Susan Ryan: Standing up for older Australians

It hasn’t been an easy couple of months for Susan Ryan at the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), but she seems to be bearing up well, with pointed humour and a certain wry optimism. In her role as the commission’s age discrimination commissioner, Ryan gave a speech to the National Press Club this week, warning of a “national crisis” if society doesn’t do more to keep older people in the workplace. But that’s not a problem for Ryan who, at 71, now has two full-time jobs. From July, she also took on responsibilities of the outgoing disability discrimination commissioner, Graeme Innes – and she does not see the two roles as complementary.

“To me, the two areas of discrimination and social policy are quite different,” she says. “A lot of issues with disabled people are about people who were disabled from birth or when they were young, who have to be supported through education, who hope to get a job and live independently. Age discrimination, as it hits the workforce, is mainly about employers thinking that they’re back in the 19th century and you can’t employ anyone over 55. It’s the cultural prejudice.”

But the commission comes under the portfolio of Attorney-General George Brandis, and “George Brandis decided he wanted to lose a commissioner,” says Ryan. “So Graeme Innes was the first commissioner to finish his term, but they didn’t replace him. Brandis decided another commissioner could take the load, and I was the person he would appoint to do that. I could’ve said no, I suppose, but I didn’t think that would solve any problems.”

We’re sitting in the courtyard of the Hyde Park Barracks Cafe on Macquarie Street in the city, enclosed by sandstone walls. It’s a business lunch and Ryan is brisk with the menu. She orders the duck salad, on the waiter’s recommendation. “I’m not a picky eater,” she says. “I like to eat, but I’m not a foodie. I don’t fuss around saying, ‘I can’t have this leaf”, or ‘I have to have that leaf’.”

She tells me she only accepted her expanded role on the condition that the other commissioners pitched in. She mentions Mick Gooda, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social justice commissioner and Children’s commissioner Megan Mitchell. However Ryan doesn’t mention the recently appointed human-rights commissioner Tim Wilson – cryptically dubbed a “freedom commissioner” who joined directly from his post as policy director at the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), a free-market think tank which calls for the commission to be abolished.

“If you look at the public comments of George Brandis, he is not an admirer of the commission’s work. However, I live in hope,” says Ryan.

Our lunch arrives within five minutes of our order. I’ve chosen the lamb ragout, and I wonder if it’s come out of a microwave. But it tastes fine, so maybe there’s a big pot of stew, bubbling on the stove in the kitchen.

I notice Ryan is wearing purple zippered suede boots, and a flash of the same colour in her scarf.

Is that a grow-older-wear-purple thing?

“Well, no, it’s feminist purple, Mark. Purple is the feminist colour.”

Some of her lipstick has come off on the duck. Was the lipstick feminist purple too?
“No,” she says, infinitely patient. “Purple wouldn’t be a good choice for a 71-year-old lady.”

I’ve heard Ryan doesn’t employ any older people in her office. Is she a hypocrite?

“No, I’m not,” she says. “All the staff are appointed under the Commonwealth Public Service guidelines by the commission. So, although I take part in who should be employed, I don’t actually employ anyone. But old? Well, I’ve got a few, I’d say…”

Pigeons peck for scraps among the pebbles on the courtyard floor.

“We don’t ask their age,” she says, “but there’re people who’ve done work for me, and will be doing more work for me, who’re in their fifties. Does that count?”

I’m 50. It doesn’t feel old.

“Look, really, um … I’m 71,” says Ryan. “I’m the oldest person at the commission. Generally, the commission staff are a younger age group because they jump out of university desperate to get into the commission.”

Ryan was born in Maroubra in 1942, the third of four children. Her father worked at the Department of Railways. She was educated by Brigidine nuns at the local parish school.

“It was what we’d call a poor school these days. There was no proper library. We had no science whatsoever. We had French taught to us by a nun who’d grown up in Cowra. But my strengths were English and history, and they were really quite well taught. I was a good student. I wasn’t a pet of the nuns, because I was quite naughty and opinionated, but I was good at speaking, so they picked me to do things. When Cardinal Gilroy visited, I was the one picked to say, ‘Your eminence, welcome to our school.’

“I was away from school a lot because I was a sickly child. I had pink disease. I don’t think anyone gets it anymore, but during the war a lot of babies did and most of them died. But not Susan Marie Ryan.”

Ryan won a teachers’ scholarship and became the first person from her family or her school to go to university. Her mother, she says, was “very down on the idea”.

“She thought I should work, then marry a nice Catholic boy at about 20 … As it turned out, I did get married at 20, but that was a different set up.”

She went to Sydney University and loved it, but wed fellow student Richard Butler just after their BA exams. “I’d wanted to go on and do a Masters,” she says, “but I lost my teachers’ college scholarship – because girls weren’t allowed to get married – however, I subsequently did a Masters at ANU.”

She couldn’t finish her teacher training, so she worked as an untrained teacher in a Catholic school.

“I only taught there for one year,” she says, “because, despite the reliability of the Catholic form of contraception – the rhythm method – I did very quickly become pregnant with Justine.”

They moved to Canberra when her husband got a job at the Department of Foreign Affairs. When Justine turned one year old, they decided to have another child. “I thought we’d better hurry up,” she says, “so we’d have it here before Richard got an overseas post. So I conceived Benedict, but he got an overseas post much sooner, so Benedict was born in Vienna.”

They lived for three years in Austria – “which was extremely fascinating and informative for someone who’d grown up in Maroubra” – came home, then Butler was posted to New York.

“During the course of that posting we fell out,” she says. “I came back with the children to Canberra. The divorce was in 1972.”

I thought Catholics couldn’t get divorced.

“Round about that time,” she says, “I was losing faith. I mean, I have a lot of respect for some people in the church blah blah blah blah. One of my own sisters is a nun. One of my best friends is a priest. But I lost faith. So, although being divorced was an unusual thing back then…”

She pauses to face a realisation.

“In the eyes of the Catholic church,” she says, “I’m still married to Richard Butler. My God.”

She had joined Gough Whitlam’s Labor Party at the end of 1971, the year before the ALP finally won government after 23 years in opposition. She was an energetic party activist and high-profile feminist, who helped set up the Women’s Electoral Lobby, and in 1975 – just months before Whitlam’s dismissal – she won the rank-and-file pre-selection for a newly created Senate seat in the ACT.

She took her seat but, she says, “I came into this caucus of what seemed to be – and were, in many cases – old men that were heartbroken, who’d been in Parliament for the 23 years, tried and tried and tried to get government, they’d got government with Gough, they were doing all these things, and then they were kicked out. And I, of course, was a great Whitlam fan, and thought I was signing up for the fabulous reforming Whitlam government, and then suddenly were this very unhappy little caucus of disappointed people.”

But, overall, she enjoyed being in government. She liked the range of tasks, the feeling of being at the centre of national life, and learning how Australian society really worked.

When the Hawke government was elected in 1983, she became Labor’s first female cabinet minister, responsible for education and assisting the prime minister on the status of women. She is especially proud of her role in helping pass the landmark Sex Discrimination Act 1984.

But after the 1987 election, she was moved from the education portfolio and subsequently left parliament, “tired of being in the eye of the storm and pretty well fed up”. She turned her back on government but not politics, working in the superannuation industry while campaigning for a Human Rights Act. But she’d given up full-time employment by the time she was headhunted by the AHRC for the age-discrimination commissioner’s job in 2011.

Once she has cleaned her lunch plate, she confesses, “I’m not actually a big fan of duck. I agreed because I thought, ‘Hurry up. We’re here to work.’ But, in fact, it was very delicious.”

She orders a skinny flat white. The barista draws a leaf on the surface of the coffee. I wonder why they do that.

“Well,” says Ryan, “our logo at the commission for the age-discrimination work is a tree. I’d be delighted to think that they’d researched that themselves and specially made a tree on my coffee. But probably not.”

Ryan lives in Coogee with former ABC journalist and manager Rory Sutton.

How long have they been together?

Ryan sighs like a coffee machine.

“In one sense or another, for a couple of decades,” she says. “But we weren’t always … how should I put it? The relationship changed over the years. But in recent years, we’ve kind of … settled down.”

I suspect Ryan would be grateful if her working life would settle down too, but there doesn’t seem to be much chance of that.


1942: Born in Maroubra, NSW

1963: Graduates from Sydney University, marries future senior diplomat Richard Butler

1964: Daughter Justine born

1966: Son Ben born, during Butler’s first diplomatic posting in Vienna, Austria

1971: Splits up with Butler, returns to Australia from Butler’s posting in New York, joins the ALP.

1972: Divorces Butler

1975 -1988: Senator for the ACT

1983: Minister for education and youth, and minister assisting the prime minister on the status of women

1993: CEO of the Association of Superannuation Funds of Australia

2005: Chair of the Australian Human Rights Act Campaign

2011: Commissioner for age discrimination at the Human Rights Commission


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