19 April 2024







Inaugural Elizabeth Rose Hanretty Oration
Adelaide, South Australia



I acknowledge that we meet on the Land of the Kaurna people and pay our respects to Elders past, present and emerging.


I’d like to acknowledge Susan Close, Deputy Premier, Emily Bourke, Assistant Minister for Autism and other State MPs including Reggie Martin, Cressida O’Hanlon, and Olivia Savvas.


And from the SA Labor party Aemon Bourke and Penni Pappas.


Thank you to Reggie Martin for the invitation to speak with you tonight.


As this is the inaugural Elizabeth Rose Hanretty Oration - it is worth some time to talk about the woman herself. 


Why are we celebrating her in particular?


What is her legacy?


MLC, Reggie Martin told me his aim in establishing this oration was:

“To make Liz Hanretty a household name in South Australian Labor circles. It is the very least that our longest-serving party official and first woman Secretary deserves.”


I completely agree with Reggie.


What an incredible woman Elizabeth Rose Hanretty was – and what a legacy. I want to talk about how Elizabeth’s work is a brick in the path to gender equality – and an exemplar of the best of Labor.


I also want to talk about how Elizabeth’s work remains incomplete, and it is up to us to build on what she achieved.


But first who was Elizabeth Rose Hanretty?


Elizabeth was born in 1881 in North Adelaide - one of 11 children - to an Irish mother and an English father. 


She was the fifth of eleven - and when her father died when she was 7, her mother Bridget had to support and raise all 11 children.


Times were - as you can imagine – tough for a single mum of 11, in an era before the social safety net. And so Elizabeth was sent to work aged 12, at the completion of her primary schooling.


At 12 she worked as a domestic servant and nursemaid. By 14 she was working in a laundry – as a presser. 


She told the Adelaide Advertiser in an interview in 1924,


"I was accustomed to fighting because life was always more or less of a struggle for existence when mother was left a widow with a young family…I was able to leave the North Adelaide public school and become one of the breadwinners in earnest. I was only 12 years old then, and I thought it was a great privilege to be allowed to sleep home when I got a place as domestic help and nursemaid at four shillings a week."


In 2024 in Australia we can scarcely comprehend a 12-year-old being sent into the workforce, grateful that she was allowed to sleep at home.


It’s worth reflecting on the working conditions at the time for children.


The working children of this era worked long hours, typically a ten-to-fourteen-hour day, for very little pay. On average, children were paid about one third of the adult male rate. A child in a rope works in Melbourne, for example, earned 7s for a fifty-hour week in 1884.  This is compared with an adult male, who earned around £2.


Young children endured harsh conditions, with reports of children “crowded into small rooms which are suffocating in summer and intolerably cold in winter.” In one factory there were ‘seven men and four boys’ in a small room with no ventilation. Children were put in charge of steam boilers and other powered machinery, sometimes with disastrous consequences.


The Advertiser reported in 1899 that ‘children under 10 years of age were employed in suburban factories, and it is a common occurrence for them to have their fingers taken off in the machinery.’


Diseases such as typhoid, diphtheria and whooping cough spread in unsanitary factory conditions.


And in laundries, where Elizabeth worked once she turned 14 - the conditions were hard and dirty. 


We are horrified now at the thought of a 12-year-old girl in this country leaving school to work as a servant. 


But in the 1880s - during Elizabeth’s girlhood – children had limited rights.


Women also had limited rights in most spheres: in families, in employment and in citizenship. 


But that would change in the coming decades. 


And Elizabeth and the broader labour movement would be an important part of that change.


While working at the Adelaide laundry, a young Elizbeth encountered labour activist - Lilian Locke - a leader of the labour movement in Australia. 


What a fortuitous meeting! Picture a young woman working in a laundry, in a bleak set of circumstances, meeting the charismatic Labour reformer and suffragette Lilian Locke.


Lilian Locke was described in the press as a "brilliant organiser and propagandist", and "one of the ablest women Labor platform exponents in the Commonwealth.”


Lilian regularly travelled around Australia campaigning for women’s rights and the rights of workers, and I’m sure would have been an inspiring mentor and champion of the working women she met on the road.


What a debt of gratitude we – and generations of Australians - owe to the union movement. What they have given us – and continue to give us by collectively and as individuals is impossible to quantify.


Once they met, Elizabeth joined Lilian in forming the Women’s Employment Mutual Association in Adelaide in 1905 – when she was aged 24. 

And the course of her life changed when she joined the fight for a better deal for workers.


In 1909 Elizabeth represented the employees on the Laundries and Wages Board - and in 1911 - she represented the Trades and Labour Council on the Royal Commission on the Shortage of Labour in the Clothing and Boots Trade.


Elizabeth’s involvement in the public fight for a better deal for workers was unusual at the time - and directly motivated by her own experiences in the workforce. 


It was unusual because women were still mainly confined to the domestic sphere.


Historian Raelene Francis - an emeritus professor at the ANU - said without such critical experiences of working in poorly regulated and underpaid industries “women were much less likely to engage in industrial activities.”


“Family structures and gendered divisions of labour, combined with gender differences in paid earnings, affected women’s participation in the labour market and also their inclination and capacity to engage in organisation and leadership,” she wrote.


Elizabeth would have found these separate gendered spheres, public and private, were replicated in the factory and its politics:


Says Professor Francis,


“Women seeking leadership roles in unions in this period often faced formidable obstacles, not least of which was the attitude of male unionists. When the tailoresses began to organise in the 1880s, many tailors were not interested in joining within them in solidarity. “Oh let the women look after themselves,” one of them said, “they have taken our jobs.””


Things have changed for women in modern Australia but in Professor Francis’s account there are some things that strike me as familiar - the structural barriers to political participation. 


In 2024, women still do the majority of unpaid care work [70 percent, according to ABS stats] – whether it be looking after elders or children, or running a household.  They are the family organisers and diary managers. For many, this load doesn’t leave much time or headspace for politics and activism.

There is also a backlash to this current wave of feminism, where men say – ‘let the women look after themselves.’ According to a study by Ipsos UK in 2023, there is an upswing of young men who believe feminism is harmful. Feeding this backlash are social media algorithms that push young men towards harmful, misogynist content such as Andrew Tate.


Gender inequality is something that generations of women have had to collectively work together to overcome. That we are still working to overcome today.


And when we fight for the rights of others, we find out own voices and see the benefits in our own lives.


When I supported the introduction of affirmative action at the 1994 Hobart Conference, I ran onto the floor with excitement when the decision was made.  I never expected to benefit from this myself – but four years later, I was running for Parliament.


It is the work of the Labor party, but also organisations such as Emily’s List in Melbourne and Muriel Matters here in South Australia that have keep the momentum going for many years on this issue.


For Elizabeth it was the involvement in the labour movement that would ultimately lead to her own greater mobility, and out of the laundries. 


And it led her to formal education.


After the formation of women’s association with Locke, Elizabeth trained in typewriting in business college. Even this modest technical qualification was a sacrifice for someone from a poor background – and it would be until Whitlam’s Labor government revolutionised higher education in the 1970s.


"I had paid for my learning, and I wasn't going to waste the money. Every ten minutes at the typewriter meant a long walk [instead of public transport] or a 'scratch' meal for me, and I made the most of it... I was beginning to realise the true value of service, and that everything good has been bought by sacrifice.


Before those seismic reforms by Gough Whitlam – many working-class Australians were self-taught or learnt to read through initiatives by the union movement through working men’s association.

And I think of the great Dick Adams – the former member for Lyons in Tasmania, who taught himself to read and write as an adult. He had been a union organiser and had to write a letter as part of his work for members. He realised he did not have the skills and devoted the next four years, sitting around a kitchen table learning from a tutor from the union movement until he improved.


After leaving school at 12, Elizabeth was also self-taught.


In that Adelaide Advertiser interview in 1924 Elizabeth talked about the role of books in her life:


"I was an omnivorous reader," she confessed, "and I progressed from the penny novelette to some of the finer literature of the language by easy stages. At first, I could not read anything that had not a story in it, but by and bye I realised that the age long struggles of humanity were the greatest and most dynamic romances of all time. Under all the picturesque tales of the French Revolution I began to seek for the underlying political causes. From that I got down to the bedrock idea of looking for the underlying cause when I had to deal with any industrial matter.”


The age long struggles of humanity were the greatest and most dynamic romances of all time.


From there Elizabeth’s life developed a trajectory. It is the trajectory of a joiner and a reformer – and many of you here tonight would be familiar with this path, having walked it yourself.


It is a path that inspired me to join the Labor Party. When I gave my first speech to Parliament in November 1998, I said words to that effect.


“We are steeped in this tradition of collective action, community activism, and it is that which gave birth to the Labor Party.”


Elizabeth formed the Women's Political Educational Association in 1914. She had been a member of the North Adelaide committee of the South Australian United Labor Party from 1905, and in 1914 she was appointed permanent organiser for the party as a ‘lady organiser’ to increase women’s membership.


During World War One she was outspoken against conscription. She became the assistant State Secretary of the South Australian Branch in 1917 and remained in that role until 1956.


That’s a massive 40 years – and even if Elizabeth had done nothing else, it is a service and a sacrifice worth marking.


But of course – it’s not all she did.


The Law


In 1924 Elizabeth became a Justice of the Peace, demonstrating her interest in public service.


This was a voluntary role, as were most positions available for women to make public contributions to society. Women were only able to become JPs in 1921 after legislation had to be passed to allow for women to be appointed.


Elizabeth was one of the first generation of women to take on the role of JP in South Australia, and she was described as Labor’s best-known JP by 1928. 


Having a role for women in the courts system, albeit a voluntary one, was a key concern for the women’s rights movement who believed that women’s perspectives were crucial in administering justice particularly in cases involving women and children.

Elizabeth’s public service and interest in social reform and support for vulnerable community members was acknowledged when she was appointed to the Mental Defectives Board in 1925.


Women’s advocacy


Elizabeth strongly advocated for women to become involved in the Labor Party and became president of the first annual conference of SA Labor Women in 1928.  This conference formed the Labor Women’s Central Organising Committee.  In 1930 Elizabeth gained publicity for presenting at the Women’s Basic Wage Inquiry to argue that women should be paid enough to have clothes made.  Equal pay remained one of the key reforms that Labor women have fought for until this day.

And almost 100 years later - it remains a key objective in the fight for gender equality. 


Elizabeth was also the vice-president of the Housewives Association and campaigned on food prices during the great depression, provision of milk for schoolchildren, kept a watch on fuel charges and argued for better housing. 


She was a staunch advocate for a liveable wage for all women workers, and opposed employment discrimination against married women.


She also advocated for increased representation within the party, equal rights and privileges for women in public office, and for women's parental rights.


She consistently encouraged other women to run for public office, although she never did so herself.


Then in 1947 she made history by becoming the first woman Secretary of the South Australian Labor party.  Elizabeth held the role only for a few months after the retirement of the Secretary before the election of a new Secretary at the ALP convention. 

A newspaper profile at the time, described her as ‘a kindly, grey-haired woman’ and said of her leadership style:


“Miss Hanretty does not intend to move from her tiny desk just behind the inquiry counter at the ALP office….

Hanretty did not publicly consider running for elected office. She spoke of how ‘I never recovered from my shyness, and every time I spoke I used to think the loud beating of my heart would drown my words’ despite being described as an effective and persuasive speaker.”

But was Elizabeth ever encouraged by the men in the party to take a more public – or senior role?

As Reggie Martin told me, “As a former Party Secretary I find it troubling that Liz Hanretty was never appointed to that office (despite running for the position) except on an acting basis in 1947 between the resignation of one man and the appointment of another man. In this brief time, she became SA Labor's first woman secretary.”

Reggie called it misogyny.

He said,

“Her absence from Labor lore is a poor reflection on the misogyny that prevailed in our society for far too long.”


Politics can be a house with many rooms. One room leads to another room – until you get closer and closer to power.


The final room is the Lodge.


An inner-chamber of this house is Cabinet.


For too long women in our Party were kept in the outer rooms – or disgracefully in the case of Elizabeth, allowed a brief visit when it was expedient for the men.


Eventually the lack of women’s representation in the Labor party was formally remedied by quotas that were established at National Conference in 1994.

But people like Elizabeth Hanretty were at the coalface of that fight long before.


In 2024 we now have a situation where parties that don’t advance women in their ranks, and parties that don’t have policies that benefit women, doom themselves to irrelevance.

The Liberals have a target of 50 per cent female representation in parliament and 50 per cent female representation in Liberal branches and the executive by 2025, but no plan on how to do that.

Yet they now have fewer women in parliament than they did when they set their gender parity target 9 years ago by the Liberal Party federal executive.  An analysis by the Australia Institute found that of the 228 MPs who sit in Liberal party rooms across the country, just 71 are women.

Since May 2022, the Liberals have only preselected one woman, Roshena Campbell in Aston.

And where has this left them? In the wilderness. Unrepresentative. Unelectable. Peter Dutton has failed to deliver. He just doesn’t seem to care enough about equal representation to do anything positive to push it along.

This failure is shameful and hasn’t gone unnoticed and unremarked.

Sadly for them, Liberal woman after Liberal woman can attest to how the party blocks their path to seniority, even when good female candidates are available. Julie Bishop was the latest Liberal woman to call out the party, this week speaking on Future Women podcast.


As the only woman in a cabinet of 20 under Tony Abbott’s leadership in 2013, Bishop felt she couldn’t speak out at the time about the lack of female representation.


Through lack of action, the Liberal Party have actually gone backwards from this low point (with Tony Abbott as Minister for Women!) and now currently they have only 26% of their party room women (the lowest in 30 years!)


You reap what you sow. The results for the Liberals are the Teals, women who should be in the Liberal Party, winning seats the Liberals should be able to take for granted. Seats where most of their members and their donors live.


The Liberals are so out of touch that they don’t understand why they have lost these seats.


It’s obvious even if you don’t follow politics – climate, gender and integrity.


But instead they choose to bury their heads in the sand and interpret it as the more progressive end of the Liberal Party losing their seats to the Teals.


Anne Ruston bumped off the top of the Senate ticket in favour of a conspiracy theorist, all the seats where there are no women pre-selected, the lack of women on the front bench, the experience of women such as Julia Banks and Julie Bishop – who were hounded out by the Boy’s Club. And that’s just recently.


At the time, 100 years ago, Elizabeth argued for women to become more engaged with politics. She said:


“We want the women to discuss things and not to hide their light under a bushel and we feel sure that this means that women, who have always done the house-to-house canvassing and other election work, will have much more to say in the future about shaping our party’s policy.’


And yet she also noted that when it came to women running for office ‘there is nothing to hinder a woman being nominated: but I don’t know of any woman who is likely to want to be’, showing her hesitancy at being subjected to the public scrutiny that came with elected office.


I can speak now from 100 years later – that public scrutiny for women running for public office is still more intense than the scrutiny men face and the backlash on social media is worse for women politicians than men. Does anyone really think if Barnaby Joyce were a woman, he would still be in Parliament?


Recognition came later for Elizabeth. She was awarded an MBE in 1957 in recognition of her work as the Assistant Secretary of the SA Labor Party, and there is a street named after her in Canberra.  She died in 1967 aged 86, two years before I was born.

Nonetheless, I am grateful to her and all the women like her that made my path easier.


Her work has been taken up by the next generation of Labor women and men, determined to support the next generation after them. The ones I know, and the ones I don’t know.


The late, great Labor speechwriter Graham Freudenberg once said, “Labor is collective memory in action.”


And so it is here, with the work that the modern party has done to further the work of Elizabeth Hanretty.


In September this year is will be thirty years since the ALP decided to introduce quotas for women at that National Conference. I was there – as a staffer, on a small desk.

Thirty years later, for the first time in Australian history, a majority women government was elected federally.

Women make up 53% of the Labor caucus with 55 women out of 104 MPs and Senators. Half the Cabinet are women.

The campaign within the party for affirmation action has paid off.

But we are not at the Big Table as individuals. We are there because we share common values in fighting for collective rights. Our issues are wages, Paid Parental Leave and ending violence against women and children.

Gender impact is considered in every cabinet submission and across portfolios including Finance, Treasury, in IR, Health, Education, Science and Technology.

I encourage all of you to read the fantastic strategy just launched by the Minister for Women, Katy Gallagher.

Working for Women: A Strategy for Gender Equality is the Albanese Government’s 10-year commitment for gender equality.

Working for Women will drive Government action on women’s safety, sharing and valuing care, economic equality, women’s health, and women’s leadership, representation and decision making.

Women have been long been activists within the Labor party and some of the recent big wins – Paid Parental leave, Paid Domestic violence leave, roles in marriage equality and anti-nuclear campaigns, have all been led by women.

And in the Albanese Labor government, we are continuing to fight and deliver – for women’s economic equality, for fairer wages for women in the Aged Care sector, for superannuation on PPL, for expanding the Parenting Payment (Single), for increasing transparency on the gender pay gap and for accepting all 55 recommendations of the Respect at Work report.

Labor is collective memory in action.


The long struggles of humanity were the greatest and most dynamic romances of all time.


How many of you here tonight joined the party in the spirit of this dynamic romance?

Love for one another. For strangers we will never meet. For children not our own. For people who will never know how hard we fought for them.

I did. In fact, I think almost all of us who are called or attracted to serve in progressive movements have a deep yearning to be part of this dynamic romance.


Study the Australian story of the fight for gender equality and you’ll see how women in this fight speak to each other across time and place – that Lilian Locke speaks to Elizabeth Hanretty, who speaks to Dorothy Tangney, who speaks to Margaret Whitlam who speaks to Elizabeth Reid who speaks to Susan Ryan who speaks to Anne Summers who speaks to Jenny Macklin, who speaks to me, who speaks to the next generation of amazing women coming through – including 14 new Labor women MPs elected to the 47th Parliament.


The dynamic romance of Labor is one of forward momentum – constantly improving things, with each generation.






The party is its people. And Elizabeth Hanretty was a certain type of Labor person that is the best of us. I think these words from Elizabeth really sums up this certain type of Labor person.

"I was never able to afford hobbies," she said, "but that did not prevent me from loving art, and I spent much of my scanty time, mostly in my luncheon hour, in the Art Gallery. I suppose some people would sneer and scoff at 'meat pies and art,' but I thought how nice it was to escape from realities for a while."


I think of the best of Labor people. They are men and women comfortable in the pub and the theatre.  They love ideas and debate, sport and the outdoors. Meat pies and art. Bread and roses. They don’t seek to enrich themselves; they seek to enrich society. They gravitate towards the collective. They want to leave things in better shape after they’ve gone. For all of us, for the people they will never meet.


We are Labor but from many backgrounds.


But above all these Labor people, people like Elizabeth, share the same values. When I go to a branch event – there are 80-year-olds and 18-year-old university students and even though on the face of it they might seem to have nothing in common, they share common values.


Labor values.


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