, in shaping modern Australia. Gough reportedly said to Margaret, about reconciling personal political aspirations: 'If you want to have anything to do with politics you choose the party that has the most things with which you agree, with which you are in accord. There is no way you are ever going to be in accordance with everything that the political parties put up.' But there is little doubt that from early on Margaret Whitlam belonged on the progressive side of the debate. Gough described Margaret as his best appointment; a fitting description of a woman who had such a profound influence on him and contributed so much to our nation.

Margaret will be remembered by Australians as honest, warm, welcoming to all and, above all, courageous in her ideas and her influence. She was a central figure in creating momentum for the women's movement and giving heart to millions of Australians working hard to dismantle the barriers of gender equality. We still have some way to go in this area, but Margaret Whitlam should be remembered, among her many qualities, for the mighty contribution she made to remove those barriers.