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Senator Margaret Reynolds

PRU GOWARD: The 80s saw a big increase in the numbers of women in politics, but it's still exceptional to find a woman in Federal Cabinet. In 1983 Senator Susan Ryan became the first Labor woman to be a Federal Minister. She was joined, in 1987, by Ros Kelly and a relatively unknown Senator from Queensland, Margaret Reynolds. Six months later, when Susan Ryan resigned, Senator Reynolds, in addition to being the Minister for Local Government, took on the portfolio of the Status of Women.

One of her major achievements in this area was the launch of Labor's National Agenda for Women, a comprehensive statement on women's employment, education, health and welfare. Senator Reynolds left the Cabinet earlier this year to return to the back bench. Like many women in politics, Margaret Reynolds decided to run for Parliament after being active in community groups and local government.

MARGARET REYNOLDS: First of all, I became very involved in the anti-Vietnam movement, and that politicised me. Secondly, I became involved in the women's movement, and that even further politicised me. And, thirdly, I stumbled on to local government by virtue of an incidence in which I was treated as a foolish woman for querying the safety of playground equipment, and that led me into local government. But, basically, I think it was the politicisation that I experienced during the late 60s and the early 70s, involvement in the women's movement and, after 1975, International Women's Year when I was asked to run for preselection for a State seat, I had a fairly typical reaction of: no, not me; that's something I advocate for everybody else, but not for me. And, of course, it was put right on me: well, it's not much good sitting there telling other women what they should do if you're not prepared to do it yourself. So that's really where it all started.

PRU GOWARD: Now, did you run in local government as a preselected Labor candidate?


PRU GOWARD: And what sort of campaign did you have to run to get preselection?

MARGARET REYNOLDS: I didn't have any difficulty getting preselection for local government. My difficulty came in getting preselection for State and later for Federal.

PRU GOWARD: You wanted a safe seat?

MARGARET REYNOLDS: I did. And that was presumptuous of me, it was said. And even these days - and perhaps I'm older and more pragmatic these days - even these days I would say: well, perhaps it was unwise of me to stick my neck out and demand a safe seat.

PRU GOWARD: Were you that good? I am not asking you to be immodest, but compared with comparable male candidates, did you honestly have the background and the running?

MARGARET REYNOLDS: It depends what you were looking for. In terms of understanding of issues in the community and in terms of policy development, yes, I was good enough to run.

PRU GOWARD: For a safe seat?

MARGARET REYNOLDS: For a safe seat, in Queensland, in 1976. In terms of my actual experience in the machinery of the party, it was presumptuous. I think in running for a safe seat, of course, I knew I wouldn't win. I mean, I had my feet on the ground enough to know that there was no way I could beat the established person who'd done all the right things. But I felt it was reasonable to say: well, hang on, I'm interested; I've got certain runs on the board - I mightn't have other runs on the board, but I'm a fair candidate to at least be considered. So I really didn't have any illusions about winning the preselection, but I felt it was important to start, because at that time no woman in north Queensland - and only one other woman in Queensland, to my knowledge - had actually run for preselection.

PRU GOWARD: Is that an incredible indictment of the Labor Party or all political parties?

MARGARET REYNOLDS: I think it's probably a fairly accurate position in many political parties, in certain States. I mean, as you moved around the States you'd find different situations. But if you look at Jeannette McHugh's position in New South Wales, I mean she is the first Labor woman to be elected to the Federal Parliament. If you look at Western Australia, on the other hand, I mean, they've been well ahead in terms of representation of women for a longer period.

PRU GOWARD: And then, when you entered Federal politics and there was so much more travelling involved, was it then that people started to say: well, this is very tough on the children and how can you bear to leave your husband?

MARGARET REYNOLDS: I didn't get that from my colleagues, I think, remembering that that was well into the 80s and people had started to change. Certainly back in my community that was said, and my husband got a great deal of sympathy because his wife had gone off and left him with the responsibility of looking after a 10 and a 14-year-old. The fact that he also had a mother-in-law to help him in this task seemed to escape them, particularly when, at the same time, a male went off and left his wife with three children under five to manage on her own. And she got absolutely no sympathy; it was all directed to Henry. So there were double standards there in the community. But I certainly didn't get it here within the Federal Parliament.

PRU GOWARD: So how much of a disadvantage is it to you not to have a parliamentary wife - not to have a Henrietta instead of a Henry?

MARGARET REYNOLDS: Well, there are times when it would be really good to have somebody who was just there to do all those things that political wives do but, on the other hand, I have a partner who's very supportive on the domestic front, but is also very supportive in a political sense. It's good having a historian around at times, someone who's often got the facts and the figures at their fingertips that I haven't. So I have a great deal of support in that sense. But there's no doubt about it, the male politicians are advantaged in that, essentially, the electorate get two for the price of one. I would never - well, that's been the convention. I'm not suggesting that that's the way it should be. I think that the electorate elects one person and there is absolutely no reason why the spouse, or partner, should be obliged to attend every function and to be virtually the unpaid representative. So I'm not saying that that should be the case, but, sadly, it has been the tradition.

PRU GOWARD: During your campaign were you ever conscious of projecting a certain image?

MARGARET REYNOLDS: I think in Queensland I was aware of projecting a certain image.

PRU GOWARD: And what was it?

MARGARET REYNOLDS: Well, it was a human face in National Party territory, giving the Labor Party, the dreaded socialists from down south, a human face. And that was very important in, not just north Queensland but in country Queensland. I was really, well certainly the first woman, but one of the first Labor politicians to really go out and, if you like, woo the rural electorate of Queensland because I thought it was important to do as a Senator. It was something that I would never have done if I had been elected in the House of Representatives for a city seat.

PRU GOWARD: You were a teacher. Do you think that that occupational background has suited you well for politics, or do you feel, in retrospect, that women would do better in politics if they did law and economics?

MARGARET REYNOLDS: I would certainly recommend that young women now considering careers in politics should go into economics and/or law. I think that there are certain skills that are important that you learn through education, through all your community work, and I wouldn't want any politician to leave aside that important communication and being able to relate to community organisations and issues. But the reality is that economics is very, very important, and if you haven't got a strong background you are at a disadvantage. And, equally, you need a fair background in law as well.

PRU GOWARD: And how to draw up legislation and what the clauses mean. Do women have a different political style, watching your fellow women and yourselves, comparing you with your male contemporaries?

MARGARET REYNOLDS: Again, it depends who you are talking about, but generally yes. I think, generally, women are less aggressive and less confrontationist.

PRU GOWARD: Certainly in the Chambers.

MARGARET REYNOLDS: Certainly in the Chambers, but even out in media interviews and dealing with hostile community meetings. I think women have a different style.

PRU GOWARD: Are there any longer identifiable women's issues, or are they really family and people's issues?

MARGARET REYNOLDS: I think there are women's issues. There are definitely specific issues that women have always been more concerned about and will always be more concerned about. Where it is different to the 70s is that we've managed to persuade a great many men that those issues are important and that they should be on the political agenda.

If you take the abortion debate. I mean, in the 70s, really it was only the women and certain doctors who supported a woman's right to choose, but there were very, very few in number who would speak out; whereas, these days, I would still regard that as a women's issue because it will be overwhelmingly women who'll be out there arguing the case.

PRU GOWARD: And dealing with it.

MARGARET REYNOLDS: And dealing with it. But, nevertheless, we've managed to persuade many men that it is their responsibility to feel just as strongly about it. I wonder if they can ever feel absolutely as strongly about it, but many of them have accepted that it is important that they speak out on that issue as well. And I think that's the same with a whole range of issues. If you take women's health, I mean, it will always be predominantly a women's issue, but, increasingly, in the medical profession and in government, you are finding men who are prepared to talk about women's health issues in a very reasonable, egalitarian way, not as, you know, trying to suggest that women have to be treated differently because of health issues, but in a realistic way that, you know, breast cancer screening is a very important issue to be addressed by government, for example. So I think that there will always be women's issues, but I think the emphasis has changed in that it is easier to mainstream in the 80s and it is easier to bring some men, though still not all, to support giving priority to those issues.

PRU GOWARD: Do we need women in politics to push women's issues any more, or do men now understand the importance of them because those people vote for them?

MARGARET REYNOLDS: We certainly need women. I mean, for all these congratulations I'm giving the fellows, there's a long, long way to go and I just want to acknowledge the change that has taken place. But you certainly need many more women in politics to ensure that those gains we have made are maintained and further strengthened and developed. I mean, while I can offer some very positive comment, nevertheless, we certainly can't be complacent about the need to get that overwhelming support for the issues that we've been fighting for for so long.

PRU GOWARD: Would you say you had a special responsibility to your female constituents, because you're female?

MARGARET REYNOLDS: Yes, I think I would. I think it's something that I know is debatable because you're elected to represent everyone.

PRU GOWARD: And a man would say he had also a special responsibility to his female constituents, wouldn't he?

MARGARET REYNOLDS: No, I think a man would be inclined to say that he is elected to represent everybody. And, of course I would say I am elected to represent everyone. And in a range of constituent work that I do, I have found myself in the situation of helping men to resolve family law custody battles just as often as I have women. But, nevertheless, as a woman, as a feminist and as someone who has particular concern - and now responsibility - for those issues that women put as very, very important, I would have to say, if I was absolutely honest, that I do have that special regard for women in the community.

PRU GOWARD: Have you ever felt a clash of loyalty between your feminist principles and your party?

MARGARET REYNOLDS: Yes, I have. The classic, of course, is in relation to the abortion question. If I was in a situation, as some women are in the United States, and my party was advocating a vote against freedom of choice, then I would have a very serious clash, and my feminist loyalty would have to take over.

PRU GOWARD: But it is a conscience vote here. Should it be a conscience vote? Surely, as a feminist, you'd say it must be a party vote and we should vote for abortion on demand.

MARGARET REYNOLDS: Well, that's what I would say. But the situation is that it is a conscience vote.

PRU GOWARD: Have you ever felt like ticking your male colleagues off and resented their public stances when they have clearly, to you, been chauvinistic?

MARGARET REYNOLDS: Yes. Yes, and I certainly have on several occasions.

PRU GOWARD: Well, you don't have to name names, but give us an example.

MARGARET REYNOLDS: Well, there was one particular example where I had just finished working very hard to get somebody elected, and the morning of the election I picked up the paper and there he was, front page, and I could just see all my work to encourage women to take him seriously as a candidate, I could just see it all going down the drain.

PRU GOWARD: Because he'd made a couple of unfortunate comments? Looking at your role with issues, because of your post as a Minister, you got that post because you said the Hawke Ministry must have a Queensland woman in it. Did you cheat?

MARGARET REYNOLDS: No, I didn't get that particular post at that time.

PRU GOWARD: Oh no. But you got into the Ministry.

MARGARET REYNOLDS: I got into the Ministry because there was a public debate about whether or not Queensland should be represented in the Ministry, and also should women be represented in the Ministry.

PRU GOWARD: But they were already.

MARGARET REYNOLDS: No, there was only one.

PRU GOWARD: Ros Kelly.

MARGARET REYNOLDS: No, at that stage there was only one woman expected definitely to go into the Ministry, and that was Susan Ryan. Now, in the overall debate, there was one article that came out that made it sound as if I had said: well look, it has to be a Queenslander and it has to be a woman, so therefore it has to be me. And that was unfortunate because that was not the way I would have intended it.

PRU GOWARD: What did you intend?

MARGARET REYNOLDS: What I intended was that it was very important that Queensland was represented, and it was very important that women were represented. Now, in terms of the fact that I just happened to be both female and a Queenslander and from the particular faction that was ....

PRU GOWARD: Due for a Ministry?

MARGARET REYNOLDS: Due for a Ministry. I mean, obviously people said: oh, listen to her; she's pushing herself forward. But if you had actually been there when I made the comment, I wasn't really saying that. If anything, at the time I was making the point to insist on how important it was that there were women considered other than Susan. I mean, we knew Susan would go back into the Ministry, but it's very competitive after an election and there's lots of talent and lots of opportunity.

PRU GOWARD: And what, you were worried that the Government would say: we've got our token woman; we don't need any more?

MARGARET REYNOLDS: I was worried about that, but I was equally worried that Queensland wouldn't get into the Ministry. Now, I mean, I can understand why people looked at what I was saying and said: hang on, she's pushing herself forward. But really, it was the juxtaposition of those two factors, and I just happened to be that person. I mean, it's a pity there weren't a couple of other women in Queensland ....

PRU GOWARD: You could have had a battle for it.

MARGARET REYNOLDS: And I could have been very easily quoted as making those points. You see, the Queensland aspect was very, very important in that period leading up to a Queensland State election. It would have been absolutely devastating - especially as Bill Hayden was then the only Minister - if Queensland hadn't got, as it did, two, and we had the three Ministers from Queensland. And then, of course, when Bill resigned we went back to two. And really, when you look at the representation in Queensland, the fact that we picked up four seats in that particular election, it was obvious that I would argue that way. But the two were put together.

PRU GOWARD: But you must know that a lot of your male colleagues hated you for it?


PRU GOWARD: And really, it's made your time in the Ministry, in some senses, unhappy, hasn't it?

MARGARET REYNOLDS: Well, it hasn't made it unhappy, as far as I am concerned. I mean, there are fierce disputes about who gets into the Ministry. I mean, everybody who's in a position to be arguing for the possibility of consideration is going to be offside with somebody in the Caucus.

PRU GOWARD: Have you been able to do much though, as Minister Assisting in the Status of Women?

MARGARET REYNOLDS: I think I've been able to do a great deal. I certainly would pay tribute to Susan for having established the fundamental infrastructure for Status of Women. I mean, she had that period in the 70s to get women's issues on the political agenda.

PRU GOWARD: That was really her achievement, was it?

MARGARET REYNOLDS: It really was, because she had that period in Opposition to develop a policy, and then when the Hawke Government was elected, she was able to come straight in and say `right, sex discrimination legislation, affirmative action, move the Office of Status of Women into the Prime Minister's Department, build up the development of the National Agenda for Women' which, of course, I then had responsibility for implementing. But she was in a unique position because of the work in Opposition, and then getting into Government very much with the support of the women's vote to say `right, this is what we've planned and we're about to implement it'.

PRU GOWARD: So most of your job has been seeing through the policies she began?

MARGARET REYNOLDS: Yes, well particularly with the National Agenda for Women. I think that's been important, because that was the next step. First of all, you had the legislation, then you had the actual fundamental infrastructure of making sure that there was a woman's desk officer, that you were mainstreaming all these issues.

PRU GOWARD: What do you mean by mainstreaming?

MARGARET REYNOLDS: Well, I mean that when you talk about health issues you want to be sure that health issues, as far as women are concerned, are regarded as a priority in that department, that it's not just a question of health issues being dealt with over in the Office of Status of Women.

PRU GOWARD: So there is a unit in each Commonwealth Department that has special responsibility for women's affairs?

MARGARET REYNOLDS: That's right - women's issues. And the office of Status of Women is, if you like, has a very co-ordinating role, a monitoring role, to ensure that there is ongoing priority in implementing the policies.

PRU GOWARD: Is it an administrative task, or is it one that takes some policy deafness as well?

MARGARET REYNOLDS: Both, both. And what is so important, I think, about that fundamental infrastructure is that all Cabinet submissions that have a particular bearing on Status of Women aspects - and let's face it, many of them do - Office of Status of Women and/or the department that is relevant for that particular issue, have the opportunity for comment. And so you can be sure that, as Ministers discuss and debate an issue that is of direct relevance to Australian women, there has been that very strong policy input from the Office of Status of Women, backed up by the department.

PRU GOWARD: And would you say there is one piece of legislation, one law that this country has passed that wouldn't have been passed, if women were not in politics?

MARGARET REYNOLDS: Yes, I'd have to say sex discrimination legislation and, indeed, affirmative action legislation. I don't think that it would have been ... well, it certainly wouldn't have been passed as soon. I don't, as I said earlier, I don't like to stereotype and say that all men are chauvinists and no man would have got up and said: we must have this piece of legislation, because I think that is doing to men what they have done to women for so long. But I certainly think it would be exceedingly optimistic to think that that legislation would have been passed in the 80s. I think we would have had to have waited for much longer.

PRU GOWARD: Even though half of their voters are women and they'd have to respond to their constituency?

MARGARET REYNOLDS: You've got to have a focus; you've got to have that focus within the Caucus, within the Ministry, within the Cabinet. There's such a competing range of issues, and that's something that I think, in fairness, we don't always appreciate. I mean, there are so many things going on, and everybody has their own set of priorities. The community, I mean, environment is the issue of almost the last 12 months which, for many of us, seems strange because we were debating these issues years ago and nobody seemed particularly interested. You were regarded as, you know, a fringe radical for even considering recycling, for instance, in Council. I was someone who insisted on establishing a recycling depot, and it closed after about six months because no one was interested and the Council thought it was just a silly idea of mine. Now all that's come back, very much to the forefront of the political agenda.

Now, whatever the priorities are, there's the community's priorities, there's the priorities of the Government, there's the priorities of individual Ministers, and you've got to keep pushing to make sure that those come together and that there's a more even spread of those priorities.

PRU GOWARD: Why do you think there aren't more women in politics when there seems to be such strong support for them in the community?

MARGARET REYNOLDS: I think we've got to look at the numbers that have come in in the 80s and again, you know, think positive. We have reached that century. In fact, since Queensland, we're up to 104 women elected in Federal and State Parliaments around the country. So that is really a tremendous achievement, and I think that the situation now is such that we'll just go from strength to strength, and we'll scarcely notice 200 in Parliament, 300 in Parliament. I mean, those milestones will pass in the next few years and we won't even comment.

PRU GOWARD: We've come a long way, but how do you think the first female prime minister is going to be, what sort of a woman is she going to be?

MARGARET REYNOLDS: First of all, I hope she'll be an Australian Labor Party woman. She'll have to be a very, very strong and committed woman. She'll need a great deal of resilience to handle the very male structure of the House of Representatives, unless by then it has changed, because when you talk about the House of Representatives you're looking at a House that is still predominantly male. And if you were to suggest to me that a female prime minister was going to suddenly appear in the next couple of years, it would still be a very masculine House, so she would have to be a person who was either ....

PRU GOWARD: Pretty tough herself?

MARGARET REYNOLDS: .... pretty tough herself; or, of course, we may have to wait until there are more even numbers in that particular Chamber, in which case she could have a variety of styles.

PRU GOWARD: Labor Senator Margaret Reynolds, former Minister for Local Government, and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on the Status of Women.