Standing up for Canberra

Reflections on the women of the Limestone Plains

I begin by acknowledging we meet on Ngunnawal country and I pay my respects to their elders past and present.

It was in Sussex in May of 1908 that Trudie Denman was elected to the Executive of the Women's Liberal Federation.

Under Trudie, the Federation would withdraw support for any of the British Liberal Party candidates that refused to answer the Executive’s test questions on whether they supported suffrage.

Five years later, on 12 March, 1913, Trudie Denman, wife of the Australia’s fifth Governor-General Thomas Denman, announced the capital of Australia to be Canberra.

I was in my first term as the Federal Member for the seat of Canberra when we celebrated the centenary of our nation's capital.

As part of that celebration, I used the UN Women's International Women's Day event to honour the achievements of 100 Canberra women.

I collected nominations from all over the territory, from 100 women who had made a significant contribution to Canberra.

Most of the names I received were not well known.

Most of the women were quiet achievers who used their influence informally and privately.

Yet it is only through their contributions that today, Canberra is what Canberra is.

It wasn’t hard to find 100 inspiring Canberra women.

And I don’t think that’s a surprise to anybody in this room.

Canberra is a different sort of city.

Many of us living here are Canberrans by choice, not by birth.

And we choose it not out of familiarity or sentimentality but out of hard nosed pragmatism.

We weigh up our options and find that Canberra wins out.

Why is that the case?

I think it’s because Canberra is the sort of place where nobody asks what school you went to.

It's a city created and designed on the principles of democracy and egalitarianism.

It's a place with no front fences, no barriers to civic engagement.

It's the essence of Burley Griffin's design - and that design has created a philosophy in the city that strives for equality.

People come here to create themselves. For many of us, we come to Canberra to make a difference to our community, to our nation, to our world.

We come here to realise change and improve the lives of others.

We dedicate ourselves to the place and we make from it what we want.

We come to pioneer. To forge our own path.

It’s why I came here.

To honour the spirit of the contribution made by those who came before me, and to build on it.

It was as part of the Canberra centenary celebrations that the Canberra Museum and Art Gallery ran an exhibition named “The Women Who Made Canberra”.

The exhibition featured a series of items, letters, photographs and stories of women who had made some significant contribution to Canberra in its first one hundred years.

One of the oldest pieces in the collection was also one of the most intimate.

I’m not sure how Edith Lavinia Cameron would have felt if she knew that people in 2013 would be filing through the doors to witness a formal display of her petticoat, camisole and underblouse.

But here it was, in all its glory, as people came to see a relic of what Canberra was before it was Canberra.
The exhibition was a snapshot of the world into which Edith was born, in 1875.

Edith was born into a world where she could not vote. She could not stand for Parliament.

She would have been expected to live for 50 years.

As somebody who has experienced first-hand how long it feels to live for fifty years, I assure you it is no time at all.

And yet, in no time at all, Edith’s world changed completely.

Edith lived in the “Land’s End” homestead her entire life.

It was built by her father, Robert, who’d arrived in Australia as a sixteen year old boy with his widower father William.

Robert built the homestead with his wife, Jane, whom he married in 1864.

Edith was the couple’s fourth child; their second daughter.

The family was of modest means.

Robert was a blacksmith by trade and the homestead was humble, particularly compared with its neighbouring estates, Duntroon and Lanyon.

Life was hard for Edith, but that’s not the most important part of this story.
For that, I’d like to draw your attention to another piece in the collection.

A black wool jacket, high collar, puffed sleeves, cinched in at the waist, and with covered buttons running up the front from the navel to the neck.

It sits with a black cotton skirt, gathered at the rear, lined in brown cotton.

It is hand-made and machine sewn.

We can tell that it was cherished. There is a large patch on the skirt which serves to mask the tell-tale scars of extensive alterations and repairs that sit hidden underneath.

This was not a piece designed to sit reserved for the “special occasion.”

It was lived in. It was worn hard and worn out, many times.

But although it was likely in use well past the point at which it could enjoy a graceful retirement –

Its repairs have been hidden.

The job of mending betrays a pride in its subject.

Edith was not well-off. But she and her family did what they could with what they had.

And if they lacked the means to create a new skirt every time the old one suffered a tear –

It was not a problem. For the Camerons at Land’s End, you did what you have to do.

In 1913, the year Lady Gertrude "Trudie" Denman declared Canberra to be the nation’s capital, and the year Walter Burley Griffin arrived in Australia –

Sylvia Curley left Duntroon where was she born at the Mugga Mugga homestead.

She would have been 15 years old when Edith was 40, and Canberra had a population of barely 2,000.

The enthusiasm with which construction for the bush capital commenced in 1913, when King O'Malley drove the first survey peg into the new city, had by 1917 almost entirely dissipated.

Australia was at war.

The Territory Administrator's wife Jane Miller invited women from prominent families to a meeting at which she asked their support in initiating a red cross movement.

She wrote to the homesteads of Lanyon and Duntroon, where Sylvia was born.

Following the war, Sylvia trained as a nurse. She graduated in 1926 and began her career working in country New South Wales.

Curley returned to Canberra in 1938 to take up the position of sub-matron of the then Canberra Hospital.

She was shocked on her arrival to see how badly staff morale had slipped.

Sylvia set about fixing things, by offering nurses access to some of the education she had herself benefited from.

She organised fetes and other fundraising events to start a student nurses reference library.

She pushed hospital management into offering improved nursing training and superannuation.

She did the research and the lobbying that led to the establishment in 1957 of the first Nursing School in Canberra

Sylvia’s lifelong dedication to empowerment through education came from a recognition that the value of education isn’t what you take in, but in what it lets you give back.

In 1966, after twenty-nine years at the Royal Canberra Hospital, she retired from nursing.

But with no retirement savings and no superannuation of her own she started an employment agency as a way to help pay the bills.

While she was running this company, she successfully lobbied for the establishment of a medical records course for secretaries.

Edith Cameron was 82 years old when Rosemary Follett moved to Canberra.

While Rosemary studied at Catholic Girls High School – now known as Merici College – her mother was completing a teaching degree at the ANU.

That was not an easy thing to do. Rosemary’s mother faced opposition from all sides.

But Rosemary's mother's family were Catholic, intellectual and ambitious.

Her aunt was a doctor who, for a time, was the highest ranking woman in the navy.

And so, from early on, Rosemary was taught to treat education as a precious and extraordinary thing.

To treat an education as something to fight for.

We elected Rosemary Follett to be Australia’s first female head of government in 1989.

She was the ACT’s first Chief Minister, and I worked for her.

Rosemary came into power with a reputation for being able to negotiate across party and factional lines –

Skills considered particularly invaluable considering the fractious early days of the experiment of self-government –

And on which she would repeatedly come to rely in her determination to prove the experiment a success.

She was considered adept at dealing with bureaucracy and policy alike.

And all along the way, Rosemary fought to make sure that women were encouraged to contribute.

Whether identifying and nurturing talented women in the Assembly, or promoting women’s rights in the community, Rosemary was fundamentally resolved to ensure that by hook or by crook, the ceilings through which she had to break would never be restored.

And she enjoyed an enormous wave of popularity for it.

One opinion poll from 1990 put her approval rating at a remarkable 73 per cent.

But, as waves tend to do, it broke.

Rosemary lost a vote of no-confidence after a year in office.

And though she was returned in 1991, and then reelected in 1992, it was as a different sort of leader.

In the months and years that followed, much has been written about that time. About what happened and what might have happened had it not.

I’m not about to offer any commentary on the matter – Rosemary is more than capable of speaking for herself – but I might recall a comment.

Rosemary was once told by a journalist that that they were relying upon her for two stories a day, and that if what she was doing wasn’t interesting enough, they’d write about what she was wearing when she did it.

Edith Cameron was 74 when Territorians received a representative in the Federal Parliament.

Back then, the lower-house member for the Division of Australian Capital Territory was not a full voting equal.

They could only vote on issues relating to the ACT. Their seat was not counted amongst the numbers of the party forming Government.

That changed in 1966, when full voting rights were finally granted.

In 1974, the division was split. The southern part became the division of Canberra, and for 33 of the 42 years since then it has been held by a woman.

I was elected to represent the people of Canberra on the 21st of August, 2010.

The result for the seat was declared before the result for the country was known.

As it turned out, Australia’s first female Prime Minister would win the election.

She had a reputation for bringing people together to deliver good outcomes.

She was good with policy and with bureaucracy. She faced a hostile media focused as much on what she wore as what she worked towards.

And I suspect she would have killed for a 73 per cent approval rating.

In my first speech in the Parliament, I spoke of what I loved about Canberra.

I spoke of the hardiness of its character:

Canberra is as Australian as the bushland that surrounds and intertwines it. Australians know and love the bush and know its dangers. The 2003 bushfires that tore through the suburbs of my electorate, killed four people and destroyed 500 homes showed the courage and strength of our community and reminded Australia that the bush capital was their capital and that we are part of them.

I spoke of our servants of democracy, about my friend Liz O’Neill.

Liz worked for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. She worked to help keep the peace in Bougainville and to provide some comfort to the families in the morgues of Bali in 2002 and again in 2005. In 2004 she was blown off her feet by the bomb that exploded outside the Australian embassy in Jakarta. In 2007 she died in the service of her country when her plane ran off the runway at Yogyakarta.

I spoke of my education:

My life is testimony to the truth that education is the great transformer. My sisters and I had a great public education that set us up for life. That is why I am a strong defender of government schools and a staunch advocate of access to education and support through it, whatever your background.

Your first speech is an important one, because it’s the first time you feel like you inhabit the formal title of the Member for Canberra.

The title is an honour, but it is also reductive and crude for what it leaves out in its brevity.

Because giants moved mountains to make it possible for the letters M and P to rest at the end of my name.

There is my grandmother, Enid Anderson, and my great-grandmother, Ada Huggins. In the language of the day, both were in service.

Ada worked as a domestic in Victoria’s Western District. She supported 13 children, on her own, in a house with dirt floors.

My grandmother Enid worked three jobs to assuage her abiding fear that the state would take her children because she was poor.

My grandmother died nine months after I was born. She was just 54. I was too young to know Enid, but I will never forget her.

There’s my mum. Mum had our futures mapped out. We’d finish high school, like she didn’t, and go to university, like she couldn’t. She’d raise three strong, successful, fearless women, who could conquer the world.

Then, when dad walked out, she was left with three daughters and $30 in the bank.

Mum made sacrifices that I cannot comprehend. She was relentless in her determination to see all three of her daughters go to university, but her hard work alone would not have got us there. She needed the help of giants—and she got it.

My sisters and I went through a world-class public school system, and when I got to university it was free.

Mum retired with $20,000 in the bank. Today, she’s on the pension, and used to clean houses to help make ends meet. She’s 77 years old. She’s campaigned with me at every election so far.

She gave a lot to give me what I have.

It’s because of her I came to Canberra.

To try and repay that sacrifice. To try and give something back.

Nobody can say that Edith Cameron had anything other than a tremendous innings.

And when Edith did finally pass away in 1957, she left behind an Australia unrecognisable from that she had inherited.

An Australia where, in every state, women could vote and stand for election.

An Australia where women had been elected to every lower house in the nation bar one.

An Australia where Edith’s daughter could win a scholarship to study at Goulburn High School –

And at aged 19, in the first days of the Great Depression –

Could be employed at a three-year-old publication called The Canberra Times – Where she would stay for more than 30 years, rising along the way to the role of company director.

Edith’s daughter Heather passed away in 2008, aged 99, as a recipient of an Order of Australia medal

Another brief observation.

If you were to look closely at the skirt Edith wore for riding –

The one that bears the scars and bruises belying a lifetime’s wear and tear –

You may notice that one side of the skirt is a little bit longer than the other.

This is not a mistake. Some product of a slipped hand or a miscut fabric.

The skirt was designed this way to accommodate the wearer to ride side saddle on her horse.

Designing a skirt for side saddle is a complicated job. It has to curve neatly over the rider’s knees, lying flat even when her horse picked up its pace.

At the time Edith was wearing this skirt, more and more women were riding astride.

Suffragettes were rejecting the stifling and formal attire of their forebears in favour of fashion that offered mobility and comfort.

Focus was moving away from formality to participation.

From what one wore to what one did while wearing it.

Somehow, we haven’t got there yet.

On the 9th of April, 1954, the first meeting of The Business and Professional Women's Club of Canberra was held at the Hotel Civic.

At the meeting, the purpose of the group was confirmed.

It was to promote the interests of business and professional women in Canberra –

To awaken and encourage in them a realisation of responsibilities in their own country and consequently world affairs –

To raise and maintain standards of education and training of women –

And to work for the removal of sex discrimination in remuneration, opportunities for women in employment and selection for office and promotion in all positions for which women are qualified by their skill and training.

The Business and Professional Women’s Club of Canberra was to count, within its membership, Sylvia Curley and Edith’s daughter Heather.

These are some of the women who have constructed the Canberra we inhabit.

Women who have played strong, decisive roles in the collaboration – an ongoing operation in which we all have a part to play.

Canberra’s my home. It’s also my project.

Canberra was carved out of compromise and it remains central to its character.

We work together. We bring people together. There could be no more apt a name for it than one that is said to be an Ngunnuwal translation of “meeting place”.

In politics, it is much harder to build something than it is to tear something down.

The rough and tumble is such that a lean across the aisle is as likely to end in a fall as it is in a friendship.

But when I rose to make my first speech as the Member for Canberra, I spoke to the same ambitions that those women who came before me worked so vigilantly to pursue.

Like Sylvia, I am fiercely dedicated to ensuring that education remains central to the core promise of what it means to be Australian.

Like Rosemary, I am committed to identifying the hurdles that women are forced to face, breaking them, and turning them into ladders.

Like Heather, I believe I have a responsibility to invest in my adopted home, and to support this outstanding group of people we call Canberrans, of diverse backgrounds and shared purpose – to do the same in return.

I am the proud product of a working class matriarchy that believes in giving everything you can to achieve what you should.

I am here to build, not to burn down. To collaborate. To find consensus. To work together in defence not always to a party or a person but always to a principle.

Bickering is easy. Helping people is hard.

But, like the families of the Kilbys and the Camerons and the Curleys, you get on with it and build a better life for your nation and community in the process.