By Tanya Plibersek

10 June 2021




Acknowledgments omitted.
Thank you to everyone at QUT for inviting me to speak at your Women in Leadership series.

And thank you all for being here today.

Queensland has a long and rich history of women’s leadership.

You were the first state to directly elect a female Premier.

You were the first state to elect both a female Premier and female deputy Premier at the same time. 

And you are the only state to ever re-elect a female Premier.

Who you just elected for a third time.

So not only are you ahead of the pack – you have great taste too.

One thing I really admire about Queensland is the way you’ve written this women’s history into the design of your cities and towns.

Into the names and places you walk by every day.

It’s easy to miss if you don’t look – but when you do, it’s everywhere.

Right now, we’re sitting in the middle of Brisbane.

In political terms, we’re in the state seat of McConnel.

This was named after Mary McConnel – the founder of Queensland’s first ever children’s hospital.

If you look to our west, you’ll see the state seat of Cooper.

This was named after Lilian Violet Cooper – Queensland’s first registered female doctor, and a medical hero in World War One.

And if you look to our south, you’ll see the state seat of Miller.

This was named after Emma Miller – the pioneering leader of Queensland’s labour and suffrage movements.

‘Mother Miller’, as she was known, helped win Queensland women the vote – and helped found the Australian Labor Party.

Here were three amazing, trail blazing women.

And we owe their generation a great debt.

Because none of their successes came easy.

Lilian Cooper was initially barred from wartime service – because they didn’t want female doctors.

Mary McConnel had to fundraise for fifteen years before she could turn her dream into a real, working hospital. 

And Emma Miller was an immigrant seamstress, who gained a voice in a man’s world through talent and energy alone.

In many ways, the three women were very different.

Their causes were different.

Their economic experience was different.

Their politics was different.

But they all embodied leadership as I see it. 

All three were dreamers – and all three were doers.

They combined big ideas and real, concrete action.

They set out their vision – and charted a path towards it.

And they built things that outlasted them.

That’s what leadership looks like to me.

When I think about my own political heroes; about the people whose lives and actions inspire me; these are the traits that keep coming up.

And they’re the lights that guide me in my own life.

Ever since the pandemic hit us last year, I’ve found myself returning to another of these heroes – John Curtin.

In the middle of an international crisis, his agenda for post war reconstruction, with full employment and mass housing, shone out like a beacon for recovery.  

John Curtin was a battle-hardened, wartime Prime Minister.

But he was also a lifelong dreamer.

When you look at his portrait, he looks very determined – very serious.

Dare I say it, very Prime Ministerial.

But as a young man, John Curtin was a radical.

There’s no other word for it. 

In a time of war, he was an internationalist – who fought against conscription.

In a time of great inequality, he was a committed socialist.

When soap still came in wooden boxes, he would stand on top of those boxes in the park – and give political speeches to whoever walked past.

He was that kind of man.

Passionate, brave, a little intense.

Willing to fight for what he believed in – even when it was socially uncomfortable.

John Curtin was a dreamer – but he was a dreamer who had given himself a lifelong, practical education in democratic leadership.

In how the machinery of government worked.

In how industry and the real economy operated. 

In the skills needed to persuade people of a vision.

So when the Menzies Government collapsed at the height of World War Two, he was the ideal replacement.

Curtin’s monumental legacy was our national defence.

But it was bigger than that still.

His mission was to protect our homeland – to win the war.

But he was also determined to build something better out of its ashes.

A nation that protected its citizens from the ravages of depression.

That offered everyone a job.

That built the homes people needed to live in.

Tragically, Curtin never lived to see his dreams blossom into reality.

But they did – in the years after his premature death.

When unemployment fell to two per cent – and home ownership expanded massively.

Curtin was a dreamer and he was a doer.

And his vision outlasted him.

Australia was built by people like this.

People who wanted to leave something behind.

If Australia was a social laboratory, these were our scientists.

Like our world-leading suffrage leagues – who left the ballot box to their daughters.

Or the architects of industrial arbitration – who wrote a living wage into the laws of the land.

These people weren’t saints or aloof reformers. 

Like us, they were consumed by the battles of their day.

Battles as vicious and personal as our own.

But these leaders were never ashamed to imagine something better.

And they were never afraid to get themselves dirty fighting for it.

In Teddy Roosevelt’s words, they were the man in the arena.

And I would add, they were the woman in the arena too.

‘Whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in the worthy cause’.

As Teddy Roosevelt knew through long experience, to lead is to risk the possibility of failure.

But more than that, to lead is to strive for something – something bigger than the current moment.

In this, he could teach our current Prime Minister a great deal.

Because, when all is said and done, leadership has to mean something more than winning the daily news cycle or the latest Newspoll.

More than making flashy promises – and then losing interest in their delivery. 

It’s not about how carefully you choreograph tomorrow’s media announcement.

Or how many flags you line up behind your press conference.

This might be the superficial face of leadership – but it’s not its substance.

Real leadership is about acknowledging the true, unavoidable problems facing a country.

And it’s about confronting them honestly – being prepared to take responsibility for solving them. 

The reality is, it’s always easier to ignore long term challenges – because one day they’ll be someone else’s problem.

It’s easy to pretend that we can ignore climate change and the need for more renewable energy. 

It’s easy to pretend that wages are destined to stagnate forever.

Or that job security is a thing of the past.

It’s easy to pretend that fixing aged care is too complicated and too expensive.

And that older Australians just need to live with their neglect.

It’s easy to pretend that Indigenous incarceration rates are inevitable.

Or that the life expectancy, education and employment gaps will never close.

But that’s not leadership.

Real leadership requires honesty and courage.

This can be uncomfortable.

It can be lonely.

Reforms that are applauded as obvious in hindsight are criticised violently in their own time.

Like Medicare – which was going to bankrupt hard-working doctors.

Or funding women’s refuges – which would encourage flighty women to divorce.

Or Indigenous land rights – which would confiscate the suburban backyard.

Or John Howard’s gun law reforms – which would leave our farmers defenceless.

Or taking action on climate change – which would wipe towns like Whyalla off the map.

Or making electric vehicles cheaper – which would end the Australian weekend.

Doing what’s right almost always attracts criticism.

After Susan Ryan died last year, I was looking back at the debates around the passing of the Sex Discrimination Act.

It seems uncontroversial now.

That an employer can’t advertise a job and say, ‘I’m only interested in a man’.

But it was certainly controversial then.

Susan was attacked from all sides.

Some said it went too far; others said it didn’t go far enough.

The criticism was highly personal.

Led by groups like ‘Women Who Want to Be Women’, who accused Susan of ‘making men eunuchs in their own kingdom’.

Susan was a dreamer – who used all her experience, skill, determination and charm to turn her vision into reality.

But let’s be honest: it’s usually easier to accept the status quo.

To roll along the path of least resistance.

That’s what it felt like in March last year.

When we were sleep walking towards a major COVID outbreak – before the states stepped in and forced the lockdown.

It was all too hard.

The necessary intervention was unthinkable.

Much easier to shrug your shoulders and go to the footy.

It took the bravery of Annastacia Palaszczuk, Dan Andrews, Gladys Berejikilian, Mark McGowan and other state leaders to shake us into reality.

That was real leadership. And it saved us.

There’s a great story about the US President Lyndon Johnson.

It was after he’d become President – following JFK’s assassination.

He’d spent his whole life fighting to reach that office.

He’d scratched. He’d clawed.

He’d compromised and flattered.

Now he was at the top, he wanted to do something important.

He wanted to pass a civil rights bill.

But some of his advisors didn’t think that was a good idea.

The politics were too difficult, they told him.

It would alienate white people. The votes just weren’t there.

Johnson responded: ‘Well, what the hell’s the Presidency for?’.

It was a good question.

For those of us lucky enough to have influence, we should never stop asking ourselves the same thing. 

What the hell’s leadership for?  

A leader is open about who they are.

About what they want to achieve.

About the challenges facing a nation.

They’ve got to be confident in their vision – and prepared to bring people along with them on the journey. 

Because real leadership requires humility and empathy.

No leader in a democracy is all powerful.

You learn that pretty quickly in politics.

People hold different views – and they hold them sincerely.

And no one’s opinion is more important, or less important, than anybody else’s.

This might seem obvious, but understanding that reality is at the heart of democratic leadership.

Because if you want to build something that lasts, you need to find ways to bring the hesitant along with you.

You can’t bully people into submission.

You have to listen. You have to explain your plans.

You have to convince.

Leadership doesn’t seek to control, but to persuade.

Leadership is about taking responsibility, not just exerting power.

And sometimes, you need to recognise the limits that democracy places on you as a leader.

Because it’s possible to dream too much – and end up doing too little. 

I’m thinking here of someone like William Lane.

Some of you will know his story.

William Lane was a contemporary of Emma Miller. 

He arrived in Queensland in 1885 – and soon became one of the state’s leading union journalists.

Lane was an inspirational speaker and writer – who urged workers to take radical steps against their bosses.

This came to a head in the shearers strike of 1891 – which Lane loudly supported, in part by selling his utopian novel, the ‘Working Man’s Paradise’.

But despite his great hopes, the shearers strike was brutally smashed by the army and police.

This led to the formation of the Australian Labor Party – but it crushed William Lane.

Disillusioned with Australia, he came up with a bold plan: to build a New Australia, literally, in the jungles of Paraguay.

Lane was serious about this.

He recruited among his old comrades – including Emma Miller, who very sensibly turned him down.

He purchased the land, he attracted the funding, he wrote the new constitution – which included the abolition of private property, temperance from alcohol and banning interracial marriage.

You’ll be surprised to learn: it didn’t work out.

Finding themselves in a strange land, isolated from the world, the settlers soon began fighting – frustrated by Lane’s autocratic rule.  

A few months in, the New Australians began drifting off – and Lane ended his life as bitter conservative, obsessed with racial purity. 

Lane was a dreamer, but he lost touch with reality.  

Compare him to another of his contemporaries: Catherine Spence.

Spence was also a dreamer.

She too wrote utopian novels – in a future where people lived in collective housing, worked few hours and where women enjoyed equality in employment, birth control and the law.

But Spence never lost touch with the world.

Instead, she got deeply involved with it – including as vice president of the South Australian Woman’s Suffrage League.

She gave speeches, lobbied politicians, circulated petitions.

And she was effective. 

As the Advertiser acknowledged at the time: ‘Miss Spence’s arguments are thoughtful and sober and her language entirely free from the screeching hysteria that has so often brought ridicule and contempt on the cause of ‘women’s rights’’.

The South Australian women triumphed – becoming the first in the world to win the right to vote and run for office in 1894.  

Spence was the kind of leader I admire.

A dreamer, a doer and a winner.

At the next election, the question of leadership will be on the ballot.

I truly believe that people are starting to see through Scott Morrison.

The shine of crisis incumbency is rubbing off – and there’s not much below the surface.

If the Prime Minister dreams at all, it’s only about winning the game of politics.

And if he ever acts, it’s only to support his latest cynical tactic – and only when people are watching.

He dresses up in the costume of leadership – without accepting any of its responsibilities.

I know that Anthony Albanese is a different kind of person.

And as Prime Minister, he’ll show the country what real leadership looks like.

I’ve known Anthony since he was in his early twenties – and he’s always combined passion and professionalism.

He got into politics to help people like his mother, a disability pensioner, and that still motivates him today.

This won’t be easy. It never is.

As I said, leadership can be a lonely task.

But it’s worth it in the end.

I saw that up close with Julia Gillard.

Julia Gillard endured three years of brutal, personalised character attacks.

She copped it in the media, she copped it in the Parliament, she sometimes copped it in her own party.

And she faced it all with dignity, class, and resolve.

She kept calm and carried on.

But those character attacks were deeply unpleasant for her.

As she admitted in her recent book, there was that nagging feeling: can’t someone else do it?

Does it have to be me?

But as Paul Keating says, the reward of public leadership is public progress.

And Julia Gillard left significant progress in her wake.

Education funding and the Gonski reforms.

The National Disability Insurance Scheme.

Children’s dental care.

Australia’s first price on carbon.

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

Not everything survived – but most has.

And that’s the reward.

If you’ve ever got that feeling: ‘why can’t someone else do it?’ – remember this.

Remember what leadership is for.

To dream and to strive – and to leave something better behind you.

Thank you.