Susan Ryan: a forgiving politician

Sep 28, 2020

It is difficult to exaggerate the significance of the movements, legislation and offices shaped or led by the late Susan Maree Ryan (Oct 10, 1942 – September 27, 2020).

She made unmatched contributions to the improvement of the lives of a great diversity of Australians especially women, the aged, to the education of Australians at primary, secondary and tertiary educational institutions and to the creation of sustainable self-funded retirements for all those availing themselves of superannuation schemes.

Her sudden death on September 27 came as a thunderous shock to all those close to her. I for one spoke to her on the morning of September 25 shortly before the medical incident that led to her death. We were finalizing arrangements for dinner together with her partner Rory Sutton on September 26. That never happened.

The outpouring of tributes to Susan are records of just what she committed to and achieved. She changed the life prospects of generations of Australians. But the praise and commendations were as lavish and extensive as they were deserved:

But that was not the account of her life that you got from Susan herself. She was of course pleased and proud to be part of groups and events that brought about the changes she advocated. And she never played down the significance or the scale of the changes she ambitioned to deliver. But Susan’s eye was always on the next challenge and the next hurdle, not the recent triumph or defeat nor on celebrating the current achievement.

And she was a brutal realist about what it took to get things done in the public space. I remember her telling me some decades ago when we were trying to effect a change and deliver some beneficial effect that required the constructive contribution of others who failed to deliver. “Comrade,” Susan told me, “Always remember that if you want to get something done, you will end up having to do it yourself!”

Susan was never involved with anything that was just about Susan. Her purpose always was to transcend current limitations and overcome the current constraints that impaired the accomplishment of a greater benefit to a larger number of people. But achieving the outcome was always about having a view about what needed to be dome that went a long way beyond the horizon that self-interest suggested.

Just look at the effects of her enduring policy commitments – from equity in education to her most recent priority of finding affordable housing for poor people. Susan was in so many ways the finest flower of the Catholic passion for social equity. She imbibed it with her mother’s milk and never let its nourishment go to waste.

But what I found most touching and edifying (in the properly spiritual sense of the word: it was uplifting and enhancing) about Susan’s passionate commitments was the way in which she handled opposition, frustration and at times defeat.

Politics was her chosen field and the Australian Labor Party was her chosen platform. Politics in general and the Labor Party in particular are nothing if not also magnets for hatred. The ALP breeds haters and they can do their damage in spreading what is a social disease that thwarts human potential and chokes possibility.

Susan would have nothing of it. She was no hippy of the ‘60s and ‘70s but she refused to be caught in the vortex of hate. And where that was most evident was in the way she dealt with people who had done everything to thwart her purposes in the endless struggles of Labor Party factions and personalities.

For people who had done their best to hurt and impede her, all Susan could do was park her anger, look forward and take the next step as if the dark misbehavior had not happened. Susan was – in ways I had never seen in the ALP or elsewhere – nothing if not a forgiving soul whose generosity extended even to enemies.

Susan was an intensely proud Irish Australian. I expect the Irish component will feature substantially in her funeral when we organize it. And her Catholicism – for better and for worse – was tribal Irish Australian in its complexion.

Her introduction to the Irish Australian tribe was through the Brigidine Sisters in Maroubra where the most influential figure in Susan’s life was Sister Helen Connolly. Helen died young of cancer – in her 50s. But the impact on her life was something Susan returned to regularly. The essence of the Brigidine spirit is captured in the Latin phrase they used as the motto in many of their schools – fortiter et suaviter in Latin or strength and gentleness in English.

Are there any two better words to capture Susan Ryan?

Michael Kelly is a Jesuit Priest and friend of Susan Ryan

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