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Tuesday, 21 August 2018
Page: 7970


Ms O'DWYER (HigginsMinister for Revenue and Financial Services, Minister for Women and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Public Service) (16:29): by leave—as the Minister for Women, I truly follow in the footsteps of Dame Enid Lyons, who was such a pioneer for women in politics in Australia. Today we are celebrating 75 years since Dame Enid was elected to the parliament, the first time a woman was represented in the House of Representatives.

At the 1943 election, which was won by the John Curtin led Labor Party, Enid narrowly won the seat of Darwin in Tasmania for the United Australia Party. At the same election, Dorothy Tangney was elected as a Labor Party senator representing Western Australia. She was the first female senator. Enid Lyons was a woman who overcame adversities in her life, including sickness and tragedy. But she was a strong and resilient woman and she became a role model for many women right across the nation.

Enid and Joe Lyons were Australia's first political couple. Their children were the first children to live in the Lodge. In fact, the Lyons children were famous across the nation, with Joe and Enid inviting the press into the privacy of their home to take pictures of what was then a very new thing in newspapers. It is a very great privilege to be joined in the House of Representatives by many members of the Lyons family today, particularly three of her grandchildren and two of her great-grandchildren.

Enid and Joe campaigned together. Enid made speeches and radio broadcasts for her husband and alongside her husband. They thought of themselves as a team. But, when Joe Lyons died in office in April 1939, Enid's greatest contribution to public life was still to come. Enid was left a widow of 11 children. Her husband's death was a tremendous loss, and yet she made the decision to enter parliament in her own right. In her maiden speech, the anniversary of which occurs next month, Enid was humble but fully aware of the historic moment:

It would be strange indeed were I not tonight deeply conscious of the fact, if not a little awed by the knowledge, that on my shoulders rests a great weight of responsibility; because this is the first occasion upon which a woman has addressed this House. For that reason, it is an occasion which, every woman in the Commonwealth, marks in some degree a turning point in history.

The speech was beautifully written, with smatterings of homely wisdom but also far-thinking policy ideas on population and decentralisation, an encapsulation of her political philosophy. She said:

… the problems of government were not … problems of statistics, but problems of human values and human hearts and human feelings. … I hope that I shall never forget that everything that takes place in this chamber goes out somewhere to strike a human heart, to influence the life of some fellow being, and I believe this, too, with all my heart: that the duty of every government, whether in this country or any other, is to see that no man, because of the condition of his life, shall ever need lose his vision of the city of God.

Earle Page nicknamed Enid 'the woman who wouldn't be sat down'. Others referred to her as 'the lady member'. She was both literally and figuratively a lady, and the sole female member of the House of Representatives.

Dame Enid became the first woman to serve in federal cabinet but famously, and regrettably, without a portfolio. I thought I would reference one paragraph from Anne Henderson's biography of Dame Enid Lyons that particularly stood out for me in this great book: 'Dame Enid had her advantages. Her title gave her seniority in the social and political pecking order of the day. Hers was a household name across the nation. She had her fans and not merely in her electorate. She was continually followed by the press and asked to do broadcasts, speak at functions and lend her name to charity campaigns.' Then Anne Henderson writes: 'Had she been a man, there's no telling where her career might have taken her'.

Dame Enid suffered from various illnesses and ailments during her life and ultimately it was her ill health that forced her early retirement at just 53. We owe her and Dorothy Tangney and their election to the parliament a very significant debt. It was a very significant moment in our history and we honour their memory appropriately in the House today.

I present a copy of my ministerial statement.