Susan Ryan. A formidable and compassionate advocate on human rights.

Oct 30, 2020

Susan Ryan, the minister for education in the Hawke Government and the pioneer who brought Australia its Sex Discrimination Act, died very recently. This is a remembrance from a friend.

In February 2005, the independent online journal of politics and public affairs, New Matilda, published an article of mine entitled ‘No Way Out: the High Court and Children in Detention’. The article analysed the High Court’s decision in Re Woolley. Mr Woolley was the manager of the Baxter Immigration Detention Centre. The applicants were four Afghani children aged 15, 13, 11, and 7 who had arrived with their parents on Australian shores seeking refugee status, on the ground that they would be in danger of persecution if they returned to their homeland.

In Woolley the High Court affirmed that the Immigration Act could not be read so as to provide children with a legal or constitutional immunity from mandatory detention. Children stood in no different position from their parents in this respect. The Court concluded that the plain words of the Immigration Act provided no room for an implication that the detention regime was inapplicable to children.

Given the clarity of the words, and the plain parliamentary intention behind them, it was not for the Court to undermine the legislature’s will. There was no way out. The outcome for the children was tragic but constitutionally and legally unavoidable.

The next day, Susan Ryan wrote a response to the article. She remarked that if there really was ‘no way out’, it was time to revive the idea that Australia should adopt a Charter of Rights. And so, the campaign for an Australian Human Rights Act, that took place from 2005-2009, was born.

On March 11, 2005, a small committee met at Susan’s apartment in Coogee to chart the way forward for a campaign. Those present were Susan, the publisher Hilary McPhee, the constitutional scholar Professor George Williams, Rod McGuinness, the manager of New Matilda, Nick Carney and me. Shortly after John Menadue, then publisher of New Matilda, joined the group.

The committee resolved that the Charter of Rights campaign should revolve around the drafting of a model Australian Human Rights Act. There would not be an attempt to incorporate a Charter of Rights into the Australian Constitution. Instead, a charter should be embedded in statute broadly on the example provided by the Human Rights Act (1998) in the United Kingdom.

Susan’s enthusiasm for this new project was infectious and dynamic. She called upon her bewilderingly extensive political and social networks to get behind it. She rang everyone. She said we should have a launch. Then she said we should have launches all around the country. She proposed that we should get hold of federal parliamentarians from all sides of politics and lobby them hard. We should contact every journalist we knew. What about the NGOs? Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, the Councils for Civil Liberties, the Law Council. Could we find Judges who would support a Charter?

The first sign that this was going to be big came with the launch of the New Matilda Human Rights Act campaign at the Sydney Town Hall on October 5, 2005. 800 people came. Susan gathered a catalogue of stars to speak. Malcolm Fraser, former Prime Minister, launched the New Matilda Model Human Rights Act. Mr Fraser spoke in particular about his deep concern about the draconian nature of the government’s anti-terrorism laws.

The other speakers who made the case for the Model Act were Elizabeth Evatt, former Chief Justice of the Family Court, Greg Combet, Secretary of the ACTU, Waleed Aly, the journalist and social commentator, Nahid Karimi, a former teenage detainee, and the indigenous academic and activist, Larissa Bahrendt. As the author of the New Matilda Model Human Rights Act, I explained its content and Susan gave a rousing speech to close in which she observed that as the only Western democracy without a Bill or Charter of Rights, Australia lagged far behind comparable nations in protecting the fundamental human rights of its citizens and she provided copious examples of the many deficits in the nation’s human rights record.

Susan had proposed that there should be more than one launch, and so there was. She made arrangements for public meetings to launch the Model Bill in every capital city of every State and Territory in the country. I travelled with her to most of these events and we became good friends.

Susan’s public persona is well known. She was Labor Senator for the ACT from 1975-1988. She was a highly successful Minister for Education in the Hawke Government. She was the feminist who drove the Sex Discrimination Act through the Labor caucus and the Commonwealth Parliament. She worked constructively in the Superannuation industry. In recent years she achieved a great deal as Federal Age Discrimination Commissioner.

In her personal guise, Susan was just great. She possessed a wonderful capacity to treat everyone equally, no matter what their station in life. She afforded everyone her respect. With Susan, there was never a hint of condescension. Whether it was the Prime Minister, or someone down and out in Sydney or Melbourne, Susan would listen, she would learn and she would act. She cared deeply for people. No surprise then that she was a formidable, yet compassionate, human rights advocate.

And she was funny. She and I were sitting in Canberra airport one afternoon waiting for a plane to Melbourne. There were lots of politicians there because parliament had just risen for the week. Philip Ruddock, then Minister for Immigration, wandered past and Susan hailed him. In conversation Ruddock said that he was sick to death of being detained for long periods in airports. Quick as a flash Susan shot back ‘That’s strange, we all know your passion for detention!”

At the 2008 National Labor Party Conference, Susan and George Williams were successful in committing a new Labor Government to the conduct of a comprehensive consultation as to whether or not Australia should adopt a statutory Charter of Rights. The Rudd Labor Government adopted the resolution. The ‘meddlesome priest’ Frank Brennan was chosen to conduct it.

The little New Matilda human rights committee morphed into the Australian Human Rights Group, the broadest umbrella group of Australian human rights NGOs ever established. In recognition of her standing in the field, Susan was appointed as its Chair. The Group oversaw the ‘yes’ campaign.

The Brennan Committee received more submissions from Australians than any other inquiry in Australian history, more than 35,000. 80% supported an Australian Human Rights Act. The Brennan Committee recommended it. Susan and I spoke to every Cabinet minister and parliamentarian we could find. Alas, to no avail. Prime Minister Rudd, worried about reversals on climate change, and lobbied by George Pell and Bob Carr, killed the proposal. In relation to this, he lacked personal and political courage.

This was a great pity. Had an Australian Human Rights Act been adopted by Federal Parliament, it would have crowned Susan Ryan’s career as one of Australia’s most successful and influential human rights advocates. But, I think she was that anyway.

See below links to the draft Human Rights Bill  and more details on the campaign.

JOHN MENADUE. A Human Rights Bill 2009.

JOHN MENADUE. A campaign from 2005, for a Human Rights Act for Australia.


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